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Remembering the Royals: The pride of Brooklyn’s African-American baseball community

The Brooklyn Royal Giants. Photos courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

For Brooklyn Daily Eagle

It became immediately apparent, roughly a century ago, in early September 1914, that the Brooklyn Royal Giants had virtually no chance against the Chicago American Giants.

The pride of Brooklyn’s African-American baseball community had played solid, at times dominant, ball all season long, establishing themselves as one of the finest all-black hardball aggregations in the East.

But the Royal Giants ended up being no match for the squad from the Windy City in what was billed as an informal “colored world series” for the title of best African-American team in the country. The American Giants, who were piloted by Andrew “Rube” Foster — perhaps the most influential figure in pre-integration black baseball — swept the Brooklynites in the series and cemented themselves as the kings of the blackball hill in 1914.

The final game of the series, a 3-1 Chicago triumph, was gruesome for the Royals, even though it was a close contest.

“Foster’s men had the easterners’ goat, for [the Brooklynites] played listless ball behind the pitching of [the Royal Giants’ William “Dizzy”] Dismukes,” wrote Chicago Defender reporter Frank A. Young. “At that it was the best game of the whole series.”

However, now, as the country celebrates Black History Month, the top-notch quality of the Royal Giants’ overall, season-long performance 100 years ago cannot be denied. As a barnstorming club — which most African-American franchises were before the formation of the first Negro National League in 1920 — the Royals took on all comers, traveling through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other regional states to prove their hardball prowess.

In all, 1914 proved a solid installment in the history of one of the finest African-American baseball franchises in the early 20th century. Dr. Leslie Heaphy, a professor at Kent State University and Negro Leagues expert and author, says the Royal Giants were a crucial ingredient of the heady brew of 1910s blackball.

“They attracted a wide variety of players from the locals to stars like Walter Ball, Dizzy Dismukes, Frank Wickware, Hurly McNair and Grant Johnson, which speaks to their quality of play over the years,” Heaphy says. “Their heyday was definitely the early 1910s. One Chicago article from 1910 talks about them cleaning up everything and making for exciting baseball games to watch.”

The historical relevance of the Royal Giants was perhaps first established by author Robert Peterson in his seminal study of the Negro Leagues, 1970s “Only the Ball Was White,” which several times cited the Royals as one of the best teams in the East during their time period.

But even before the Royal Giants’ came into being in 1905 — when they were formed by local café owner J.W. Connor — baseball had been a popular pastime among the African-American population of Brooklyn.

“The number of teams, the length of tenure, the use of so many stadiums in the area would all suggest it was important,” Heaphy says.

Almost from the time baseball was birthed in the mid-1800s, the sport caught fire in black Brooklyn. In fact, a match in 1862 between the Unknown Club and the Monitor Club was, many historians believe, the first all-black baseball game in history.

From there, baseball blossomed in Brooklyn’s African-American community, even after so-called “organized baseball” gradually drew the color line of segregation in the 1880s. But it’s the Royal Giants who stand alone as the greatest baseball team black Brooklyn ever produced.

And 1914 was one of the Royals’ standout years. The century-old campaign began in April, when the Giants shook off the rust of the off-season with spring training and the launching of a grueling barnstorming schedule. On April 28, they ventured to Allentown, Pa., where they nipped the Tri-State club, 3-2, in an exhibition contest. In its coverage of the game, the Philadelphia Inquirer stated that the Brooklyns were “advertised as the champion colored team of the world.”

From there, the Royal Giants criss-crossed the upper eastern seaboard, taking on a variety of clubs — white, black, minor-league, barnstorming, semi-pro, amateur, even college teams like Howard University — with a fair amount of success, often arriving in cities and towns to great fanfare.

Dizzy Dismukes (right) of the Brooklyn Royal Giants with John "Buck" O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs.

“In games with independent and minor league teams the Royal Giants have been winners in almost every contest,” gushed the Greenville (Pa.) Evening Record before the Brooklynites squared off against a local club. The paper added that the Royals “are admitted to be the best colored team in the world.”

