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The Penn Yan Colored Giants (the 1925 season)

Yates Past - September 2007

Since we ran last month’s article on the Penn Yan Cuban Giants, I have been asked by a number of people why a semiprofessional baseball team from Brooklyn would select Penn Yan in which to play a full season. Part of the reason was that there were already three black professional teams in the New York City area in the Eastern Colored League which played a higher quality of baseball. Add to that the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants playing in the American and National Leagues and the baseball market downstate was pretty well saturated. Another reason was that the Cuban Giants were quite familiar with Penn Yan. The team “barnstormed” through upstate New York for several years in the 1890s and early 1900s and played Penn Yan town teams at the fairgrounds. In 1905 Penn Yan had a town team of “near professional quality” (according to local newspapers) and was widely known as a “baseball town”. It was mentioned last month that the use of the term “Cuban” was designed to overcome objections that white fans might have to paying to watch a black baseball team. Another reason why that name was used was to make it easier for all-white teams to put up the money to play against them. It is difficult to imagine that anyone was being fooled by that, but then this wasn’t the deep South either.

At the end of the 1924 season, local newspapers speculated about whether the Cuban Giants would return to Penn Yan for a second season. They had not been a financial success playing their home games at the Yates County Fairgrounds, but seven of the players liked the area well enough to find jobs and spend the winter here. Over the winter, those players agreed to join a new team called the Penn Yan Colored Giants, led by James L. Robinson as manager. For a while it appeared that Penn Yan would have two black teams as the Cuban Giants clearly had plans to return for a second season. Both teams held major fundraisers here in February of 1925. The Cuban Giants brought in Bill Geder’s Colored Jazz Orchestra to play “for the white people of Penn Yan” at the Sampson Theater on Elm Street. The Colored Giants brought in the Reilly Brothers Orchestra to play for a dance at the Masonic Hall. With music, singing, and dancing, both fundraisers were quite successful. In early March, John B. Johnson, the manager of the Cuban Giants, left Penn Yan for the team’s spring training camp in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He had financial backing from a group of Penn Yan businessmen to recruit new players with the idea that the team would be back in Penn Yan by June 1st to begin their season. During those two months the Colored Giants got better organized and established in Penn Yan. By mid- March the Penn Yan Express reported.....”The baseball bug has commenced to work in this village with the first approach of Miss Early Spring. There has been a great deal of talk going the rounds for the past several weeks but the talk has gradually developed into real action and James L. Robinson, who has taken over the management of the Penn Yan Colored Giants, has completed his lineup of players and is now on the job to secure playing dates for his aggregation which he announces will be one of the fastest and best equipped of its class. In past years, Penn Yan has boasted of some swift organizations but the Penn Yan Colored Giants are said to be better than anything history has to offer.” Those from the Cuban Giants that went onto the new team included the captain “Beano” Thomas (shortstop), Frankie Peay (first base), Rufus Johnson (second base), “Chick” Wells (catcher, who also once played for the Havana Red Sox) “Baldy” Woods (outfield), and Stanley Holmes (pitcher). Their uniforms were gray with green stripes and their bench sweaters were cadet blue. While this team was organizing, the Cuban Giants decided to base their 1925 season in Cumberland, Maryland.

Spring Practice for the Colored Giants began at the Yates County fairgrounds in mid-April. Their first game was against the Waverly Tigers in Pennsylvania on May 3rd. The Giants won 15-1 in front of 1500 fans, many of whom had traveled down from Penn Yan. The Elmira Star-Gazette reported: “In spite of their antics, the visitors were real ball players and gave the spectators a big entertainment.” The first home game was against the Rochester Orioles on May 13th. The Orioles were guaranteed $200 if they won and $50 if they lost. They walked away with the lesser amount as the Giants won 8-6. The Colored Giants didn’t win all of their games that summer, but they won most of them. Heated home and away rivalries developed with semipro teams from Bath and Rochester. In spite of their on the field success, crowds at Penn Yan home games were scarcely big enough to meet financial obligations for the team. In July, they hired a booking agent and went on an extensive road trip throughout upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania. Even that was not enough to keep the team going as it disbanded in late August and reorganized under the leadership of their catcher, “Chick” Wells. They played games into September and then broke up for good.

The next year (1926) “Beano” Thomas tried to get the Colored Giants organized again but the effort failed. Instead, the Penn Yan Baseball Club was formed consisting of white players only. In September of that year, the Cuban Giants, then based in Rochester, came to the Yates County Fairgrounds to play the local team. On the Giant’s roster were several players who had played in Penn Yan two years earlier. The only player who stayed in town for any period of time was Rufus Johnson, a native of North Carolina. He worked a shoeshine business at various places in downtown Penn Yan and continued to play baseball for various teams including Michaels-Stern and a town team in Second Milo. He must have been quite an athlete. The Yates County Chronicle (March 17, 1926) reported: “Rufus Johnson “Shoe Shine King” at the Welch and Messinger Barber Shop has affixed another title to his name, “King of the Charleston”. Thursday night at the ball given in the Masonic Temple a prize was offered to the contortionist who best executed the Charleston. Popular applause bestowed upon him this envied dignity.” Rufus married a girl from Prattsburg and lived in Penn Yan for the rest of his life. They had nine children; four daughters and five sons. Rufus Johnson died in Penn Yan in 1962 at the age of 66 and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Penn Yan.

Thanks again to Joanie Hand of the Penn Yan Public Library who spent a few tough hours at a microfilm reader assembling the materials that allowed me to do this article. YCGHS now has a folder on these black baseball teams of the 1920s. If YOU have any information (especially photos) that we could add to that file, please let us know.

By Rich MacAlpine

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