The Fort Wayne Colored Giants

Larry Rubama, “Missing History Postcard Spurs Search For Forgotten Team,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, September 20, 1998, 1, courtesy of Perspectives.

The Fort Wayne Colored Giants was the only black baseball team to represent the city of Fort Wayne for forty-two years, from 1907 to 1949. In that time period, baseball was a segregated team sport, with black athletes playing only on all black teams. The Colored Giants team was one of the premier black teams in northeast Indiana in that period. Other black Fort Wayne teams included the Black Diamonds (1916-1917), Dupee’s All-Nations (1919), Riddle’s All- Stars (1920-1922), the Cadillac Colored Giants (1921-1922), and the Fort Wayne Colored Pirates (1926-30s). Indiana had over thirty-seven traveling black teams, extending from West Baden in the south to South Bend in the north, and Evansville in the west to Fort Wayne in the east.

Young men with outstanding baseball skills comprised the Fort Wayne Colored Giants. These young men developed their baseball prowess playing sandlot, church ball, “pickup” baseball, and community ball. Young men would come play baseball from as far away as Marion and other black communities in northeast Indiana.  Fort Wayne newspapers advertised player recruitment and notices for team competitions. It also provided notification of both games and team and league scores.

Cities large and small adopted black baseball teams when they could find players and afford to do so. The teams vitalized and energized their communities, both black and white.  The teams were self-sufficient and team members were paid scanty sums. Community teams typically passed a hat around during the game where patrons would contribute whatever they could to help defray costs. Teams struggled to maintain their budgets and keep their key players. Some teams were very wealthy, such as the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the National Negro League. Others just made ends meet and vanished after a season or two. The Fort Wayne Colored Giants did manage to provide a stipend for their players.

African-American Historical Society in Fort Wayne, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Baseball was the cornerstone of many communities, both large and small. This was the heyday for black businesses and the black community.  Life revolved about church, neighborhoods, clubs, and organizations like the Phyllis Wheatly House, the former community center, which is now home to the Fort Wayne African African-American Museum.

The Giants’ home field was located in southeast Fort Wayne, where home and exhibition games took place. The team also played at Fort Wayne’s League Park, which was constructed in 1883, and in 1922 renamed Lincoln Life Field. The Fort Wayne Colored Giants played black teams such as the Toledo Mud Hens, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Chicago Giants, Saint Louis Stars, the Evansville White Sox, and Pittsburgh Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. The Giants team played ‘out of local area’ Indiana teams, including those from Lagrange, Decatur, Geneva, Uniondale, Marion, Huntertown, Evansville, La Otto, Ligonier, Hudson and North Manchester. They also played teams from Hicksville, Antwerp, Convoy, and Van Wert, Ohio.

The Colored Giants had standing rivalries with area white teams, such as the Fort Wayne Lincoln Lifers, the Columbia City Grays, the Roanoke Independents, the New Haven Visible Pumps, the Kendallville Reds, the Garrett K of Cs, and the Auburn Athletics.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 29, 1923, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Colored Giants team had multiple owners and managers over the years and these include: (1909) Mr. Harry Ellis, both owner and manager; (1916) Mr. L.B. Dupee, owner and Mr. George Wilson, manager; (1919) Mr. Bob Jones bought out Mr. L.B. Dupee and retained Mr. George Wilson as manager; (1920-1921) Mr. Bob Jones, owner and Mr. Johnson, manager; (1921- 1922) Mr. Bob Jones, owner and Mr. T.E. Lewis, manager; (1923-192) Mr. Moses Taylor, owner manager; and (1930-1949) no information on owners or managers was available.  The information presented was obtained from Fort Wayne newspaper articles of the period.

Very little is known about the team’s owners and managers, but the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette Newspaper did feature one. That was Moses Taylor, the longest serving owner and manager of the Colored Giants (1923 to 1929). The story of black baseball in Fort Wayne is a story of a family involved in the community and in baseball.  It is a story of a man, a visionary and an entrepreneur, who became the catalyst for the creation of a strong baseball team. His dream generated passion within a community and among a group of young black men. He set the stage for solid baseball play with major teams, both semi pro and local.

