Image courtesy McFarland Publishing and Mitch Lutzke
McFarland earlier this year published “The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball’s Pioneering Champions,” by Mitch Lutzke, an exhaustive, very thoroughly researched volume about the Page Fence Giants, the talent-laden, all-black baseball club based in Adrian, Mich., in the 1890s. Sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company and gathering together the cream of the crop of the nation’s best African-American players and managers.
For several fleeting but shining seasons, the Page Fence Giants fielded a squad that was the equal of just about any other team, black or white, in the Midwest. Both athletically and entrepreneurially trailblazing, the Giants come alive with Lutzke’s stellar book. Like many McFarland baseball-themed releases, the tome is extremely detailed and chronicles just about every moment of the team’s brief existence.
However, from those minute details Lutzke teases out the team’s larger place in American history, placing it in the context of such landmark social, political and cultural events as the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court case, the recruitment of America’s young men for the Spanish-American War, the birth of the Progressive political movement, the Gilded Age, and the tumultuous economy and Long Depression of the late 19th century. Absolutely check this book out.
As the Lansing State Journal‘s Ray Walsh put it earlier this year, “The well-designed 264-page trade paperback turns back the clock over 120 years, showcasing a wide variety of information and history relating to the one of America’s best baseball teams.”
Below is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted last week with Mitch:
Author Mitch Lutzke (right) with friend Mike Neal sporting replica Page Fence Giants jerseys (photo courtesy Mitch Lutzke).
Ryan Whirty: What inspired you to research and write this book? How did you come across the subject of the Page Fence Giants?
Mitch Lutzke: I basically stumbled upon the team. To make a long story short, I was researching for a history book about where I live in Michigan. I came across a story of Lansing, Mich., organizing a minor league team in the Michigan State League in 1895. As Williamston (where I live and teach) is about 17 miles to the east, we were also caught up in the “baseball fever” of the time.
A local group of Williamston businessmen [in the 19th century] organized a baseball association and staged games between amateurs and professionals in a hastily erected ballpark. They mentioned a Bill Binga (who was a black ball player from Lansing at the time), who they eventually hired that summer to play as a local ringer in a game. They also mentioned trying to get the Page Fence Giants to play a game in town. I simply wrote that team name on a sticky note and put it in a large file on 1895 area baseball.
I wrote the chapter on baseball [in the history book he was researching] and about some bad blood between Williamston and nearby Mason and humorous and slanderous accusations against the people in both towns — all over baseball games in 1895!
After the history book was published in October 2014, I was reviewing my files and came across the Page Fence Giants sticky note. When a search on the Internet turned up very little (or at least enough to satisfy me), I thought maybe they might be a subject of my third book. But, I was also considering other topics, so it was just one of several topics I was considering.
I then blindly emailed several people involved in the history of black baseball and asked them what they thought about a book on the Page Fence Giants. I got unanimous support, but not much information. I drove to the Lenawee County Museum in Adrian, hoping and expecting volumes of material. There was a small file with a few articles and that was it. Using that as the back drop, I figured it was time for someone to write about the Giants and that guy was me. And, now in 2018, here we are with the first book ever on these championship gentlemen.
RW: How challenging was it to compile all the information contained in the book? What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced while researching and writing?
ML: The research was the hardest part. There was no previous book to help. Sol White‘s black baseball book in 1907 only made a passing reference to the Giants, even though he played second base from June to October in 1895 on the team. [Robert] Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White” has, I believe, two paragraphs on the team, [and] a couple of magazine articles here and there, was about what I began with.
So, naively thinking a black championship team (they won the 1896 “colored” baseball title) would have many stories, I only had to find them. Boy, was I wrong. I began by reading The Sporting News on microfilm, courtesy of my SABR membership. Well, I expected entire stories on the Giants. Not so. There were only two or three I think in the years I read TSN, from the spring of 1894 to the spring of 1899.
So, I had to find teams and leagues they were playing in white baseball and hope to find a sentence here or there. Reading each edition of [TSN column] “Caught on the Fly” was also helpful. I then was able to use and index and search modes for the Sporting Life, which saved time on that magazine.
But, I estimated 200 hours of reading of those two national publications, before I began the microfilm reading of Midwestern newspapers. Unlike today, when you have multi-paragraph stories, back in the 1890s, a four-sentence story was a lengthy deal. I mostly came across lines such as, “Wilson struck out 12 as the Giants won 8-0. A good crowd in Hudson,” or something like that. Then, I would locate the Hudson paper and so on.
