The following article, Living Legend, by Todd Fertig, was first printed in the Kansas State Collegian on Jan. 25, 1991. The subject of this article, Negro League star George Giles, passed away on March 3, 1992. You can read the precursor to this article by clicking here.
Take a lesson on life from someone who knows. Forgive and forget. Don’t worry about things you have no control over. Enjoy life, rather than trying to interpret it.
It’s this kind of outlook that allows George Giles to laugh when he looks back on his 81 years. Scripture passages and adages about life, with an occasional “That ain’t no kinda thing” reaction, are Giles’ primary means of expression.
Giles’ gruff voice is nearly drowned by the constant banter of the card game at the only other table in the small tavern Giles operates.
“They are my regulars,” Giles said. “You treat other people right,” and they’ll treat you right.
“I didn’t even raise the price of beer when everyone else in town did,” he recalled with a smile.
Giles, like his tavern on the south side of Manhattan, is old, typical, one might almost say forgettable. But as one of Giles’ many quotations goes, “You don’t know me until you’ve walked a mile in my moccasins.”
Along one wall of the tavern are the reminders of where Giles has walked. They are the memoirs from 14 years of his life, which he says people today can not begin to imagine.
Giles is just one of a handful of men still living who played baseball in the Negro Leagues before blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues in 1947. From 1925 to 1939, beginning at the age of 15, Giles was a star first baseman in the Negro Leagues.
Giles has seen the best in baseball. He has seen the world. He has seen success. But most of all, he has seen hard living, and he has seen discrimination.
While the Babe Ruths and Dizzy Deans of his day became celebrities, the stars of the Negro Leagues lived the lives of barnstormers, playing in large stadiums one night and in cow pastures the next.
They made a meager living and traveled hard roads, but Giles said he treasures those memories and feels no bitterness over the discrimination.
“We never thought nothing of it,” Giles said. “That’s just the way it was then. Why go worryin’ about something you got no control over. You’d go crazy tryin’ to figure it out, so we just didn’t think nothing of it.”
Rather than feeling mistreated, Giles said he is thankful for the opportunities he received, and the lessons from baseball.
“If I’d had a different life, I might feel different, but there’s no use in cryin’ over spilled milk,” Giles said. “These guys play today for the money and the publicity, but in those days we played because we loved the game. You had to love it to put up with it all. But it was a better life than working out here on construction. It kept the home fires burning.”
Giles was raised in Manhattan by his grandmother and began playing baseball against grown men at a young age. By the age of 14, Giles was so talented he earned a spot with the Kansas City Monarchs in an amateur tryout.
It took the persuading of a white boyhood friend, Evan Griffith, to convince Giles’ grandmother to allow him to travel to Kansas City for the tryout.
“If it weren’t for Evan Griffith, I might never have gotten where I did. You know he must’ve done some talking, because I hadn’t ever been out of Manhattan,” Giles recalled with a laugh. “I took my own uniform and they thought I was pretty funny. I guess I looked like a hick or something.”
Giles’ knowledge of the game amounted to what he terms “country baseball,” but he impressed the Monarchs enough that they signed him on his 15th birthday to a contract worth $140 a month.
(note: Giles actually played for the Kansas City Royal Giants and Gilkerson’s Union Giants, teams not in the Negro National League, until he turned 18)
Giles attained as much stardom as the Negro Leagues would offer while playing for several teams in the league and barnstorming throughout the country and Central America.
He helped the St. Louis Stars win league championships in 1930 and 1931, and served as player/manager of the Brooklyn Eagles in 1935.
Not until the 1970s had the accomplishments of Negro League stars begun to be recognized by the major leagues and the Baseball Hall of Fame. A recent push for more Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame may help Giles gain the same honor given to such legends of the league as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and “Cool Papa,” Bell.
“They tell me I’ll make it, but we’ll just have to see how they vote,” Giles said. “In New York they used to call me the black Bill Terry (after the Hall-of-Fame first baseman of the New York Giants in the 1930s). I never could figure out why they didn’t call him the white George Giles.”
The Negro Leagues provided a decent living for Giles’ family in Manhattan and the opportunity to play the game he loved. But finally, in 1939, Giles tired of the travel and conditions of the league. While barnstorming with a team of white all-stars in Nebraska, Giles decided to retire.
“We were playing Dizzy Dean’s All-Stars in Holdrege, Nebraska,” Giles said. “They stayed in the best hotel in town and we had to stay in another town a ways away. They didn’t have showers and we had to change in the jailhouse in town. I said ‘I don’t need this bullshit.’ I made up my mind then to quit.”
“People didn’t understand why I was quitting, but they didn’t know anything about what it was like,” Giles said. “You couldn’t stay in hotels or shop in stores. Playing every day and traveling on buses. You get tired of that kind of life. You just got to try something else.”
Giles and the other remaining stars from the Negro League have recently been the attraction of autograph and publicity sessions to draw more attention to the league. Giles said he is pleased that the league is finally receiving some respect and believes it is important that more by done.
“We’re the only ones left to tell about it,” Giles said. “You’ve got to experience something to know what it’s like and we’re the only ones left. These were great players, but nobody knows about them.
“When people realize what you used to be, they recognize you as different, and that makes you feel good. But I don’t think nothing of it,” Giles said. “That was a long time ago and there’s a lot more important things in life.”
We could all learn a lot from someone like George Giles.