One of the frustrating aspects of dealing with history is placing an event into its proper historical context. In the baseball world, Deadball Era stars are examined against the steroid-juiced players of the 1990s. Debating the worth of pitchers has fans looking at data from a time where you were supposed to “finish what you start” to the current use of an “opener.” However, the most problematic issue may be comparing black ball players with their white counterparts, before the major league color line was broken in 1947.
While in 2006 the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted nearly two dozen long ignored and deserving black players into the shrine, others today remain on the outside looking in. Members of the 1896 black world champions Page Fence Giants club are stuck in the era where very few game statistics exist, and black players were relegated to a few teams. However, a look at anecdotal evidence indicates that major league caliber ball players existed on this long ignored black club.
George Wilson began his professional career in his teens in 1894 by appearing on the Light Guard Armory team in Adrian, Michigan. The fire balling left hander was so impressive he was signed the following season to play for both the Adrian Demons of the Michigan State League—a minor league-and the famed black barnstorming ball club, the Page Fence Giants, also based in Adrian. Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey once remarked that he would pay a fortune to sign Wilson. However, due to Wilson’s color, that wasn’t going to happen. The Des Moines Leader said of Wilson during an 1897 appearance, “they [Page Fence Giants] have with them Pitcher Wilson who it is said would be a $5,000-year man, if his color could be bleached out a few points.” If true, that salary would be substantially more than 31 game winner Kid Gleason earned that year, or famed pitcher Amos Rusie (in fact, Wilson was referred to several times in his career as “The Black Rusie”), or rookie and former Adrian Demons teammate Honus Wagner!
Comiskey’s claim of wanting to spend a fortune on Wilson has often been repeated. Detroit Tigers scout A. J. “Wish” Egan mentioned it in a 1942 appearance in Adrian, nearly 30 years after Wilson’s death. Egan described Wilson as “one of the greatest pitchers of his day, not only in this section, but in minor and major league ball as well.” In Wilson’s 1915 obituary, the notice hailed him as “one of the greatest colored baseball players known to the game,” and said, “baseball experts generally conceded that he was a wonderful pitcher and fortunes would have been given to have secured him for the big leagues, but the fact that he was colored, barred him.”
John McGraw, the player-manager for the American League’s Baltimore Orioles, concocted a wild scheme to bring a different former Page Fence Giant to the majors. Charles Grant was the starting second baseman for the Page Fence club from 1896-1898. Grant acquired a reputation as a good-hitting and smooth-fielding second sacker, who McGraw hoped to sign to his major league squad. The story is that McGraw “discovered” the infielder at a Hot Springs, Arkansas hotel in 1901 and felt that Grant’s light skinned appearance, high cheekbones, and straight hair would allow the player to be identified as a Native American. McGraw even dubbed Grant with the moniker of Chief Tokahoma in a ruse to compile a new identity. However, Comiskey, now the owner of the Chicago White Sox, tipped off the league to McGraw’s scheme and the color line was kept intact until 1947. It’s believed Comiskey recognized Grant from when the infielder had subsequently played with another black all-star team, the Chicago Columbia Giants.
In their inaugural season, a total of six Page Fence Giants were signed to play for the integrated Adrian Demons, but Wilson and catcher Vasco Graham spent the majority of the season on the Michigan State League club. The Giants and Demons shared management groups, so the Page Fence’s Joe Miller, Bill Binga, Pete Burns and Bud Fowler all made at least one appearance on the integrated Demons club during 1895-mostly as injury replacements. Wilson posted a 29-4 record in the MSL that year and Graham was considered the best catcher in the league, but the duo never made it to the majors due to their skin color.
The comparison of black and white teams of this era becomes more problematic as the Page Fence Giants only managed to play two games against a major league club during their four-year run. A pair of contests was scheduled against the Cincinnati Reds in April 1895, when the Giants were still building their roster and less than a week into their playing existence. A large, racially mixed crowd attended the opener in the Queen City, where the major leaguers won, 11-7. However, the fledging Giants managed to grab an early 2-0 lead, which delighted the black rooters in the stands, before the Reds rallied for the victory. The Cincinnati Enquirer called the opener a “great game” and the Giants were a “great team of players,” who will “win more games than they will lose.” The national Sporting News, said the “Giants put up a fairly good game.” The following day, the Giants’ loss was much more lopsided, 16-2.
A second attempt to play a group of major leaguers was scheduled for a three-game series in Detroit at the conclusion of the 1895 season. However, it was foiled by several days of poor weather and then no-shows by white major league ball players. The Giants’ games with the Reds were the only ones on record against a major league opponent. Maybe one reason was the fear of losing to black opponents, as in the 1895 pre-season, the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper declared that the “Giants are the best colored team ever organized.”
The Page Fence Giants, along with other barn-storming teams and later the more established Negro League clubs, have been ignored by many in the baseball world. However, with my book about the Page Fence Giants, maybe players who deserved time in the major leagues, will finally get respect as some of the best ball players from a long-forgotten era of American baseball.
Mitch Lutzke is the author of The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball’s Pioneering Champions, published by McFarland (2018). Earlier this year the book was named a recipient of a Michigan Notable Book Award. His website is www.mitchlutzke.com.