In the spring of 1907, a fascinating story appeared in the pages of the Santa Cruz Surf, one of the community’s three robust daily newspapers in that era, chronicling a baseball game played at the city’s popular athletic field, Vue de l’Eau, at the end of the streetcar line near the corner of Woodrow Avenue and West Cliff Drive.
“North Santa Cruz Team Defeated by Colored Nine,” the Surf headline proclaimed.
“An exciting game of baseball at the Vue de l’Eau diamond was held yesterday afternoon, and attracted quite a crowd,” the newspaper reported. “Bats were crossed by the North Santa Cruz nine, Earl Owens captain, and the colored nine, mainly made up of the shoe polishers about town, with Jack Harris as captain. They put up a good game, the colored team winning out by a score of 8 to 5.”
The “colored nine,” as it turned out, was a baseball team called the Santa Cruz Colored Giants, an all African-American (and sometimes Latino) squad that formed in Santa Cruz during the first decade of the 20th century.
Several weeks later, a game between the Santa Cruz All-Stars and Colored Giants was held again at Vue de l’Eau, where, according to the Surf, another “large crowd” gathered to see “the famous colored team struggle through nine acts of fitful spasms,” losing 14-10.
The following weekend, the Giants returned the favor to the All-Stars, defeating them 8-4. The account in the Surf noted that “Crubs, the colored pitcher, pitched good ball and never did he go astray.” However, the All-Stars’ pitcher, Al Amaya, “was hit freely” by the Colored Giants. “It seemed,” the Surf noted, “that the colored boys could slam the ball wherever they wanted it.”
Santa Cruz was a baseball-crazy town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Widely attended amateur and semi-professional games were staged not only out at Vue de l’Eau, but also at the community’s waterfront diamond, Dolphin Park, located at what is today the Santa Cruz Seaside Company’s main parking lot, located across Beach Street from the Boardwalk’s Casino Arcade.
In the late 1890s, the Santa Cruz Beachcombers (later to become the Sand Crabs) were a prominent team in the California State League that finished in second place during back-to-back seasons, in 1897 and 1898.
The Beachcombers featured an African-American mascot—13-year-old Edward Purse—who would grow up to be a fine baseball player, but who was not allowed to play on professional teams anywhere in the U.S. when he came of age. The so-called “color line,” which prevented African Americans from playing in professional baseball, was first established informally in the 1880s and 1890s, and was firmly enforced by the turn of the century in all of organized baseball, including here in Santa Cruz.
The “line” wasn’t crossed until Jackie Robinson famously crashed through it with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
In the face of this institutionalized racism, African-American baseball in the United States—often referred to as “Black Baseball,” “Colored Baseball,” or, later, the “Negro Leagues”—thrived on the margins of mainstream American society and formed a rich and dynamic cultural history of its own. In 1990, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was founded in Kansas City, Missouri, to commemorate this significant contribution of African-American players to baseball history.
As someone who has spent a good portion of his life chronicling Santa Cruz history—with a specific emphasis on baseball and working-class ethnic communities—I originally presumed that the idea of a local African-American baseball team in the early 20th century seemed something of an unlikelihood. But many years ago, the late Santa Cruz historian Phil Reader came across a clipping of the Santa Cruz Black Giants from 1908; a few months later, he came across another.
Reader—the author of To Know My Name: A Chronological History of African Americans in Santa Cruz County, and a friend—called me to tell me of his findings. We met. He handed me a copy of his small file, with his chicken-scratch notes written directly on it, and said something to the effect of “Have fun.”
For the next four decades, I came across little tidbits here and there related to the Black Giants, but nothing substantial. Two of my favorite Santa Cruz elders, Harold Van Gorder and my great uncle Malio Stagnaro, shared some colorful memories and photographs with me, and slowly the barest of outlines emerged.
Then, in just the past two years, with the advent of digitized newspaper searches, a new treasure trove of information became available. The various dots that I had assembled over the years in Reader’s well-worn file could finally be connected. A fascinating—and troubling—piece of Santa Cruz history gradually came to life.
In late April of 1908, the Black Giants scheduled a game against a Scotts Valley club for a Sunday game at Vue de l’Eau, where they dominated their opponents by a lopsided score of 20-6. While some of the racialized remarks in the local press were subtle, the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s coverage of this game was not.
