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A SPECIAL SUNDAY AND OTHER LATE APRIL BASEBALL ADVENTURES TO KEEP THE WOERIOLES OUT OF MIND

On Sunday afternoon April 18 I rode the Long Island Railroad out to Babylon to attend the ceremonies honoring the Cuban Giants, who were very likely the first professional “pay for play” African-American baseball team. In the mid-1880s while ostensibly serving as waiters at the luxury Argyle Hotel this team of African-Americans represented the resort on the playing field and won the majority of the games against white professional and college teams. The Cuban Giants only made Babylon its home for a couple of seasons and the Argyle Hotel barely made it into the 20th century before the onset of the wrecking ball but history should not be only a tale told by winners.

So I was eager to celebrate this brief moment in time of integrated baseball 60 years before the unusual and epoch-making (if too brief) partnership of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. A crowd of about 150 attended the ceremonies that ended with the unveiling of a home plate near the site where the Cuban Giants played.

Thanks to pioneering research begun by the late Jerry Malloy, we know now that the Cuban Giants team was largely the result of a pre-Rickey-Robinson business relationship between the Argyle Hotel headwaiter and ballplayer Frank Thompson and Philadelphia entrepeneur John Lang. After 1885 the team used Trenton, New Jersey as its base for a season and then became a total barnstorming outfit as the color line hardened in baseball to outright segregation of black baseball teams from competition with white teams.

Tremendous kudos should be sent to Babylon Mayor Ralph Scordino, Village of Babylon historian Alice Zaruka and local resident and longtime baseball scout Joe Delucca all of whom worked on this project for years. In his remarks Joe Delucca emphasized that the Cuban Giants were among the best players of their day though not recognized as such.

I pointed out in my comments that a great chance for integration was missed in 1887 when John Montgomery Ward, captain and star shortstop of the New York Giants, tried to sign the black left-handed pitcher George Stovey, who once played for the Cuban Giants, but was told he could not. Attempts in subsequent decades to disguise African-Americans as Indians or Caribbean natives all failed until the courageous partnership of Rickey and Robinson after World War II.

I also noted that the course of integration was not and has not been smooth. I recalled that a year ago I had spoken at the Touro Law School in Central Islip and met a security guard Richard Robertson Jr. who had been a Negro League player invited to the Dodgers’ Vero Beach spring training headquarters in 1949. Hoping to one day become a teammate of Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, Robertson was instead rudely told to leave. “We already have too many niggers here,” was the blunt message given by some functionary. Robertston went on to an exemplary career as the first African-American police officer in Huntington, Long Island.

The last speaker of the afternoon was Bud Harrelson, who will manage the 2010 Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League. The shortstop on the 1969 World Champion New York Mets was wearing this day his 1986 Mets World Series ring – who can ever forget Harrelson as third base coach waving home Ray Knight with the winning run in Game 6 after Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs?! - quipped that as a .236 career major league hitter he could not afford to live in Nassau County so moved further out on the island.

He said that he did not know about the Cuban Giants having been a Suffolk County team 100 years before his Ducks. “I guess I’ve been lying for 10 years,” he laughed. Turning serious, he said he was awed at this new knowledge and then praised the hard work of the people of the area and his parents who had been Great Depression dust bowl survivors. “My mother and father were the Grapes of Wrath,” he said about his upbringing in northern California and how he was taught to have a strong work ethic and despite his small size to believe in his abilities.

On Friday June 11 the Babylon Historical Society will honor John Montgomery Ward who was an area resident in his post-playing career as a prominent New York lawyer and amateur golfer. More details on that event in upcoming posts this spring.

LOWENFISH ‘N’ CHIPS from the Baseball Scene:
**Kudos to Yankee general manager Brian Cashman for delivering Xavier Nady’s World Series ring in person when Nady now a Chicago Cub came to New York to play the Mets. Though injured most of 2009, the outfielder played well the prior season and is a pro’s pro. At a time when money money and more money is the incessant theme on the airwaves, in cyberspace and in newsprint it is nice to remember that a World Series ring should be the goal of every player and organization.

**Kudos too to utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. now with the Padres who flew on his own dime to attend the ring ceremony at the Yankees’ home opener on April 13.

**Honesty Award of the Year so far goes to longtime Blue Jays executive Paul Beeston for explaining the consistent low-attendance numbers in Toronto: “When you trade away your best player [Roy Halladay] why should we expect fans to come out?”

**Last and least, speaking of low home attendance figures, my Woerioles owned by Peter Angelos and sons – who I have dubbed for years Angelose-lose-lose and never, alas, have those nicknames been truer – are 2-16 as of Sunday morning April 25. With 10 more games in a row against the Red Sox and Yankees there is hardly any hope for respectability. It looks like basketball New York Nets-territory ahead or maybe even the Cleveland Spiders of the 12-team National League of 1899 that finished 20-134.

Firing manager Dave Trembley seems a foregone conclusion not that a change to, let us say, popular local broadcaster-former player Rick Dempsey will make any more than a cosmetic difference. But the lack of fundamentals and leaderless acceptance of losing are very unpleasant sights in a once-proud baseball hotbed.

Only loyalty and addiction can explain why I still follow the Orioles and ache when they lose, however predictable it has become. As we know from the current so-called “great recession” it is not easy to rid oneself of ownership in a super-capitalist society. Those with the long view in Baltimore ruefully recall the elation when local boy Peter Angelos bought the Orioles in 1993 and promised the team would never leave Baltimore (unlike prior owner Edward Bennett Williams the powerful Washington attorney who was always threatening a move to DC unless a new ballpark was built.)

The park became a great hit Oriole Park at Camden Yards but even the name immediately became controversial because of the absence of Baltimore in the title. It wasn't until the 2009 season that the name Baltimore returned to the team road jerseys. And now the franchise has fallen into such embarrassing depths that it rivals in ineptitude its ancestor the St. Louis Browns and also the 1988 team that began the season 0-21.

When the Yankees come into Baltimore this week and soon thereafter the Red Sox I cannot imagine more than a handful of Orioles fans attending to cope with the smug entitled fans of the potent opposition. Of course the Tampa Bay Rays may have something to say about that New York-Boston monopoly by season’s end. A somewhat hopeful note to end this post. Ciao for now and see you in May!
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