(left) The Cuban Giants, 1886-1900; (right) The Amherst College baseball team 1896. (Click on image to enlarge.)

In March, I was flipping through The New York Times Magazine and was struck by a piece with this provocative title: “Justice for the Negro Leagues Will Mean More Than Just Stats.”

I read that, since Major League Baseball announced, at the end of 2020, that it would start incorporating Negro-league player stats, a deep discussion has been happening around issues of acknowledgment and atonement for decades of baseball segregation. The MLB didn’t integrate until 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

The Negro Leagues technically launched in 1920. Earlier, Black athletes played on integrated teams (until around 1887) and on all-Black teams that presaged the Negro leagues. The MLB must now assess decades of statistics. If you are a baseball fan like me, your sports trivia knowledge will be radically refreshed once these stats become official. Which pitcher, for instance, threw a no-hitter on opening day? The MLB answer won’t just be Bob Feller, but now also Leon Day. Who hit over .400 for the season? Not just Ted Williams, but Josh Gibson.

This is all remarkable. But what does it have to do with Amherst?

You’d guess nothing, but then I spied this tantalizing clue in the Times: Author Rowan Ricardo Phillips mentioned seeing memorabilia from games between the Cuban Giants, the first Black professional baseball club, and Wesleyan’s varsity baseball team in the 1890s.

It hit me: Did the Cuban Giants challenge the other two of the Little Three?

Poster for a base ball game between the Cuban Giants and Amherst College
Yes! The Amherst archives had proof. College archivist Christina Barber tracked down a poster advertising a game at Pratt Field on May 26, 1896, and an Amherst Student dispatch on the match.

Spoiler alert: The College lost—but just barely, 7-6, in a 10-inning game. You can gloat at Amherst’s respectable showing: the next day, the Cuban Giants trounced Williams 16-8. The Boston Globe called the Ephs’ fielding “wretched.”

Yet the stats from these games won’t funnel into MLB standings: only play from 1920 to 1948 is being considered. The MLB holds that the games before 1920 don’t count, labeling them as lower-quality, a run of loosely recorded exhibition games and barnstorming tours.

Negro-league players and achievements matter on their own, not just because the MLB recognizes them, of course. And deciding what constitutes “low-quality” play is a debatable, even troubling, pretext for excluding the early days of Negro-league ball. (Note: The MLB started long before 1920, the National League in 1876, the American League in 1901.)

As Phillips wrote: “Are we separating 29 years of Black baseball from its 100 years of history just because some box scores are available?”

While the MLB is dismissing stats before 1920, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has inducted several Negro-leaguers from the earlier era.

Books by Sol White, the History of Colored Baseball and Sol's Whites Official Baseball Guide
Incredibly, two of those Hall of Famers played at Pratt Field that day in 1896: Frank Grant and Sol White. Negro-league scholar Jerry Malloy named Grant the best player of the 19th century.

A word about the Cuban Giants. No player was Cuban: the moniker is part of a pattern of concealing African American origins from white spectators. The team was founded in 1885 to entertain guests at a beach resort hotel in Babylon, Long Island, had a home base in Trenton, N.J., toured the northeast, and spent some winters in Florida and, yes, Cuba. The key to making baseball financially viable was to play year-round.

The Amherst game is part of the history of segregation, but also of integration. The College’s one Black player, James Francis Gregory ’98, was the first Black student to be named captain of an eastern college baseball team. He was the son of a Howard University professor, and his family tree includes both Charles Drew, class of 1926, who pioneered methods for storing blood plasma, and Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision.

Below, you can dive into the story of this game and these players. Such recollection is just one small step toward elevating the history of the Negro Leagues.

Further Bicentennial Reading

Amherst College Bicentennial 1821 2021

Amherst College Bicentennial Website

First Inning:

Amherst Second Baseman Raymond Nelson Kellogg ’97  

Raymond Nelson Kellogg ’97

Game play:
Kellogg flies out to Solomon White in the top of the first. In the fifth, he pulls off a double play—which puts out Hall-of-Famer Frank Grant. 