Under a headline reading “Colored Boys Hot Ball Players,” the newspaper declared:
Cotton picking is not to be compared with the way in which the Santa Cruz colored team picked the Scotts Valley team at Vue de l’Eau Sunday, running up a score of 20 to 6.
The feature of the game was McEachen’s twirlers, which Scotts Valley found very hard to connect with. Any teams desiring games, should address Jack Harris, 214 Pacific Av[e].
The Evening News also made note of “McEachen’s twisters” in a single-sentence account of the game.
These references to “McEachen” marked the first such appearance of the name associated in print with the Colored Giants, and the pitcher must have been Isaac McEachen, then 25, and the son of Reverend Tink Arthur McEachen, the founding minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (A.M.E. Zion Church) in Santa Cruz.
Reverend McEachen arrived here in November of 1905 from Modesto; his family followed him from Hollister in 1906. According to the California Voter Registration of 1908, Isaac McEachen was listed as a laborer in Oakland, but it’s very possible that he came down to play in the games since his mother and father were still associated with the local church until 1909.
McEachen’s A.M.E. Zion Church, as it turned out, was the social hub of Santa Cruz’s black community during that era and formed the backbone of the Giants squad.
The local papers rarely listed the names of the Colored Giants in accounts of their games, but team captain Jack Harris (who scheduled the teams’ games) was a well-known figure in the Santa Cruz community. The 1900 Federal Census lists Harris, born in 1872 in South Carolina, as married, with two children; his occupation is listed as “boot black.” He also lived on Park Street with his mother, an ex-slave, who had been born in 1852.
In 1906, Harris was listed as singing in the Santa Cruz Male Quartet, featuring three other local African Americans—Will Brown, Lou Venable and Samuel Pulett. Harris also served as mascot for the Santa Cruz artillery band, which played summers at the beach.
In To Know My Name, Reader noted that brothers Louis and Floyd Berry both played on the Colored Giants. Born in 1889 in Ben Lomond (which had a small black community of lumberjacks and wood cutters during that era), Louis Berry was one of the most distinguished athletes and young scholars in the Monterey Bay region in the era preceding World War I.
By the mid-1900s, the Berrys had moved to Santa Cruz, where the Berry family is recorded in local newspapers as being active in the “newly organized African Methodist Church.” Both of the Berry parents, Charles and Sarah (“Sallie”), were identified as church officers; many of the other families associated with the team were also members of the congregation.
The 1910 Federal Census lists the Berrys as “mulattos.” Charles’ occupation was identified as a “cook” at a local restaurant. Also living at home were four other siblings of Louis, including his brother, Floyd, a year younger and also a gifted athlete.
The first public notice of Louis Berry in the local press appeared when he was 15 years old, in 1905, when it was noted that he performed a recitation of “Maid Bess” at the church’s Christmas proceedings.
In the fall of 1909, Louis Berry was named captain and fullback of the Santa Cruz High School football team, and in a front page story in the Sentinel, it was noted that Berry and Principal George A. Bond addressed an assembly of students on the “significance of the game.” In one account of the team, the Evening News noted: “The democratic spirit which prevails in high school athletics is shown by the fact that the captain [Louis] and one other member [Floyd] of the team are colored students.”
Louis Berry also played shortstop on the high school baseball team and, in track, he ran various dashes and held the league record in the high jump.
Younger brother Floyd Berry was also a gifted athlete; and, like his brother, he was a fine student who often performed in the community by presenting recitals and comedic routines. The Berrys’ uncle, Louis Venable, then 34, almost certainly played on the baseball team as well; he was also active in the A.M.E. Zion Church, sang with captain Harris and advertised himself in the local newspapers as an “expert shine artist and Janitor.” Venable later operated the popular lunch house “The Squeeze Inn,” known for its “Spanish dishes,” on Pacific Avenue from 1918-1920.
Also on the Colored Giants was Raymond Hunter, the same age as Louis Berry. In 1900, the Hunter family is listed in the Federal Census as living in Alisal in Monterey County, where Robert Hunter, Raymond’s father who had been born a slave in South Carolina, was listed as working as a janitor. In addition to his diamond skills, Hunter was a phenomenal track star, placing first in a high school meet in the 50, 100, 220 and 440-yard races, as well as in the high jump and shot put.
In spite of the social and economic limits imposed on them by Jim Crow racism, the Black Giants were clearly a vital (and apparently beloved) component of the local baseball scene during their brief run in Santa Cruz.
