Meeting A Negro League Legend
Historical research and the proliferation of information on the internet has allowed today’s baseball fan to learn more about the Negro Leagues than in times past. But in 1991, my knowledge of Negro League baseball didn’t go much further than the movie Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars.
So when I was told that a former Negro Leaguer was living right there in my college town of Manhattan, KS, I didn’t have much opportunity to research his career. Little did I know that George Giles, living right under our noses, was one of the best players of his era.
I heard he ran a bar that sat in isolation on the south side of Manhattan. To call it a “bar” was a real stretch, however. There were hardly any tables or chairs in the one room where George’s bartending consisted of pulling bottles out of a refrigerator. There was no sign to speak of – if you hadn’t known the bar was there, you’d never have found it. On the porch sat one seat removed from a van – a nice enough spot for an old black man to watch the cars go by.
Today I can appreciate that George Giles was named the sixth-best first baseman in the history of Negro League baseball by the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. (Buck O’Neil was fourth on the list.) He was often called “the black Bill Terry,” which I guess is supposed to be a compliment. Reports from various peers called Giles an excellent fielder, a fast runner and solid contact hitter.
Giles starred on Negro League teams in both Kansas City and St. Louis. Born in Junction City, KS, his career began with a tryout with the famed Kansas City Monarchs when he was just 14. Deemed too young to play on the big club, Giles signed a contract on his 15th birthday, but first suited up for the minor league Kansas City Royal Giants in 1925. He joined the Monarchs at the age of 18, playing the 1927 and 1928 seasons in KC.
Giles joined the St. Louis Stars for 1930 and 1931, helping that team win back-to-back Negro National League pennants. He also suited up for the Monarchs from 1932-1934 and again in 1939. In the days of player stealing, barnstorming and winter league excursions, Giles bounced around with several teams all over the nation. In 1935, at just 25, he served as player/manager for the Brooklyn Eagles.
Giles retired from baseball in 1939, at just 30 years of age. He said in interviews that the hardships of the Negro Leagues and the irritation of racism forced him to give up the game at a relatively young age. Giles didn’t sugarcoat the discrimination that kept him out of the major leagues. He told David Craft, author of The Negro Leagues: 40 Years of Black Professional Baseball in Words and Pictures:
“The racism we faced while I was in the Negro Leagues was one of the things that eventually pushed me out of baseball…. I was treated like a second-class citizen in my own country by people who knew they hated me before I could even say ‘Hello’
“People say to me, ‘George, you were born too soon to be one of the ones to make it to the big leagues’…. [But] I was born in the United States of America. I’m an American, not a foreigner. For years, foreigners came here and had more opportunity than I had”
Upon giving up the game, Giles worked in the civil service at Fort Riley, KS for years, and operated a hotel as well as the bar in Manhattan. Along the way, he had four sons, one of whom, George, Jr., played minor league baseball from 1953 to 1955.
Though racism denied George Giles, Sr. the chance to play in the major leagues, he did have the satisfaction of seeing his grandson, Brian Giles, play against the best players regardless of race for six seasons in the 1980s, primarily with the New York Mets. A slick-fielding, light-hitting middle infielder, Brian Giles was born in Manhattan in 1960 to George Giles, Jr.
The elder Giles died on March 3, 1992. But in January of 1991, fortunately for me, an unenlightened 21-year-old college student, I had the chance to meet him at his humble bar.
The article that came from that meeting was printed in the Kansas State Collegian on Jan. 25, 1991 and will be reprinted in I-70baseball.com later this month as part of our ongoing look at Negro League Baseball in honor of Black History Month.