Kellogg is the only player from this game to break into the major leagues. He didn’t last long but played 50 games with the 1901 New York Giants, with a batting average of .276. Meanwhile, he bounced between a half dozen semi-pro teams in the Northeast, some with choice names like the Taunton Herrings and Holyoke Paperweights. Kellogg, who went by Ray Nelson as a player (though his nickname was “Kell”) went to Holyoke (Mass.) High School. Hall of Famer pitcher Christy Mathewson, and Herrings' teammate, mentions Nelson in his biography. After his baseball career ended, Kellogg passed the New York bar but went into education instead of law, teaching many years at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Second Inning:

Cuban Giants Shortstop Solomon White

Solomon White
Game play: In the second, White threw out Albert Montague ’96. He went on to hit two out of five, score two runs and had no errors. White “abounded in clever plays,” said the Boston Post.

In 1907, White became the first historian of Negro-league ball, publishing Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide. He was the earliest archeologist, as it were, digging up stats and reports that subsequent chroniclers would rely upon. White’s greatest triumph “was the historian’s quintessential bounty; He rescued merit from oblivion,” said Jerry Malloy, the late scholar of Black baseball. White played for and managed multiple teams over a 30-year career and was a founder of the Philadelphia Giants. Later in life, White was a sports columnist for the New York Amsterdam News. The year he played at Amherst, he also began attending Wilberforce University, the nation’s first historically Black college. 

Third Inning:

Amherst Pitcher John Andrew Johnston ’97

John Andrew Johnston
Game play: “Johnson pitched a good game throughout,” said The Amherst Student, except for the “disastrous third inning,” in which he walked four in a row, then recovered and struck out two. Both team pitchers had the most assists in the game: Johnston had 8, while Charles “Doc” Howard had 13.  

Johnson was a Chicagoan who attended the Chicago Manual Training School, a high school inspired by industrial age educational theories: the idea was to blend college-prep and vocational learning to produce innovative engineers; Johnson would have studied science as well as carpentry, literature along with mechanics. This was because, as a school founder said, “a republic should have no proletariat.” After Amherst, Johnston worked as a metal finisher, then became a salesman and manager for the Chicago office of the Samuel Cupples Envelope Co.

Fourth Inning:

John H. Frye, 1864-1904, the fifth known African American to play in organized baseball in the United States

Cuban Giants First Baseman John Frye

Game play: In the fourth, Frye got to first on a Kellogg error. In the 10th, with two men out, he won the game with a sharp base hit.

Nothing is more American than patent infringement and, shortly before the Amherst game, a team calved off the Cuban Giants and slyly dubbed itself the Cuban X Giants. This incensed Cuban Giants manager John Bright, who vented in a May 1896, letter to the Washington Evening Times: The X Giants “are getting most terribly defeated everywhere, and when defeated they send in their scores, calling themselves the Cuban Giants, thereby injuring the genuine Cuban Giants’ great reputation and fooling the public at large.” Bright then listed his players, putting a little spin on the ball, such as “Marvelous” John Frye, “Phenomenal” Sol White and “Nebraska Firewind” John Patterson. He also rubbed it in that, unlike the X Giants, his team had won 17 of its last 23 outings. Frye was born in Harrisburg, Pa., and seems to have started his own team, called Frye’s Nine, before joining the Cuban Giants. He stayed with the team, but a number of his teammates defected to the X Giants, including Patterson, Grant and Howard.

Fifth Inning:

Amherst Shortstop Albert Ira Montague ’96

Albert Ira Montague ’96
Game play: In the fifth, Montague put out the Cuban Giants’ Grant and Robert Jordan. “Played well at shortstop accepting nine chances out of 10,” said the Student. He rapped a single in the sixth. 

In March 1896, The Boston Globe reported that Montague had appendicitis and would step down as captain: “For two seasons Montague has played a brilliant game at shortstop for Amherst, and his resignation will be a serious loss to the team.” Pitcher Raymond J. Gregory ’96 (no relation to shortstop J.F. Gregory) had also resigned as captain because of poor health: he ended up as the game’s umpire and after Amherst would run his family’s general store in Princeton, Mass. Montague, who recovered enough to play well in this game, was born in Sunderland, Mass., and graduated from Amherst with honors. Like many of the College’s players, he became a teacher at several high schools including the Lyman School in Westboro, Mass., the nation’s first reform school for juvenile offenders. 

Sixth Inning:

Cuban Giants Third Baseman John Patterson

John Patterson
Game play: In the sixth, Patterson snagged an Amherst foul ball to end the inning. He “played a fine game at third and did heavy stick work,” said the Boston Journal.