In the aftermath of Fourth of July celebrations in 1907, the Santa Cruz Surf carried headlines proclaiming “The Colored Team and Pedmontes [sic] to Cross Bats,” with the newspaper identifying the “Pedmontes” as “the undisputed champion baseball nine.” It proved to be an accurate description, as the Giants lost to the squad named for its star pitcher, Jack Pedemonte, 12-3.
The Surf’s coverage of the contest provided some insight into the financial backdrop of these games. Each team put up $2.50, with the combined purse of $5 going to the winners. The umpire for the game was identified as Thomas Alzina, a descendant of one of Branciforte’s earliest families. And while the Surf’s coverage identified every player (and their position) on the Pedemonte team, not a single player on the Colored Giants was named.
At the end of July, the Colored Giants played against the Watsonville Pippins in Watsonville. The Watsonville Pajaronian chronicled the contest with a headline, “The Black and Tan Baseball Game,” and asserted in a subhead that: “A Poor Article of the National Game Was Dished Up By Colored Visitors from the County Seat.”
The newspaper further described the Giants as “in reality a black and tan aggregation.” Several players who appeared on other local teams of either California or Southern European descent played for the Colored Giants team in this game. Pitching for the Giants was Al Amaya, a descendant of Branciforte’s Rodriguez and Amaya families, whose performance for the Colored Giants was highlighted in the Pajaronian.
In 1908, the Colored Giants scheduled games again in late winter and spring, though their coverage in the local press wasn’t as extensive as it had been the year before. In March, they played against a strong local club calling themselves the Crescents that included Jack Alzina at shortstop.
The game was played at Vue de l’Eau Park, according to the Evening News, with the Crescents defeating “the crack colored team in a ten-inning game by a score of 12-11. The feature of the game was the heavy stick work of the Crescents. Martin [Silva] rapped the ball to right field for a home run, and Ernest Rodriguez pitched a good game for the Crescents.”
In June, the Giants staged a slugfest with a Santa Cruz team billing itself as the “White Rats,” which had previously lost to teams from Soquel and Scotts Valley by large margins that spring. No names of players were listed in any of the newspaper accounts of the games. On June 8, the Surf registered a headline: “Colored Team Defeated,” noting that “the famous Colored Giants met defeat at the hands of the White Rat team on the Vue de l’Eau diamond Sunday afternoon. Both teams played poor ball, but the White Rats maintained a lead throughout the entire game, easily winning by a score of 26 to 15.”
It was the last game played by the Colored Giants ever to be reported in the local press.
After the Berry brothers and their various teammates completed high school, there is no further record of African-American baseball teams playing in Santa Cruz County until 1914. In January of that year, it was announced that the most celebrated black ball clubs from the east would be traveling to Santa Cruz—the Chicago American Giants, managed by the legendary Andrew “Rube” Foster, one of the greatest pitchers, managers, and executives in Negro League history.
By late January, articles announcing a West Coast tour by the American Giants appeared in newspapers across the country. In early February, the Evening News reported that the Giants would be appearing “on the coast about March 1,” declaring that “the negroes are of big league caliber and are said to be better than the Coast league teams.”
Three weeks later, the schedule was set. The Evening News reported that “the Chicago American Giants, the greatest colored team in America, will meet the Portland Coast League team at Bush League Park [located on the lower grounds of present-day Santa Cruz High School], Tuesday March 24 … The Giants, after defeating every club played during 1912, set up a record eclipsing anything yet performed by any baseball club and have the reputation of traveling farther than any individual baseball club in the world.”
The American Giants’ tour generated national controversy. Organized baseball’s “color line” was still strictly enforced in Jim Crow America, even in the less rigid Pacific Coast League (PCL). In 1913, the American Giants had made a similar tour west, winning five out of six games against the Portland Beavers. Coverage of their tour contained numerous racial slurs, not the least of which was a Giants pitcher being referenced in headlines of the San Francisco Call as a “Big Smoke Twirler,” while the team was dubbed the “Dusky American Giants.”
The following year, shortly after the Giants’ West Coast swing was announced, the Call stirred up racial controversy by noting that “some of the magnates and officials” of the PCL were “bitterly opposed” to Portland playing games against “the dusky tossers.”
In spite of the racially infused acrimony, the game in Santa Cruz was played as scheduled. More than 1,000 fans—“one of the largest crowds that ever attended a week-day game at Bush League Park,” according to the Evening News—showed up to witness the contest between the American Giants and Portland.
