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Karl Lindholm: 'A-ha! moments' and The Cuban Giants

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Posted on August 11, 2016 |
By Karl Lindholm



Karl Lindholm col with larry.jpg
KARL LINDHOLM, TALKING about the times when the Cuban Giants Negro baseball team played Middlebury College teams, at the recent Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference in Kansas City, appears with Larry Lester, author, Negro leagues historian and host of the conference.

Some time ago, spring 2003, I was doing research in the Sheldon Museum in town, looking at newspapers, the Middlebury Register, from the 1880s and ’90s.

I had been asked by Andy Wentink, the archivist at the Sheldon at the time, to prepare something on baseball as part of a series on Recreation and Leisure in Addison County in the 19th century.

It was interesting work, but something of needle-in-the-haystack research. I was looking for the earliest references to baseball in the Register.

The first mention I found was in August 1862, a brief account of a “trial game” played by the Green Mountain Base Ball Club: “It was highly exciting and afforded excellent entertainment.”

In 1866, another “game of ball” on the Fairgrounds was played on Aug. 6 by the “Midd. College Base Ball Club.” The following year the “College Club” played against a combined team of local clubs, the Fearnaughts and Wide Awakes, and won 47-38.

In the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies played “base ball” (in those days, it was two words) in their ample downtime. After the war, they disseminated the game throughout the country like so many Johnny Appleseeds.

In the 1870s and ’80s, black players competed alongside whites on integrated teams at the highest levels, though not without incident. The year 1887 was the high point of interracial play with 13 black players on white professional teams.

1887 was also the low point as it was the year the color barrier was erected, the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” that barred blacks from organized (white) baseball for the next 60 years.

The year before, as the color line was being drawn, the Cuban Giants, the first all-professional African-American team was formed, enlisting many of the greatest black players of the day (though no Cubans — the thinking was that being “Cuban” would be a benefit in scheduling games).

OK, now let’s go back to that research room at the Sheldon in 2003. There I was working away, occasionally conversing with others, sharing my project with them.

One of the staff members asked me, “Have you seen the baseball broadsides in the vault?”

Broadsides? Vault?

She took me to the nearby vault, which looks just like a vault at a bank, with a giant metal door — and sitting on a table in the middle of the room were dozens of brightly colored posters, “broadsides” as they were known, advertising events of the day in the town. They were stunning.

Around 25 or 30 of the broadsides were about baseball, announcing upcoming baseball games to be played in Middlebury. After turning a few over, we came upon a large, 3-foot-by-4-foot broadside of a game between the Cuban Giants and Middlebury College to be played on May 9, 1893.

The Cuban Giants, this seminal black team, barnstormed all the way to Vermont? To Middlebury! Played the College boys?

The Cuban Giants!

This information, along with its source, these magnificent artifacts, the broadsides, constituted for me the most profound “A-Ha!” moment I have had doing baseball research. All writers and researchers await eagerly these “A-Ha!” moments — and they come all too rarely.

Broadsides for other Cuban Giants-Middlebury College games, in subsequent years, were also in the collection, announcing in large, bold letters and breathless prose, the excitement of the Giants coming to town:

“They are Coming!”; “The Wonderful and Comical Cuban Giants”; “Come and Bring your Lady”; “Come and Hear Them Coach!”; “More Fun than a Circus!”

The casual racism of the period, even in this northern state, was present in the bold top line of the broadside for the game on June 27, 1894, which proclaimed “Hear Dem Darkies Singin.”

The actual contests were described, briefly, in the Register, and more fully in the Undergraduate, the college newspaper (a monthly). There were box scores in the Undergraduate. In all, the Cuban Giants played five games against the College boys, from the first game in May 1893 to the final game in June 1898.

The reference to their “coaching” had to do with the commercial necessity that they “entertain” as well as play baseball. The base coaches would “clown” for the enjoyment of the white fans. The games themselves were rarely competitive — the Giants won all five, so this added appeal was required for a return engagement.

The Register described the Giants as “the champion scientific comic negro baseball players of America.”

In the Giants’ line-up against Middlebury in 1893 and ‘94 were two members of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown: second baseman Frank Grant, one of the finest players, black or white, in 19th century baseball; and Sol White, player, manager, and historian, the author of “The History of Colored Baseball” in 1907, a document which remains a crucial resource on early African-American baseball.

For a time, I was able to show the actual broadsides, in frames and behind plastic, to students in my baseball classes at Middlebury College, but they are now back in the vault, as they are fragile and tear easily, until such time we can secure funding for their preservation.

Just a few weeks ago, I was able to speak on “The Cuban Giants Come to Middlebury” at the annual Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference, held every year in a different city with special Negro league history, this year in Kansas City, location of the Negro Leagues Museum. It’s my favorite weekend of the year, this gathering of baseball scholars and enthusiasts of black history and baseball.

I presented images of the broadsides, box scores, and players. The games at Middlebury reflect the scope and scale of the barnstorming of this iconic black team.

Just imagine, the Cuban Giants in Middlebury!

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