Fifty years before Jackie Robinson: the Lebanon Grays, the Cuban Giants, and the Middle States League

3 min read424 views and 39 shares Posted April 18, 2019

This past Monday, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day.

Celebrated every April 15, the day sees all players wearing Robinson’s number 42 to commemorate the day that Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, becoming the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

However, 50 years earlier, another baseball league, in which one of the teams was based in Lebanon, was making steps toward racial integration in baseball.

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The Lebanon Grays started as a semi-professional baseball team, but became fully professional when they made the leap into the Middle States League.

In 1889, the Middle States League was founded featuring five teams comprised of white players and one team of African-American players that played out of Trenton, New Jersey known as the Cuban Giants (none of the players were actually Cuban).

The Cuban Giants were the first professional African-American baseball team, and originally formed in 1885.

Baseball looked very different back then. Major League Baseball had only just adopted the rule that four balls constituted a walk, and it wouldn’t be until two years later that catchers would be permitted to wear padded gloves.

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A racially-integrated baseball league, albeit one where teams were generally segregated, was certainly something unique for the time.

The Lebanon Grays made their professional debut at Lebanon’s Penryn Park, part of current-day YMCA Camp Shand, in late summer of 1889. A Lebanon Daily News article from the time read, “Remember, the Grays are now professionals and all games they play are League championship games.”

The Grays’ first three games resulted in losses: two to the New York Gorhams and one to the Cuban Giants.

The Grays’ fourth game was another matchup against the Cuban Giants. On the mound were 19-year-old Sam Heagy for the Grays and 22-year-old William Selden for the Giants. Selden would garner praise from Henry Chadwick, known to some as the “Father of Baseball”, for his array of pitches which Chadwick referred to with the fantastically old-timey names “ins, outs, drops and snakes.”

Selden would overcome a shakey start, at one point retiring 18 out of 19 batters, to lead the Giants to a 10-4 win over the Lebanon Grays.

At the end of the season, the Harrisburg Ponies and Cuban Giants sat atop of the standings, although due to discrepancies over which games that were played actually counted, which team can actually claim first place is still open for debate. The Lebanon Grays would find themselves finishing ninth with a lackluster 6-16 record.

However, the Grays would be one of only four teams to remain operating by season’s end, along with the Harrisburg Ponies, Cuban Giants, and a team based out of Hazleton.

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The Middle States League would then morph into The Eastern Interstate League, even though all teams were now based in Pennsylvania after the Cuban Giants migrated from Trenton west to York, becoming the York Monarchs.

Midway through the inaugural Eastern Interstate League season, with the York Monarch’s perched atop the standings, the Harrisburg Ponies and Lebanon Grays would jump ship for the Atlantic Association.

This would cause the Eastern Interstate League to collapse and cause the York Monarchs ownership to move the team to Harrisburg, where they played one season as an independent team.

After the 1891 season, the players that remained on the roster of what was once the Cuban Giants/York Monarchs were signed by the New York Gorhams, and the club would cease to exist.

Want to read another baseball story? Here’s the tale of when Babe Ruth played in Lebanon.

Our thanks to Pat Rhen for tipping us off to this story.

Update: This story was updated to reflect the fact that Penryn Park’s baseball field is currently a part of YMCA Camp Shand. Our thanks to Karen Groh for this information.

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