Portland won the game 6-2—it’s speculated that the Giants might have “went easy” during a few games on the tour—but local fans witnessed some of the greatest Negro League stars who ever played the game.
The Evening News included a full box score in its lengthy account of the game, and the Giants’ line-up that day included four future Hall of Famers (and a fifth, in Foster as their manager), most notably John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, also known as “El Cuchara” (The Spoon), widely considered one of the greatest shortstops of all time and viewed by Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player to ever take the field. Lloyd banged out three hits in the game and served as the pivot on a double play.
Also in the lineup for the Giants were future Hall of Famers “Smokey Joe” Williams (widely considered the best Negro league pitcher of his day), center fielder John Preston “Pete” Hill, and first baseman Ben Taylor.
The American Giants went on to play a game against Portland the following day in Watsonville, where the legendary Foster took the mound. For the first five innings, Foster pitched shutout baseball (he “made the Portland bunch eat out of his hand,” according to the News account), before allowing four runs in the sixth, with Portland ultimately winning the game 6-5.
World War I marked a dividing line in local African-American history, particularly with respect to black baseball. There were obviously racial restrictions on employment opportunities in Santa Cruz during this era, as African-American men worked primarily as bootblacks, cooks, and laborers.
In To Know My Name, Phil Reader noted the following:
During this 25 year period [from 1916-1941], the attitude of Santa Cruzans toward its African American citizens did an about face. Up to this point in history it had been a tolerant community throwing up few, if any, roadblocks into the path of their Negro brothers. Now, however, bigotry became a policy in many quarters as blacks were banned or discriminated against at local hotels, road houses and inns….Finding housing and jobs became an impossible task, so many Negro families left the area in anger and discouragement.
In spite of his varied talents as a scholar-athlete at Santa Cruz High, Louis Berry, who played for the Colored Giants a decade earlier, worked as a bootblack downtown. A 1916 article in the Evening News headlined “New Shoe-Shining Parlor for Santa Cruz Women” also noted: “The Walsh-Mellot shoe company will have the addition of an up-to-date ladies’ shoe polishing parlor conducted under the direction of Wilbur Hayes. Louis Berry will be employed in this department.”
Berry also sang in local ensembles the Harmony Boys and the Jolly Trio. But the first global “war to end all wars” provided him with opportunities that were not available to him in his hometown. In October of 1918, a headline in the Evening News declared “Berry is Lieutenant,” with the accompanying notice: “Louis Berry, a former Santa Cruz lad, who attended high school and was so prominent in athletics, is now 2nd lieutenant and stands a fine chance of being promoted to first. Ambitious and energetic, this colored boy never let a chance slip by that would mean progress.”
There was no place, apparently, for him to direct his ambition and energy in Santa Cruz.
By the 1920s, the number of local African Americans of baseball-playing age had dwindled significantly. The Federal Census of 1920 reveals that several members of the Berry family moved to Oakland. Floyd Berry died in San Francisco in 1952 after running a shoeshine stand in the city for many years. Raymond Hunter and several of his siblings moved to Salinas, where he also ran a shoeshine business.
As for Louis Berry—the young man heralded as both an athlete and scholar during his days at Santa Cruz High and later described by the Sentinel as “ambitious and energetic”—lived out the remainder of his life throughout California, where he first joined his brother Floyd in the shoeshine business in the East Bay.
The 1920 census lists him as living in Los Angeles and working as a laborer in a garage. By 1930, he was back in the Bay Area, employed as a hotel janitor and residing in a boarding house on Sixth Street, in the South of Market district of San Francisco. A decade later, the 1940 census identifies him as a “window washer” living in the multi-ethnic residential Livermore Hotel on Harrison Street in San Francisco, inhabited entirely by older single men. By then, his racial identification in the census had been changed from “mulatto” to “negro.”
Louis Berry lived long enough to see Jackie Robinson cross baseball’s so-called “color line” in 1947, though not quite long enough to see the New York Giants move to his adopted city. He died in San Francisco on April 17, 1956, and is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. His headstone inscription reads simply: “California, 2nd Lieutenant, 164 Depot Brigade, World War I.”
There is no mention of his career as a baseball player in Santa Cruz. •
Geoffrey Dunn is the author of Santa Cruz is in the Heart and Images of America: Sports of Santa Cruz County. An earlier version of this story appeared in Do You Know My Name?: History Journal No. 8, published by the Museum of Art and History and dedicated to the memory of Phil Reader.