Standing proudly on Main Street in Penn Yan is the anchor building of the Yates County History Center, the Oliver House Museum, one of three buildings comprising the YCHC. The Center, formerly Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society, is one of the oldest in NYS, has been actively collecting, preserving and interpreting history since 1860. Continue reading about us...

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The Penn Yan Cuban Giants (1924)

Yates Past - July 2007

A part of our mission here at YCGHS is to collect, preserve, and interpret the various facets that comprise the history of Yates County. That happens in a lot of different ways and this story is a good example of one of them. A YCGHS member (Ralph Seager) donated a postcard to us that had this photo on it. No one here had any idea that Penn Yan ever had an all-black baseball team and there was nothing relating to it in our files. Curator Chuck Mitchell contacted Reference Librarian John Creamer at the Penn Yan Public Library. John has a good background and keen interest in local history, but he had not run across any reference to the team either. One day I happened to go into the local history room at the library and there was Library Clerk and local history specialist Joanie Hand hard at work on the microfilm machine. She had been looking for something in a 1924 Yates County Chronicle and ran across an article on the Cuban Giants quite by accident. Using that article as a starting point, she went backward in time to find the first reference to the team and forward in time until she found the last reference. In the process she accumulated a very thick file on the team and their games. I borrowed the file and the result is this article. This is a good example of how fulfilling our mission is sometimes a team this case involving one of our members and the Penn Yan Public Library.

In June of 1924, the Cuban Giants Baseball Club, Inc., of Brooklyn, NY made a proposal to the Chamber of Commerce in Penn Yan. If they would allow the team the use of the Yates County Fairgrounds and agree to relocate the ball diamond in front of the grandstand, the Cuban Giants would play at least two home games a week there throughout the summer and adopt the name “Penn Yan Cuban Giants”. The fairgrounds in those days were located where the Lake Street Plaza is in Penn Yan today. The team’s offer coincided with a wave of “boosterism” through business communities in small towns across America during the 1920s, including Penn Yan. The Chamber of Commerce and the County Agricultural Society (which oversaw the fairgrounds) saw the opportunity to bring business into the village and promote the name of Penn Yan so the deal was made. The first game was played a week later.

The Cuban Giants were a semiprofessional team of what was mainly minor league talent. The New York City area had three “major league” teams playing in the Eastern Colored League at the time......the New York Cuban Stars, the New York Lincoln Giants, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants. The Cuban Giants must have figured that there was more money to be made upstate where there was less competition. They guaranteed visiting teams $50 to $100 to come to Penn Yan for a game. What was left from the gate revenues was used to cover team expenses and pay the players and coaches of the home team. Therefore the success of the whole operation depended on getting people out to the ballpark. Tickets were 50¢ and the business community, including the local newspapers, worked to encourage people to go out and see our “national sport”. As the Penn Yan Democrat put it...”It is now up to the people of Penn Yan to show whether they want baseball or not, and the attendance at the games will be your answer.” The Chronicle wrote.... “The Cuban Giants are a good bunch of players and an orderly bunch of men and are worthy of your patronage. They cannot play baseball unless they have your support at the games.”

There were no Cubans on the Cuban Giants. Black teams used that name going back into the 1880s because it was believed that white baseball fans would watch Latin American players before they would watch black ones. The team was managed by John B. Johnson and included players like “Beano” Thomas, “Chick” Wells, Rufus Johnson, Wm. “Baldy” Woods, and Richard “George” Washington. The players were from everywhere but here... southern states and the cities of the east coast. They wanted to play ball and make a little money in the process. They played teams from all over western New York and northern Pennsylvania.... other semipro teams, industrial teams, town teams, all-star teams..... whoever would put up the money.

They played 89 games in 1924, winning 62 of them. Their first game was played at the Yates County Fairgrounds in late June against the “Imperials” of Painted Post, an Ingersoll-Rand Corporation team. The Yates County Chronicle described it ...”The first game of baseball played by the Cuban Giants was a success from the standpoint of amusement, although not a financial success. Every person who saw the game is enthusiastic and the antics of the Cuban Giants were producers of laughs equal to a minstrel show.” The game was a laugher also...the Cuban Giants won 15-5. From then on they played at home each Thursday at 5:00 pm and Saturday at 3:30. They played on the road on all other days except Sundays. From the start they suffered from low attendance. At that first game they took in $84 at the gate. From that they had to pay the visiting team their $50 guarantee and after paying for equipment and advertising, very little was left for the players. After a home game against the Lehigh Valley Shopmen from Sayre, Pa. in July, the Yates County Chronicle reported......”Saturday’s crowd was the largest which has attended any of the ball games so far. The receipts, however, were but $162 and the Giants had to pay the visitors $100. After paying for the bats and balls out of the remaining $62, it was mighty lean bacon that the Penn Yan men had to chew on.” Low turnout and low gate receipts plagued the team throughout the season.

The season ended with a “bang” in September. During the county fair they attracted large crowds as they played Seneca Falls and Geneva teams. The ball games, the horse races, and other attractions gave the 1924 Yates County Fair a record-breaking attendance. The real highlight at the end of the season, however, was playing the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League on September 16th. Toronto had a four day gap in their schedule and the man who booked teams for the Cuban Giants was able to bring them to Penn Yan to play an exhibition game for a guarantee of $250. Before a large crowd, the home team was defeated 14-8 but the paper reported that they were “competitive” throughout the game. They played their last game that season on September 20th against Lodi and then played their way south to their spring training base in Orangeburg, South Carolina where they broke up until the following spring. Seven of the players actually returned to Penn Yan to get jobs and spend the winter. The season ended, however, on a controversial note. The man who booked the Toronto game was arrested for grand larceny as some of the Giant players charged him with withholding some of the gate receipts. In spite of that, it was a pretty good season for the team but the papers ominously reported....”Whether or not they return to Penn Yan next season is not yet decided.”

You may have noticed that the team photo that accompanies this article identifies them as the “Penn Yan Colored Giants” instead of the Cuban Giants.....but that’s another story. Next month: the 1925 season.

By Rich MacAlpine

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