The Royal Giants made stops in cities like Reading, Pa.; Atlantic City, Middletown, N.Y.; Chester, Pa.; and Camden, N.J., where they made short work of the Camden Athletic Club with a 6-0 whitewashing.

In that clash, Brooklyn pitcher Frank “Lefty” Harvey allowed just five hits and, stated the Inquirer, “had the Camden boys at his mercy throughout and so effective was his pitching that not one of his outfielders had a put-out and but one infielder ... was called upon to accept a grounder.”

Philadelphia was a particularly frequent destination for the Royals. In addition to several slugfests with the Philadelphia Giants — another of the East’s top-tier black teams and one of the Royals’ preeminent opponents — the Brooklyns went up against the Southwark Field Club, the Disston Athletic Association and the Victrix Catholic Club, which, according to the Philadelphia Tribune, “lost a fast game to the Brooklyn Royal Giants ... by the score of 4 to 1.”

But much of the Royal Giants’ ire was reserved for their fiercest rivals, the Lincoln Giants of New York. Started as an amateur club in, of all places, Nebraska, the Lincolns frequently quarreled with the Royals’ for not only New York supremacy, but also the crown of mythical “Eastern colored champions.”

During the 1914 campaign, the Lincoln Giants — led by Hall of Fame pitcher “Cyclone” Joe Williams, whom many contemporaries considered even better than the legendary Satchel Paige — vanquished a slew of other powerful African-American teams, such as the Cuban Giants.

They also fearlessly contested exhibition games with multiple major-league franchises like the Washington Senators and John McGraw’s New York Giants, who in one game pitted another Hall of Fame hurler, Rube Marquard, against Williams.

Like the Royal Giants, the Lincolns boasted that they were the best black team in the country, and the 1914 clashes between the two squads were, at times, epic, such as a doubleheader on Memorial Day at Wallace’s Ridgewood Grounds, which the Royals called home.

Then, in July at Atlantic City, the Lincoln Giants won a series against the Royals with a 6-5, final-game triumph. The two aggregations played again a few weeks later, this time at Olympic Field in New York, the Lincolns’ home diamond.

Much of the enmity between the Royal Giants and the Lincoln Giants — and, indeed, other top-notch African-American teams like the Philadelphia Giants and Cuban X Giants — was doubtlessly due to the fact that players frequently hopped from one squad to another, lured away by a rival squad even during the middle of the season.

(Strangely enough, the team the Royals would play in the September 1914 “world series,” the Chicago American Giants, raided much of the Lincoln Giants’ roster in the middle of the season, weakening the Lincolns, at times considerably.)

But throughout 1914, the Royals’ unquestioned leader remained Dizzy Dismukes, the ace of the team’s pitching staff and the club’s field general.

Dismukes, a native of Birmingham, Ala., who would enjoy a long, much respected career in black baseball as a player, manager, executive and writer, even pitched three of the four games of the world series against Chicago. Dismukes died in 1961 after serving for literally dozens of teams over a 30-plus year career.

Other members of the Royal Giants’ 1914 roster included:

Pearl “Specks” Webster, a catcher/first baseman from Wayland, Mo., who competed for the Royal Giants for several seasons in the 1910s. His baseball career was tragically cut short when he succumbed to the Spanish flu while serving in the Army in France in 1918.

Pitcher Charles Earle, who starred in multiple varsity sports at Meriden (Conn.) High School, before entering pro baseball in 1906. He competed for the Brooklynites beginning in 1908 and ending in 1917. After his baseball career, Earle settled in New York, where he died in 1945.

Speedster Jimmie Lyons, a Chicago native who proved a demon on the base paths for numerous teams from 1910-1932. Although he reportedly played a limited role for the Royal Giants in 1914, when he did play he batted .375 for the season. He served in World War I and died in his hometown in 1963.

Outfielder-pitcher Julian “Jules” Thomas, who hailed from rural Virginia and played off and on for the Royals for seven seasons. During the 1914 campaign, he manned center field before becoming one of the several players who competed for both the Royals and the Lincolns when he signed with the latter in 1915. He, like Earle, settled in New York, where he died in 1943.

Phil Bradley, who helmed first base for the Royals in 1914 after breaking into pro ball in 1907. He apparently left the game after the ’14 campaign.

