Barnstormy weather: Legacy of black baseball celebrated in Poughkeepsie

Satchel Paige, seen here warming up, was a pitcher of almost mythical prowess who made several barnstorming appearances in Kingston. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Satchel Paige, seen here warming up, was a pitcher of almost mythical prowess who made several barnstorming appearances in Kingston. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

On the sultry summer evening of August 27, 1941, the Kansas City Monarchs, a perennial powerhouse of the Negro American League, and their ace pitcher, Satchel Paige, squared off against the Kingston Recreations, a team of all-star Hudson

Valley semi-pros, under the newly installed lights at Kingston’s Municipal Stadium. The game is remembered for setting an attendance record for Kingston baseball that still stands, and for a valiant losing effort by the Recs and their talented lefty, Billy Ostrom. There was, however, some question among the game’s organizers as to whether the great Paige was entitled to his $500 bonus, as he had lasted only two innings. That question was quickly settled by Charlie Tiano, who had booked the Monarchs, when he asked the committee, “Who do you think put all those people in the seats?”

The Monarchs’ appearance in Kingston was an example of “barnstorming,” an activity vital to the survival of professional black baseball teams in the days before the lifting of the “color line” that barred black ballplayers from competing with white ones in the Major (and for that matter, the Minor) Leagues. Such legendary all-black outfits as the Monarchs, the Homestead Grays and the Indianapolis Clowns relied on playing exhibition games against white teams from all over the country, in big towns or in the boonies, in order to stay financially solvent. And wherever they went, they packed ballparks – including those in the Hudson Valley.

“Because of the exclusion of blacks from white baseball, barnstorming and the Negro Leagues were the only showcases the black players had to show the world how skillful they were,” says Bob Mayer, a baseball historian and memorabilia collector who has conducted extensive research into the history of all-black touring teams. On Sunday, January 20, Mayer will deliver a lecture titled “Baseball in Black & White: Black Barnstorming in the Hudson Valley,” at the Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie. His talk is presented in conjunction with Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience, a traveling educational exhibition organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which continues at the library through February 24.

A vintage photo of the Cuban X Giants, who were formed after a schism between the players and the owner of the original Cuban Giants, the first all-black professional baseball team. (Collection of Bob Mayer)

A vintage photo of the Cuban X Giants, who were formed after a schism between the players and the owner of the original Cuban Giants, the first all-black professional baseball team. (Collection of Bob Mayer)

According to Mayer, black teams were challenging their white counterparts in the Hudson Valley long before anyone heard of Jackie Robinson – or Satchel Paige, for that matter. In fact, the first all-black professional team, the Cuban Giants – originally consisting of crackerjack players on the wait and kitchen staff of the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, Long Island – was also the first black barnstorming team, and by 1886 they were competing, very successfully, against white teams throughout the Northeast. From 1892 to ’94, the Cuban Giants made several visits to Poughkeepsie, besting their white adversaries in nine games out of ten, including the drubbing of a team comprising the 1886 champions of the Hudson River League.

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