The two Adrian, Mich., dailies covered the team in 1894 when [the Giants] organized to a great extent and into early 1895. But when the mostly white Adrian Demons joined the Michigan State League that same spring, the two papers focused the bulk of their coverage on the white team — though black players George Wilson and Vasco Graham played all year with the Demons. Four other black players joined the Demons that summer as substitutes, but their play wasn’t really highlighted.
By 1897 and 1898, the Adrian coverage [of the Giants] was almost non-existent at times, so I had to locate their out of town games. And no, a master schedule was never published in any of the four years in newspapers I could ever find. A big hurdle was that the media was white-owned and -operated, and that hindered what was covered and how the players and the team were discussed in print.
RW: Did you uncover anything unexpected or surprising about the Giants? What were some of your favorite finds along the way?
ML: Well, their famous winning streaks were not accurate. The team business manager, Gus Parsons, discounted games that were not “fairly” umpired and threw out those losses as no-contests. I was surprised at how the interracial ownership group of Len Hoch, Howard and Rolla Taylor, team sponsor J. Wallace Page of the Page Woven Wire Fence Company, and black superstar players [like] the iconic Bud Fowler and teen shortstop Grant “Home Run” Johnson, combined forces to create this all-star team.
It seemed that nearly every day I found something new about the team — the palatial train car, and the two hired men who were employed to cook, porter and barber for the players was interesting. Gus Brooks collapsing in a game in 1895 and dying a few hours later was interesting and tragic.
The fan’s reception from town to town was interesting to see, as to how 1890s America handled race, competition and business during that era. The entire town of Adrian fascinated me, as the city’s No. 1 employer would decide [the Giants’] most public marketing tool would consist of a group of black men playing baseball. I have individual files on each player and became a fan of each of them. I could go on and on.
RW: The Page Fence Giants are fairly well known within the Negro Leagues community, but do you feel the general public knows much about the landmark ball club? How do you hope this book can help bring the Giants’ story to the larger public?
ML: OK, I am going to disagree with your first premise. I felt that I didn’t find that many people at the Jerry Malloy [conference] who knew much about the team or had even heard of them. Most adults and kids in my classroom know about Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues, but that was about it.
As far as spreading the word about the Giants, the book is a start. But, it took, what, 120 years or so for someone to write about them? So the interest must not have been there, I guess.
I want to add, while in my research stage, an Adrian College film instructor, Michael Neal, contacted me when he heard I was writing a book about the team. He ended up producing a film about Bud Fowler, and I am interviewed throughout the thing. It was just recently put up on Amazon Prime Video, so I hope that helps get the word out about the Giants, too. I hope my book gets Bud Fowler into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but that is probably another story for another time.
RW: The book does a really good job of placing the Giants’ creation, rise, success and decline within the larger social, political and cultural forces both in Michigan and across the country. How do the Giants fit into the larger tapestry of baseball history and American history?
ML: Thanks for that compliment and observation. My initial goal was to write a baseball book about America in the 1890s and using the Page Fence Giants as the main characters, if that makes any sense, as opposed to a baseball book geared toward baseball nerds and stat heads. I want this book to fill in a void in American history that dealt with the increase in leisure time of workers, the Gilded Age, race relations, sports, etc.
I think the team can be crucial in understanding the forces — and some competing ones at that — as America was trying to become an international power while trying to push progressive values, while coming up against Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson. As a high school history teacher, my role in the classroom is to try and weave a narrative — both good and bad — about the development of our great country.
In a narrower sense, the baseball community needs to take a closer look at Fowler, George Wilson and Grant Johnson’s overall contributions, and their inclusion in the Hall of Fame should be given another look, in my opinion.
RW: If there’s one major theme, lesson or message you want readers to learn and take away from reading this book, what would it be?
ML: Wow. Great question. I think on the surface, the ability of both white and black people to play, compete, earn money and peacefully exist in a sometimes complex world. But, I also don’t think we need another book on U.S. Grant or Abe Lincoln, really. I would like for historians to look for untold stories, no matter how below-the-surface or initially trivial, or off the beaten trail — or ignored, in the Page Fence Giants instance — to weave a tapestry of our country’s history, warts and all, to the general public.
I also think the role of sports and especially baseball and the huge role it played in de-segregating our country is largely forgotten today. I don’t think it was by accident when Jackie was signed to a pro contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, President Harry Truman signs an order to integrate the U.S. military in 1948. Baseball played a powerful role in America for many decades, and I hope my book will remind people of its role in advancing our society.