It was July 21, 1886, and the Cincinnati Red Stockings had brought big league talent to Trenton.
Waiting for them at the now long-gone Chambersburg Field were the Cuban Giants.
Formed just the year before, the independent Giants were eager to face America’s first professional baseball team and show they belonged. They harbored memories of the 11-3 tromping they received the year before when they met their first major league opponent, the Metropolitans from New York.
But a lesson had been learned.
In place of the misguided confidence that brought them down, the Cuban Giants now had skill and experience — hard-earned during the past year by engaging any minor, town, or college team ready to play ball.
The result was a strong squad with a strong reputation and a strong following. It was also just the right bait to make the Red Stockings want to see for themselves what this team was all about.
And that was fine with the Giants.
Because there in front of a sold-out audience, this team of black players wanted to show the world this team could play as well as any white major league team.
On that July day, they did just that, beating the Red Stockings, 9-4. The Cuban Giants had become the first Black team to defeat a white major league one. Five days later, the Cuban Giants proved their win wasn’t a fluke, defeating another major league team, the Kansas City Cowboys.
It was just another notch for New Jersey in baseball history and one of the pavers that led to the creation of the Negro Leagues — now celebrating their 100th anniversary.
The Cuban Giants were born in Babylon, Long Island in 1885, the brainchild of a head waiter at the Argyle Hotel who supposedly wanted to entertain hotel guests.
While the legend says that the head waiter, Frank Thompson, formed the club as a diversion, he also created something with some money-making potential.
Thompson, a seasoned baseball player in his own right, used a winning formula to concoct his team. He searched out hotel staffs for talented players — who also played ball when not working seasonal hotel jobs — and he’d bring in ringers to fill out the team when needed.
And while all the players on the Cuban Giants were Black Americans, the Caribbean island name helped them capitalize on the popularity of Cuban baseball teams touring the U.S.
Being taken for Cuban also helped the team get better treatment at hotels and restaurants.
Accordingly, as Black player-turned-sports writer Sol White notes in his book, “The History of Colored Base Ball,” team members pretended to speak only Spanish or with accents while traveling for games.
But there was no pretending on the field. And through determination, the Cuban Giants became “the best colored baseball team the world could produce.”
The team soon attracted large crowds and box office success.
It did so well that a quick succession of businessmen purchased the team and began promoting it. First was Philadelphia entrepreneur John F. Lang, whose show biz promotion brought additional buzz. Then in 1886 businessman Walter E. Simpson bought the team and brought it to Trenton.
While not leaving much record of his other dealings, Simpson quickly resold the team to entertainment entrepreneur Walter Cook, son of the director of the Trenton Savings Fund, Trenton Banking Company, and the New York Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
With a home, financial backing, and the autonomy to manage itself, the Trenton team that started in a hotel was now America’s first professional Black baseball team.
Baseball itself traces its roots back to New Jersey — the first documented “official” game was played in Hoboken in 1846. Soon, the game’s popularity would soar, and by the mid-1850s newspapers began calling it “the national pastime.”
Some 40 years after that first game, another milestone — both in baseball’s and our country’s history — took place just miles away, in Newark.
It was there that segregation took hold in baseball and created the need for the Negro Leagues.
Before then, there was no rule that Black players could not join traditionally white teams. By the mid-1880s, more than a few Black men were playing in the major and minor leagues.
But the conditions weren’t always easy, and those who did play on minor league teams were subjected to verbal and physical abuse on the field and from the stands.
In 1887, before a game between the Chicago White Stockings and Newark Bears, White Stockings manager Cap Anson — a former star and well-known racist — refused to allow his team to play after discovering that the Newark team had two Black players: Fleet Walker and George Stovey.
Newark agreed to sit Walker and Stovey in order to placate Anson. Then, after the game, team owners met and made a “gentlemen’s agreement” to exclude Blacks from the official leagues. An invisible color barrier was created that lasted into the 1940s.
Black players formed their own teams, and the first of the major Negro Leagues was born in 1920 when Chicago American Giants owner Andrew “Rube” Foster set up a Kansas City meeting with representatives of other Black teams to establish the league of their own.
In all, there were seven all-Black leagues that competed against each other with one aim: producing baseball equal or greater in quality to the leagues that barred their players.
And while the Negro Leagues’ Golden Era lasted about 30 years — and generally ended when Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey in 1947 — its impact can still be felt in New Jersey.
The Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair has mounted an exhibition coordinated by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum that honors that impact, as well as the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues formation. “Discover Greatness: An Illustrated History of Negro Leagues Baseball” will show through the end of 2020.
