Book Review: "The Chicago American Giants"

Author Paul DeBono summarizes the intent of his book, The Chicago American Giants in one sentence. "A goal of this book is to collect in one place the important facts about the Chicago American Giants and to chronicle the life of the organization from its roots in the late nineteenth century until its gradual demise in the 1950s."

Sometimes you find a book that enlightens in ways you don't expect. Maybe even in way the author didn't expect. Such is the case with "The Chicago American Giants" (McFarland 2007), a 249-page study of the famous black baseball team by Paul Debono. Previously (1997) the author of a McFarland book on the equally-accomplished Indianapolis ABCs, Debono's primary goal with this book appears to be twofold – a history of one of the nation's premier baseball teams in the sport's segregation era, and a tribute to the man most closely identified with the American Giants, the remarkable Andrew "Rube" Foster.

As Debono states in his Introduction, "A goal of this book is to collect in one place the important facts about the Chicago American Giants and to chronicle the life of the organization from its roots in the late nineteenth century until its gradual demise in the 1950s." However, in doing so, it's inevitable that Debono will also tell the story of Rube Foster, the African-American Christy Mathewson, John McGraw/Connie Mack and Ban Johnson all rolled into one. Now, it's possible that Debono did not set out to write a paean to Foster, especially since there have been at least two full-length Foster biographies (Robert Cottrell's from 2004 and a 1980 work by Charles Whitehead) already written. And indeed, Debono states in the Introduction that this book is not a Foster biography. On the other hand, just before the above-referenced statement, Debono also says, "Rube Foster's career and life story is intrinsically bound with the history of the American Giants." Thus, what we have is approximately 128 pages of Rube Foster and 121 pages of Life After Rube.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Given the importance of the Father of Black Baseball, and the fact that his story really isn't all that well known except among early black baseball experts, there's no harm in Debono giving us a lagniappe as far as Rube's role in the American Giants, the early years of black baseball, and the founding of the Negro National League.

If Foster was such a seminal figure in the game in the early 20th Century, why is his story so little known? That answer is directly connected to another unexpected aspect of "The Chicago American Giants." For those who have studied mid-19th Century baseball, the similarities between the professional game as it developed from the 1860s to say the 1880s, and black baseball as it developed in the years from about 1900 to 1930 (roughly Rube's span on influence) is undeniable. The histories of both games in those eras are short on facts, long on legend, and both rely on often unreliable accounts, including sketchy newspaper coverage, a lack of accurate records, and a lack of accurate statistics. In addition, both games were a little, shall we say, unsettled. Players jumping contracts, players jumping leagues, players generally coming and going, teams coming and going, leagues coming and going, for that matter. In short, researching early white professional baseball and early black professional baseball is a daunting task, one not for amateurs.

Thus, Debono's finest accomplishment is not his writing (which verges on a shrill tone at times, not that the conditions of that era lived under weren't extremely difficult) of "The Chicago American Giants," but the research that went into the book. To pick out a single example that is probably news to a large number of Debono's readers… did you know that famed basketball (Harlem Globetrotters and New York Knicks) star Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton played first base for the American Giants in 1949? And, it wasn't a gimmick, like the exhibition games back in the 1890s that featured heavyweight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett as a pitcher (no hit batters rushed the mound in those games). Clifton could really play baseball.

Consequently, the most informative part of the book is not pages 5 to 173 – the main part of the narrative – but the two appendices, that contain a Who's Who of the American Giants (wherein Sweetwater appears), and what is probably the most complete Game Log ever assembled of any single team from black baseball's formative years. Having personally written a 19th Century baseball book for McFarland a few years ago, and having added a limited Who's Who as the second half of the book at the publishers' request, it's easy to state that these biographical dictionaries are both of great interest and great value to the reader, not a small consideration when dealing with an era that is still somewhere between Almost Forgotten and Never Known.

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