In an era when baseball contracts can run into the tens of millions of dollars, it’s worth revisiting the early years of the Negro Leagues, when some players could only make ends meet by moonlighting at service jobs, many as hotel waiters.
Because therein lies a curious story about black entrepreneurship in the age of Jim Crow.
The Cuban Giants, the first successful professional black ball club, came together in the summer of 1885 at the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, New York. Headwaiter Frank P. Thompson hired black ball-playing waiters as an entertainment for resort guests. Many of the players had already built reputations as outstanding athletes. Thompson ran the team with S.K. Govern, who had previously worked in hotels and managed a black semipro club.
Soon after, Thompson and Govern made contact with the growing Flagler hotel empire in Florida, which installed the Cuban Giants as waiters and entertainment in St. Augustine during the winter season and gave them a base for barnstorming the South.
This conferred an advantage over competing teams like the New York Gorhams -- if you didn’t work in a hotel, you missed the extra income, and Jim Crow laws made it hard to find a place to stay (the annals of Negro League history are full of stories about the difficulty of finding food and shelter on the road).
Other black teams used hotels similarly, staying and sometimes working a shift in white resort hotels and playing games for white spectators on the hotel grounds. In particular, Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants and Nat C. Strong’s Lincoln Giants spent winter seasons as the in-house teams of the Royal Poinciana and the Breakers -- both in Palm Beach, Florida -- where players worked as waiters, bellhops and cooks. The two teams played exhibition games during the week, and reserved Sundays for games against each other.
White hotel owners welcomed these collaborations. Baseball games filled periods of the day when waiters might otherwise sit idle, and although double duty probably affected employees’ performance as both athletes and waiters, the late 19th century wasn’t an era in which many bosses cared about the effects of overwork on productivity. Games also offered free publicity to hotels through sports coverage in the news media. Perhaps most importantly, black baseball offered a novel entertainment that drew guests to resort hotels.
Black baseball entrepreneurs, meanwhile, used these hotels to subsidize their infant industry. The hotels provided food, shelter and a cash income during the resort season, helping teams remain solvent through the rest of the year. Playing for white audiences also encouraged white interest in black baseball, and fed a psychological need that many historians have noted -- Negro League ballplayers wanted to give white fans the opportunity to compare them to white players.
Most importantly, hotels offered entrepreneurs and players access to patrons. Sometimes, meeting the right guest could make a season’s work in a hotel worthwhile. In their 1885 summer season at the Argyle Hotel, Thompson and Govern met a white investor named Walter Cook who bought the team and gave it a home base in Trenton, New Jersey, which allowed the club to tour the northeast, playing black and white professional and semi-pro clubs, and colleges like Yale, Princeton, Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania. Without such connections, it might have been many more years before black baseball could support professional teams.
Individual black players also used hotel jobs to make professional contacts. In 1901, second baseman Charles Grant of the Columbia Giants quit his team in Chicago, moved to Arkansas, and got a job as a bellhop at the hotel where John J. McGraw brought the Baltimore Orioles for training camp. McGraw saw Grant playing around the hotel grounds with other workers, and tried to pass him off as a Cherokee named Chief Tokohama. Had others not seen through the ruse, Grant might have crossed the color line 46 years before Jackie Robinson.
In today’s atmosphere of racial integration, it’s hard to imagine a time when black entrepreneurs and athletes had to wait tables at resort hotels to make ends meet. But those hotels played a role in breaking down the color line. The strategic partnership that Negro League teams forged with the hotel industry helped nurture a level of athletic excellence that, decades down the road, white baseball managers, players and fans finally had to acknowledge.
(Daniel Levinson Wilk is an assistant professor of American History at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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