Giants of Adrian may have been best baseball team in Michigan in the 1890s

The 1896 Page Fence Giants included the popular Grant "Home Run" Johnson (third from the left in back row).

Despite the well-entrenched system of Jim Crow laws and customs that kept most black people out of the American mainstream at the turn of the 20th century, a handful of black professional teams actually flourished during baseball’s apartheid era. Viewed as novelties, these clubs enjoyed considerable popularity and newspaper coverage, especially since most of their games pitted them against white nines.

One of the most famous of these early black teams, the Page Fence Giants, operated out of Adrian, an important rail center about 50 miles southwest of Detroit and the hometown of Frank Navin, the future owner of the Detroit Tigers. What distinguished the Adrian Page Fence Giants from their white counterparts on the Tigers (who at the time played in the minor Western League) was not only the color of their skin, but also their incredible winning record and stylish mode of transportation.

The Giants were the dream of George “Bud” Fowler, a 47-year-old barber and occasional second baseman for several Midwestern semipro teams. It had always been Fowler’s ambition to organize his own ball club. In the summer of 1894, he enlisted the aid of a pair of white businessmen in Adrian, L. W. Hoch and Rolla Taylor, in finding sponsorship. The trio entered into a surprisingly favorable agreement with the Page Fence Company, creator of “the barbed wire that changed the West,” and a Massachusetts bicycle manufacturer. The two sponsoring companies agreed to finance the enterprise, with the ball club keeping all profits and retaining operational control.

The Page Fence Giants started play in April 1895. The players were each paid about $100 a month. Like all black clubs of the era, the Giants lacked affiliation with any organized league. This made them a permanent road team. They played throughout southern Michigan and northern Ohio and Indiana, drawing crowds that ranged from a few hundred to several thousand people.

Assisted by a full-time business manager, the Giants traveled in a specially outfitted railroad car that had their principal sponsor’s name emblazoned across it. Besides serving as a rolling advertisement for Page Fence, the handsome brown railroad car allowed the company to neatly sidestep local Jim Crow ordinances by giving the players a place to eat and sleep. A porter and a cook helped make life comfortable on the road.

As might be expected, the Giants often were the victims of prejudice, both subtle and blatant. Newspapers regularly referred to the Giants’ “watermelon battery,” while umpires were “invariably home players, and hated to see a colored team beat a white one,” observed Rolla Taylor.

Despite the obstacles, the Page Fence Giants were a force to be reckoned with. In 1895 they compiled a 118-36 record. They finished the season on a cold afternoon at Detroit’s Boulevard Park, where they crushed a squad of Tigers and assorted National League players by the score of 18-3. Reported the Detroit News: “The game of ball between the Page Fence Giants and the Detroit [professionals] proved an easy victory for the Giants and it begins to look as if it would be hard to find a team that can equal them.” Some Detroit fans present “expressed belief that the Giants are the best team in Michigan.”

The Giants spiced up their winning with considerable showmanship. They bicycled down Main Street before every game and hammed it up on the field. Grant “Home Run” Johnson, a young shortstop and one of black baseball’s true pioneers, was known for such crowd-pleasing antics as cartwheeling around the bases.

Although the Giants posted a record of 125-12 in 1897, including an eye-popping 82-game win streak, they failed at the gate. Bad weather was partially to blame, but hard economic times and the fading novelty of watching the all-black Giants also bit into attendance. The team disbanded sometime in 1898, derailed not by a superior opponent, but by a depressed economy and their own phenomenal success.

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