Patterson was born in Omaha, Neb., and was a player and player-manager for several teams including Michigan’s Page Fence Giants, the Philadelphia Giants and the Cuban X Giants: a fellow X teammate called him “one of the brainiest and shrewdest leaders of any team of color.” After his playing days, he became head coach of Michigan’s Battle Creek High School baseball team, winning a state title in 1907. In 1909, he became the city’s first Black police officer and stayed with the force for three decades. When his friend Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion, had bouts in the area, Patterson gave him a place to stay. In the city’s Oak Hill Living History Tour, the “Nebraska Firewind” has been one of the citizens proudly portrayed.

Seventh Inning:

Amherst Shortstop James Francis Gregory ’98

James Francis Gregory
Game play: In the seventh, Gregory hit one of “two pretty doubles” that day, as per the Boston Journal. He batted “like a fiend,” added the Boston Post.

Gregory was a star at Amherst, in the classroom and the field. As a sophomore, he won a Kellogg prize for speaking, and as a junior, he won the Ladd and Hogan oratorical prizes. These honors, plus the news of his becoming the first Black baseball team captain in any of the eastern colleges, merited much coverage in the Black press of time, as well as the Springfield Republican, which said Gregory was “undoubtedly one of the finest fielders Amherst has ever had.” Born in Washington, D.C., he was the second son of Howard professor James Monroe Gregory, who wrote the book Frederick Douglass, The Orator. J.M. Gregory became principal of the New Jersey Black industrial training school, the Bordentown School. Several of his children taught there, including James Francis, who became a Presbyterian minister and vice principal, as well as a professor of public speaking at Howard and a writer for The Journal of Negro History. James Francis Gregory’s grandson is Frederick Drew Gregory, a NASA director who was the first Black pilot of a spacecraft and served on three space shuttle missions.

Eighth Inning:

Cuban Giants Second Baseman Frank Grant

Frank Grant
Game play: Neither side got on base in the eighth, but Grant got thrown out in the seventh and went one for five at the plate. Like Solomon White, he “abounded in clever plays,” said the Boston Post.

Ulysses Franklin Grant was born in Pittsfield, Mass., and grew up in Williamstown, where a historical plaque honors him. In 1884, as a teenager, he pitched for the Berkshires integrated amateur team, the Greylocks. A few years later, when he got signed by the mostly white Buffalo Bisons, the local paper referred to him as a “Spaniard,” to screen his racial heritage, and several white players refused to sit with him for a team portrait. He went on to play for various Negro-league clubs. He was a “baseball marvel,” said White. “His playing was a revelation to his fellow teammates, as well as the spectators. In hitting he ranked with the best and his fielding bordered on the impossible.” He retired from baseball in 1910 and got work as a waiter, porter and laborer. He died in 1937 and was given a pauper's funeral. White was one of the pallbearers.

Ninth Inning:

Amherst First Basemen Marshall Henry Tyler ’97

Marshall Henry Tyler ’97
Game play: In the ninth, Tyler hit a fly ball to right field, which was dropped by the Cuban Giants’ John Trusty. He smashed out a triple in the second inning. 

Tyler would go on to have a building named for him at the University of Rhode Island, and also make URI’s Hall of Fame: He was a math professor there for 44 years, and coached baseball for 16 years, football for 11. URI was a land grant school and, by law, it needed to start a college preparatory school as well: Tyler was its first headmaster. A talented athlete, he held the Amherst record for the high jump, won prizes in shot put and was captain of the football team. He grew up in Florence, Mass. In 1914, The Grist, URI’s yearbook, was dedicated to Professor Tyler. He was “endowed with kindness” ran the inscription, and “enveloped with sincerity, with a word for us all.”

10th Inning: Cuban Giants Center Fielder Frank Miller

Game play: In the 10th inning, Miller stuck out. In the rest of the game, he got one hit and made two errors.  

Cuban Giants manager John Bright dubbed him “Pittsburg Cyclone” Frank Miller. The reference was to his fabulous pitching arm (so it went with “Ohio Whirlwind Doc Howard”). Born in Cumberland, Md., he began his career in 1887 with the Pittsburgh Keystones, a team with the short-lived League of Colored Baseball Clubs. He went on to play with the New York Gorhams and the Cuban X Giants, and was part of the Cuban Giants teams that won championships in 1887 and 1888. When Miller joined the Cuban Giants, a Cleveland sportswriter said he was the best Black pitcher of the day. 

Team photo of the Cuban Giants

(Left) Solomon White, Hall-of-Famer shortstop, and (right) Frank Miller.