Negro League baseball history is like dinosaur fossils. Unless it’s preserved, over time it fades away.
That’s why the story of the 1905 Philadelphia Giants — a team that featured five Hall of Famers, and won 134 out of 158 games, and scored 1,000 runs that season — is not well-known in most baseball circles.
“These guys were Hall of Famers before Cooperstown ever came calling,” Negro League Baseball historian Phil Dixon said. “In Black baseball, I think they were the third greatest team of all time. They were the first great Black baseball team of the 20th century.”
There wasn’t much documentation of Black people playing baseball in its earliest days before 1920. Those teams didn’t get the mainstream coverage as MLB teams. Even when they were covered, it wasn’t as detailed. Players often were called by last name only, which has made it difficult to locate the full names of some players. In games that included two Black teams, sometimes box scores weren’t printed.
Dixon wrote a book series titled American Baseball Chronicles, which highlights great Negro League teams. Volume III featured the Giants.
Fans are most likely to remember the Negro League’s Philadelphia Stars, who were founded in 1933. Long before the Stars, the Giants were a force in the early 1900s.
Manager and Negro League player Sol White teamed with Harry Smith and H. Walter Schlichter in 1902 to found the Giants. Smith was the sports editor for the Philadelphia Tribune and Schlichter was the sports editor of the Philadelphia Evening News Item.
White used his connections as talent gravitated to Philly. According to the Negro League Baseball Players Association website, the Giants finished 81-43-2 in 1902, 89-37-4 in 1903, and in 1904 they went 95-41-6. The 1905 team, the best of them all, went 134-21-3.
The 1905 roster was stacked. It featured Hall of Famers that included White, Pete Hill, Rube Foster, Frank Grant, and John Henry Lloyd.
And they’re just the players enshrined in Cooperstown. Dixon believes there were others who deserved that honor as well.
“Dan McClellan should be in the Hall of Fame,” Dixon said. “I could make a good argument for Mike Moore. Bill Monroe was like the Deion Sanders of his time. Without question, the greatest third baseman of his generation.”
The Giants often played home games at Columbia Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics, but they never had an opportunity to face a major-league team. Their opponents included minor-league teams, other independent Black squads, and all-white town teams that often included former major-league players.
Discrimination in coverage made it difficult to find documentation of games against fellow independent Black teams. As Dixon noted in his book, games against minor-league opponents were often written from a standpoint of blaming the Giants’ wins on uncharacteristic errors made by opponents.
The big question is: Could the Giants compete with a major-league team?
“Absolutely,” Dixon said. “No question in my mind.”
If you’re a fan of the transitive property, then you believe so. The Giants were unquestionably the best independent Black team in 1905.
The Cuban X Giants, another Black squad, played on June 5, 1905 against the major-league Brooklyn Superbas and won, 7-2. The closest the Philadelphia Giants got to playing a major-league team was when they played a Newark minor-league team that Dixon called the equivalent of a triple-A team today. The Giants won all four meetings.
The Giants were stacked with power, speed, and charisma. Charlie Grant was the leadoff hitter and had 19 games of three or more hits, according to Dixon’s stats. Pete Hill had 23 games of three or more hits.
Grant “Home Run” Johnson led the power charge with 10. He was one of four teammates to hit eight or more home runs. To put that in perspective, the Athletics won the American League pennant and were led by Harry Davis’ eight home runs.
Were eight home runs a lot? Well, the dimensions at Columbia Park included 440 feet to left-center field.
The 1905 Giants pitching staff had three 30-game winners, something that’s never been done in MLB history. Andrew “Rube” Foster, Dan McClellan, and Emmett “Scotty” Bowman were the pitchers. Their 1,000 runs scored is a feat that’s only been accomplished seven times in MLB history.
While the Athletics won six AL pennants and three World Series titles from 1902-1914, the Philadelphia Giants had the best record among independent clubs, sometimes by a lot, over eight seasons from 1902-1909.
White’s deal with Schlichter ended in 1909. That was the beginning of the end of the Giants as the best independent players went to other teams and the Giants disbanded in 1911. White also wrote a book titled the “History of Colored Base Ball.”
If you do a quick internet search on when Negro League baseball started, the search will say 1920. MLB celebrated the Negro League for its 100-year anniversary last season. That’s when Foster, who played with the Giants, founded the Negro National League.
Dwayne Renal Sims, the founder of the Negro League Legends Hall of Fame, refers to 1920 as the beginning of the second era of Black American Baseball. The first era is often forgotten in history, but those players played a key role in the development and eventual success of the Negro National League.
“If you read in the Black papers, you will read about players prior to the 1920s,” Sims said. “[The Giants] were a great team in that era, and how do we prove that? Well, their names are listed in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. How can you recognize part of something and not all of it? We can’t pick and choose who we want to do something. It’s never too late to include that missing part of history, the first era of Black baseball.”