Most baseball teams in the late 19th and early 20th century played schedules far different from the regimented ones given to Major League and Minor League teams now. Teams would face nearly any challenger, regardless of league affiliation.
This brought many Negro Leagues teams to New Jersey. New Jersey father and son writers Alfred M. and Alfred T. Martin noted in their book, “The Negro Leagues in New Jersey,” that southern teams on their way north, or northern teams heading south, could find strong audiences in the state.
The Garden State had a growing Black population, with the number tripling from 70,000 to about 209,000 between 1910 and 1930. Negro Leagues teams played in such towns as Camden, Hightstown, New Brunswick, Pleasantville, and Princeton, and several New Jersey cities have important ties to black baseball.
Atlantic City’s entertainment destination status and sizable Black population made it a natural home for a team. Though Black baseball teams had been introduced in the resort city around 1910, it was not for sport. Its purpose was designed to attract blacks away from white tourist sites.
In 1915, two Black Atlantic City businessmen decided to establish a Black team and got Mayor Harry Bacharach on board, with the condition the team would help him keep his name in front of Black voters.
When the businessmen failed to persuade the Duval Giants of Jacksonville, Florida, to move north, they contracted its core members and created their own team — the Bacharach Giants — that was soon one member of Foster’s original 1920 league.
Three years later the Bacharach Giants participated in launching the Eastern Colored League and won first-place pennants in 1926 and 1927.
They left the ECL in 1929 to help establish the American Negro League. But neither the team nor league survived. With the team on shaky financial grounds for years, no businessman stepped up to the plate to launch a new one.
The team’s legacy includes Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Pop Lloyd, who played for and later managed the Bacharach Giants.
Trenton, on the other hand, continued to be the home of the Cuban Giants until 1889 when tensions with new owner J.M. Bright fractured the original team. Subsequent owners created the Cuban X Giants (one of Sol White’s teams) and the Original Cuban Giants. They were all history by 1915.
While Trenton periodically hosted Negro Leagues games, the city had no Black team of its own. However, Trenton features again in baseball history when, in 1950, the New York Giants assigned to their farm club in Trenton a promising center fielder: future Hall of Famer Willie Mays.
Newark had four Negro Leagues teams. Two lasted only a year, the Newark Stars (1926) and Newark Browns (1932), and one lasted two years, the Newark Dodgers, 1933-35.
Newark Eagles, however, had a good run from 1936 through 1948. In addition to the team winning the Negro League World Series, the Eagles also made history with co-owner and business manager Effa L. Manley. She was the first woman inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
While Paterson was a mainly a host city for Negro League games, the city is home of New Jersey’s most tangible artifact of that era, Hinchliffe Stadium.
The deteriorating art deco-styled stadium currently owned by the Paterson Board of Education opened in 1932, seats 10,000, and takes its name from a former Paterson mayor.
Now an official National Historic Landmark and part of the Great Falls National Landmark District, the stadium that hosted the Negro League World Series seemed to win another victory with the announcement this year of a revised plan to save the endangered structure.
The $76.7 million mixed-use project will refurbish the structure, use a portion of the site for senior housing, and include a parking lot and a restaurant featuring exhibits on the stadium and the Negro Leagues.
With state funding, tax credits, and administration support, the pre-COVID-19 plan was scheduled to start this summer and be completed by 2022.
And Jersey City was home not only to the infamous “gentlemen’s agreement,” but also its undoing, when on April 18, 1946, the minor league Montreal Royals’ Jackie Robinson walked onto the Roosevelt Stadium field to play against the Jersey City Giants and broke the professional league color barrier. He would do the same at the major league level a year later, in 1947.
While the Robinson event was a key moment in baseball and civil rights history by integrating professional baseball, it also marked the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues.
The Negro National League disbanded just a year after Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, while the diminished Negro American League attempted to adapt and change but folded in 1960. The last league remnant, the Harlem Globetrotters-styled Indianapolis Clowns, left the field for good in 1989.
Major League Baseball had planned to commemorate the Negro League’s 100th anniversary this season, but despite an agreement between players and owners to restart training camps July 1, it remains to be seen if a MLB game will be played this year. The Yogi Berra Museum’s exhibit waits in the dugout, but may be viewable this month should the state’s plan to reopen museums July 2 go forward.
The good news is, the Paterson stadium is getting attention and being transformed into a memorial to recognize the hundreds of Black men who found opportunity and equality on a baseball diamond.