After a team bus broke down in 1929 in Pittsburgh, Mr. Taylor stayed and found a job.  He moved the rest of his family to Pittsburgh around 1930. Mr. Taylor utilized his experience with the Fort Wayne Colored Giants to form the Pittsburgh Mystics, as reported by his daughter Mrs. Lucille Taylor Wooden of Cleveland, Ohio.  This team played against the Pittsburgh Homestead Grays of the National Negro League.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 3, 1920, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Fort Wayne Colored Giants infused and energized the black community of Fort Wayne. The team established its mark in the city and in baseball.  The Fort Wayne Tincaps are the legacy of the Fort Wayne Colored Giants and the many white league teams of the era.  They all contributed to baseball history in Fort Wayne.  The Giants are one of the few Fort Wayne baseball teams, black or white, from that era (1907-1949) to be recognized in the 21st century via news media and with a plaque at Parkview Field.  They assume their proper place in the history of Fort Wayne as true contributors to the development of sports history in the Summit City.

Babe Ruth: A Big Hit in Fort Wayne

final babe
Bob Parker “cartoon” illustrating Babe Ruth blasting “a mighty 10th inning,” Michael C. Hawfield, Fort Wayne Sports Yesterday & Today (1994), p.18.

Legendary baseball player George “Babe” Ruth graced Fort Wayne with his presence during a personal visit on October 26, 1926. After putting on a show during at practice, he joined the Fort Wayne Lincoln Lifers, a semiprofessional team sponsored by Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., in a game against a very good Kips team. Ruth proceeded to put on a demonstration by playing every position except catcher. He topped the game off by hitting two balls out of the park. With the Bambino in their arsenal, the Lifers won 11 to 1.

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Lincoln Lifers “Pete” Dietrich and “Bud” Devilbiss, The Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 10, 1923, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ruth returned to the Indiana town on May 6, 1927 with the New York Yankees to play an exhibition game against the Lifers. In his Fort Wayne Sports History, Blake Sebring wrote that the Yankees, who were in first place in the league, made the stop on their way to take on Chicago. The game took place at League Park, now called Headwaters Park, located between Calhoun and Clinton streets. A wooden structure was erected at the park in 1883. Rebuilt several times, the place received a major overhaul in 1908 with new grandstands and a grass infield. After the damage caused by the Great Flood of 1913, additional restoration was required. It was readied as a host park for semi-pro Central League teams, including the Lifers when they moved up to a minor league status.

That 1927 exhibition season, League Park’s grandstand was filled with more than 3,000 fans, occupying all sitting and standing room. Enthusiastic Fort Wayne fans streamed in, eager to witness high drama from Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the other Yankee legends. The fans were not disappointed, as they sensed Babe’s charge into the annals of American history.

headwaters
League Park, courtesy of ARCH Fort Wayne.

The regulation 9 innings were played.  The Lifers held the Yankees to a 3–3 tie in the 10th, with two out and a runner on first when “The Sultan of Swat,” another of Ruth’s appellations, came to the plate. He took two strikes and then in classic style belted the next pitch over the center field wall, landing on the roof of one of the city utility barns across Clinton Street. The hit enable the Yankees to defeat the Lifers 5-3. The stands emptied and adoring fans mobbed Babe.

babe and lou
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their 1927 barnstorming uniforms, courtesy of Sports Illustrated, accessed The Midwest League Traveler.

It has been said that the Bambino often referred to that blow as possibly the hardest hit ball of his career. According to John Ankenbruck, after citing the official long hits by Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, one sportswriter declared that, Ruth hit a longer one in Fort Wayne, according to the Bambino’s version.

After the 1927 season, Ruth went on a barn storming tour, playing again at League Park. He belted a ball over the left-centerfield fence and claimed that the ball landed in a freight car that was passing the park at the time. Local baseball historians are quick to note that, if true, the ball would have had to clear the fence then make a right angle, travel another 600 feet to land on the railroad tracks. Even so, 1927 was a banner year for Fort Wayne baseball and Babe Ruth was on hand to help make it a big hit.