It’s 1886. You’re a professional baseball player; young, just hitting your prime.
You’re a pitcher, and quite a good one at that. By age eighteen, you’re playing for a semi-pro team. By age 20, you’re in the pros with a minor-league team. By the end of the next year, you’ve won a total of 50 games and allowed less than two runs every nine innings in the process of doing so.
You’re now twenty-one, a pro athlete and at the top of your game. And you’re black.
Most of us wouldn’t give that a second thought, but this is 2016 and this sort of thing is hardly worth a second thought. The irony is that, in 1887, which is where we now find ourselves in this little trip down Memory Lane, it really hadn’t been an issue until then. I say “until then” because from the time immediately after the Civil War until that particular year, black and white players often played on the same team. Yes, black players still faced many of the same societal roadblocks off the field but, while they were on that ball diamond, it didn’t matter in many regions of the country. “Until” can signify considerable or abrupt change.
In this case, it most certainly was. George Stovey would likely speak to that matter if we were able to ask him.
Stovey was born in May of 1866 to Phoebe Johnson; his biological father is unknown, at least to the US Census. In 1870, he was living in Loyalsock, Pennsylvania, which would be where he would spend his formative years. His father Henry (presumed to be step-father) worked as a general laborer to support the family. It seems that mastery of the game came quite soon to the young George, but perhaps paradoxically he was said to have been so excited to play for a local semi-pro team that he offered to care for their field simply to be allowed to play. He was six foot tall and most certainly taller than many other players of the time, as reaching that height one hundred years ago would be somewhat akin to 6’5” in the present day (average height at that time would be closer to 5’5”-6”). Highly athletic and quick, he in all likelihood would have performed well as an outfielder, but it was “in the box” that he found his calling. Generally known as a curveballing artist, Stovey was as likely to strike out an opposing batsman as he was to induce a ground ball and simply glide to cover first for the out. In short, he was an accomplished hurler and seemed to be a shoe-in for the pro ranks.
Around that same time (1885, to be precise), a man named Frank P. Thompson formed his own team of colored players. Called the “Cuban Giants”, Thompson prided himself on fielding arguably the finest black team of his age. Rightly so, as the Cuban Giants would on regular occasion defeat or simply dominate the opposition; indeed, the Cuban Giants remained so for almost two decades.
On June 21st, 1886, Stovey would pitch his only game for the Cuban Giants. He lost that game, 4-3, but the devil is in the details: he struck out 11, walked 3 and gave up only 4 hits in the game. On top of this, the catcher dropped what should have been the third and final strike of the game, allowing the eventual winning run to reach base and score after a steal and two errors. Nevertheless, this game was small potatoes for Stovey, as he soon after was induced to join Jersey City in the professional Eastern League. Later that summer, Stovey would face the Cuban Giants in exhibitions twice, with scores of 8-4 and 4-2, respectively. He would finish the season with a record of 16-15, and an ERA of 1.13 with 203 strikeouts.
1887 was his second year in the league (his first full season), though he was then playing for the Newark Little Giants in the newly-named International League. By this time, New York’s own Giants had been showing interest in purchasing Stovey’s contract, along with that of a lesser-known catcher named Moses “Fleet” Walker, thereby forming the first known African-American battery in the professional ranks. Walker had, in 1884, become the first African-American player in what was then considered the Major Leagues, playing with the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association. It was in this season of his career that both Stovey and Walker would face a moment that would affect both their careers and their lives, permanently.