In the words of Dr. Chris Verga, “Baseball is New York: the end.”
Baseball has proven to be a popular sport and form of entertainment; however, the enjoyable pastime has had a significant historical impact on Long Island. Specifically, the Cuban Giants.
On Thursday, Aug. 17, community members gathered at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library, where Dr. Chris Verga, author, educator, and longtime member of the Bay Shore Historical Society, presented the rich history of baseball on Long Island.
Once everyone grabbed refreshments and the camera was recording, Dr. Verga began the presentation. His passion for history and baseball shined through instantly.
He addressed that while most people believe Jackie Robinson was the first person to break the color barrier in baseball, that is not true. Verga said it was Sol White and his team, the Cuban Giants, who broke the color barrier even before Jackie Robinson was born.
To truly understand the historical significance of the Cuban Giants and modern-day baseball, Verga provided context. He spoke about the reinforced racial barriers on Long Island and how homeowners in Suffolk County and Nassau County enslaved people during colonial times.
“The enslavement of indigenous people and people of color created a segregated society here on Long Island,” he said, noting that these groups blended together and created their own culture.
Verga spoke about how during the late 19th century, Long Island was quickly becoming a “hot spot.” Resort communities began to form, most notably in Bay Shore and Babylon. One of the most notable establishments was the Argyle Hotel, once located in Babylon. The growth of these communities created jobs for indigenous and former enslaved people.
After Verga shared his pride for New York baseball, he talked about the New York Knickerbocker Club, which hailed from the Lower East Side. They were considered the first official baseball team. Baseball eventually left its New York roots and spread throughout the country during the Civil War. Soon, people from all over became fascinated with the sport. Tobacco companies used baseball cards to advertise and sell their products.
Verga described baseball in the 1880s as “unorganized, gritty, grungy.” Still, it was full of enjoyment that came straight from New York.
The Argyle Hotel, which Verga previously mentioned, was often vacant after the Civil War, which left the staff with little to do. Frank Thompson, the head server, formed a baseball team among the kitchen staff. This team was made up entirely of people of color. This team later became the Cuban Giants. The team had no one to play against, so they hired people. This led to the creation of the first Black baseball league.
The color barrier was “crossed” when the Cuban Giants played white teams. Despite trying to “advertise” the Cuban Giants players as Latino, people figured out quickly that they were not Latino.
“But despite that, there wasn’t racial tension, even when they were playing the white teams,” Verga said.
The Cuban Giants playing against the Metropolitans was the first instance of an all-white team playing against an all-Black team on a pro level.
“This shattered the racial barriers,” but the most remarkable moment was the players shaking hands afterward. Who won wasn’t important, but that game was still a significant moment in history.