Jesse Bragg, an infielder from, like Thomas, rural Virginia. Much of his relatively brief, 10-year pro career was spent with the Royals. He disappeared into history after the 1918 season.

Morten Clark, who hailed from Bristol, Tenn., and held down shortstop for the Royal Giants in 1914. His roughly 15-year career took him from Alabama to Indiana to upstate New York to Baltimore. He spent his latter years in Los Angeles, dying there in 1943.

Displaying the frequent factual, historical inaccuracies that have resulted from spotty record keeping of pre-integration black baseball, several players who reportedly took the field for the Royals in 1914 in actuality did not. That included first baseman William “Bill” Pettus, who supposedly competed for the Brooklyns that year. However, no statistics and contemporary records back up that claim.

That also went especially for superstar pitcher Frank Wickware, who allegedly took the hill for the Royal Giants in 1914 but actually never did. While Wickware probably suited up for the Brooklynites at some point, he was a notorious team-jumper who actually hurled for Rube Foster’s American Giants in 1914 — including against the Royal Giants in the culminating world series in September.

In fact, Wickware earned a dominating, 3-0 victory in the first game of that momentous series by allowing only three hits and whiffing 12. Lefty Harvey took the loss for the Royals. The contest, played in Chicago, took place and drew a large throng of fans.

The series’ second clash was claimed by the Americans, who again blanked the Royals, this time by a 7-0 count. Dismukes was battered for 13 hits, while his teammates managed only two themselves.

The third contest of the series was a lot closer, but again, the Chicagos triumphed, this time 7-6. Both teams knocked the ball all over the field, but in the end the American Giants overwhelmed Royals pitchers Harvey and Dismukes. Highlighting the Royal Giants’ effort at the plate was the swinging of Earle, who smacked two doubles.

But the game was marred by an ugly on-field dispute that, according to the Defender’s Young, nearly ended in a riot after the Chicago club pushed across the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. The confrontation was so heated that police were forced to escort the umpire off the field.

Overall, the three games that took place in the Windy City were well attended, Young penned, but the Chicago sports scribe also came away with a low opinion of the Royal Giants.

The third contest, he wrote, was held “before the largest crowd that has ever attended the Thirty-sixth street games. From every direction they came, and in every style, on foot, by electric and by autos.”

But Young was also highly critical of the heated atmosphere surrounding the events, an assertion that belied the enmity held between the two aggregations.

“One disgusting feature of the series is the way wrangles seem to appear at these games,” he wrote. “... Patrons seemed to be ‘down on’ the police for failing to eject men who insist on making foul and insulting remarks in the presence of ladies. It seems as though that some men under the influence of liquor make these remarks, and then look for sympathy from those who are near under the pretense that they are or have been drinking.”

The series, whose outcome already seemed determined, shifted to New York for a final game that took on the feel of a done deal.

And indeed, as Frank Young reported, that’s how it turned out — the American Giants cruised to a series-clinching, 3-1 triumph that wasn’t even as close as the score appeared. Dismukes, in iron-man fashion, bravely took the mound for the Royal Giants for the third straight contest, but he was foiled by early errors and errant play by his teammates. One of the lone highlights for Brooklyn was a running catch by Thomas in the outfield.

The Royal Giants’ season wasn’t quite finished, with a handful of games in late September and early October against rivals like the Philly Giants and the Lincolns.

By the time the Royals closed the book on their 1914 campaign, it could have been viewed as an overall success; despite the depressing defeat at the hands of the Chicago club, the Brooklynites had nonetheless proven themselves yet again as one of the country’s best African-American units.

The franchise soldiered on into the 1920s, by which time it was owned by white promoter Nat Strong. The Royals joined the short-lived Eastern Colored League in 1923, then became an independent, mostly barnstorming squad for the rest of their existence. The quality of their play slid downward through the 1920s and ’30s, and the franchise finally called it quits in 1942.

But by then, the Brooklyn Royal Giants had etched their name in the annals of baseball history, taking their place alongside a handful of other powerful African-American squads of their era. And their 1914 season still stands as one of the borough’s finest baseball efforts in its long history.

February 17, 2014 - 12:00pm


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