Tag Archives: Chicago Columbia Giants

A Letter from the Front, 1918

25 May

James H. “Jimmy” “Captain” Smith played for three early Chicago-based Negro League teams—the Columbia Giants, the Union Giants, and the Leland Giants—in addition to stints with the Cuban X-Giants and St. Paul Gophers.  Already twenty-eight years old, and a Spanish-American War veteran, when he played for the Columbia Giants in 1902, Smith’s career was over by 1909.

In 1918, David Wyatt, a former Union Giants infielder turned sportswriter for The Chicago Defender, said of him:

 “Smith was a player who ranked with the very best of his time, and it is extremely doubtful if any of the present day stars can excel him in efficiency and all-around play.  Besides being a classy actor at the hot corner of the diamond, Smith was a natural leader of men.  He was captain of the Leland Giants of the season of 1905; under his guiding hand that team made a run of forty-seven consecutive wins; a record not surpassed or even equaled in the annuals of history of Colored baseball.”

Smith went to work for the post office after his retirement and rose to the rank of captain in the Eighth Illinois National Guard, a unit composed of black soldiers from the near South Side neighborhood then known as the Black Belt—now Bronzeville.  When the United States entered World War I, the eighth entered active duty as the 370th Infantry.

In April of 1918, the 370th arrived in France.  In August, Smith provided readers of The Defender with an update on the activities of the unit in a letter to Wyatt:

“Friend Davy:  Your letter reached me today, and to say I was glad to receive it, would be putting it mild indeed; it brought with it memories of the past and I could again see the old bunch—the first ‘Leland Giants,’ season in 1905—cavorting around at 79th and Wentworth, and making all the good teams sit up and wonder how it happened—a great bunch to think about (George) Taylor, (Nate) Harris in a class by themselves; peerless (William) Binga, that mighty outfield(Sherman) Barton, (Joe) Green, and (Dell) Mathews.”

[…]

“Then along comes the American Giants, Say, boy, it is great to read about them.  Well, the old 8th had a team while training in Texas and we cleaned up everything in the division; played two games with the (Houston) Black Buffalos and split even; lost the first 5-3, won the second 3-1.  This by the way, was our only losing game.  We have not played any since arriving overseas, as we have been on the go ever since landing.”

The 1905 Leland Giants--Jimmy Smith is 11.  Others mentioned in the letter: 1-Barton, 2-Mathews, 4-Taylor, 5-Harris, 6-Green, and 10-Binga

The 1905 Leland Giants–Jimmy Smith is 11. Others mentioned in the letter: 1-Barton, 2-Mathews, 4-Taylor, 5-Harris, 6-Green, and 10-Binga

Besides Smith, the unit’s team in Texas included at least two other Negro League players:  Harry Bauchman and Lemuel McDougal.

Smith then turned his attention towards the war:

“The censorship is too strict to permit of sending of much news; will save it up for you until I return.  We have been in the front line trenches and the boys stood it well.  We are lulled to sleep at night by the roar of the big guns; have witnessed several big air-fights and see them shooting at machines every day;  it is exciting, wonderful, and quite a thrilling spectacle to behold.  Now and then we sit in our dug-outs underground and try to imagine we are at 35th and State Streets, or the American Giants’ park….This is a very beautiful country, the people are in a class by themselves, that is as far a politeness goes, and many other respects.  It is a shame the way the towns have been bowled over by the Huns—ruins, ruins everywhere you look and then more ruins; it will take years to repair the damage.”

[…]

“All the boys join me in sending regards to all friends, fans, ballplayers and the people at large. Tell them we are over here to do our bit for democracy.  We intend to get results, and will not stop short of the winning goal.”

According to the book, “History of the American Negro in the Great World War,” by William Allison Sweeney:

“(On November 7) Company C, of the 370th, under the command of Captain James H. Smith, a Chicago letter carrier, signally distinguished itself by storming and taking the town of Baume and capturing three pieces of field artillery (and two machine guns).”

As a result of their actions, Company C earned the French Croix de Guerre.

The "Victory Monument" at 35th and King Drive in Chicago honors the service of the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard in World War I.

The “Victory Monument” at 35th and King Drive in Chicago honors the service of the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard in World War I.

Smith returned to Chicago where he continued to work for the post office, occasionally wrote baseball articles for The Defender, and rose to the rank of Colonel in the Illinois National Guard.  He died on Christmas Eve in 1960 at a veterans hospital near his second home in Michigan.

Page Fence Giants

30 Sep

The Page Fence Giants would become one of the great early teams in black baseball; some sources say they played 156 games, winning 118 their first year.  But things did not go well in their first game.

Organized by John “Bud” Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson, the team represented the Adrian, Michigan-based Page Woven Wire Fence Company; at the time the nation’s largest fence company;  Augustus “Gus” Parsons served as the team’s business manager and scheduled their games (he’s often misidentified as the team’s manager).

Grant "Home Run" Johnson, left center row and John "Bud" Fowler, right center row, with the independent Findley (OH) Sluggers in 1894.

Grant “Home Run” Johnson, left center row and John “Bud” Fowler, right center row, with the independent Findley (OH) Sluggers in 1894.

Their first game was scheduled for April 10 against the Western League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers.

The Indianapolis News said of the Giants:

“Besides playing ball they perform feats of tumbling, and there is a quartet among them that sings between innings.”

The team also would arrive in towns riding bicycles in parade formation (the Giants’ other sponsor was the Monarch Bicycle Company).

While they often played for mostly white crowds The News said the stands “were very nearly peopled” with black fans; they did not get the show they had hoped for:

“In the first inning the Indianapolis team had fourteen men to bat and scored eight runs.  It seemed evident that one more inning of slaughter like the first would precipitate a race riot, and President (and manager William “Bill”) Watkins diplomatically let up.  The ease with which Indianapolis did everything it wanted to, and the “rough deal” the colored team received at the hands of umpire Andrews conspired to make the score look like the original report of the Armenian massacre…The one-sided score, which misrepresents both teams as far as figures are concerned.”

Page Fence lost 26-1.

The Box Score

The Box Score

They also lost two games against the Cincinnati Reds, then lost Fowler and pitcher George Wilson to the Adrian Reformers in the Michigan State League (where they were teammates of Honus Wagner).

The Giants returned to Indianapolis in 1896, losing 16-3 to the Hoosiers

The Giants returned to Indianapolis in 1896, losing 16-3 to the Hoosiers

Despite their first game, the Giants continued drawing crowds and winning games until they disbanded in 1898—with most of the players joining the newly formed Chicago Columbia Giants.