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Lugnuts honor dominant Page Fence Giants

Lansing will continue to pay homage to successful 1890s squad
The Giants were inducted into the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame in June, and the Lugnuts wore historically accurate jerseys in their honor. (courtesy Lansing Lugnuts)
@Steph_Sheehan
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The Page Fence Giants only existed for four years, but they were one of the most dominant Black baseball teams of all time. Founded in 1894 in Adrian, Michigan, by Bud Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson because of the color barrier, the Giants won over 100 games in each

The Page Fence Giants only existed for four years, but they were one of the most dominant Black baseball teams of all time.

Founded in 1894 in Adrian, Michigan, by Bud Fowler and Grant “Home Run” Johnson because of the color barrier, the Giants won over 100 games in each of their four seasons, including a run of 82 consecutive victories in 1897. The team was sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company, whose white ownership primarily used the team as a marketing tool.

There is very little documented history about the club. But the Lansing Lugnuts, Oakland’s High-A affiliate, wants to keep the Giants’ legacy fresh in the memories of baseball fans.

On June 19, 2021, the Page Fence Giants were inducted into the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Lugnuts donned historically accurate jerseys in the team’s honor. The club later auctioned off those jerseys, with proceeds benefiting Hamtramck Stadium in Hamtramck, Michigan, one of five remaining Negro League stadiums in the country.

“[The uniforms] looked so good that night, coming out on the field and seeing people … we did the auction up on the concourse and people being able to get up close and personal to [the uniforms] was such a great experience. Everything just fell into place that night,” Lugnuts assistant GM Greg Kigar said. "Just to get to the night, it was fun learning everything about the Giants. I had a few players ask how often they could wear the uniform because it stood out."

The Page Fence Giants, a Black barnstorming team established by Bud Fowler (not pictured).

Though the legacy of the Giants has faded in the ensuing years, they were wildly successful in their day. They traveled around the Midwest and Canada and faced off against amateur, Minor League and semi-professional teams with relative ease. They even played two contests against the Cincinnati Reds, though they lost both, 11-7 and 16-2. In their four-year run, the Giants won 87 percent of their games.

“They could go into a farm community of 200 to 300 residents and draw 2,000 to 3,000 fans,” Mitch Lutzke, a Michigan high-school history teacher and the author of “The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball's Pioneering Champions," explained to the Lugnuts back in June. “People came from all around. They were known, at least in the early years, of dressing up in red fireman’s hats, bicycling on Monarch bicycles and kind of pied-piping through the town and announcing, ‘Follow us to the ballpark today.’”

Fowler, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021, was the first Black player in organized professional baseball. He managed, organized and played for multiple teams throughout his career. In putting together the Giants, he sought out intelligent and upstanding men, some of whom attended college -- which was just about unheard of for most Americans in the 1890s.

The Giants traveled around in a lavish 60-foot-long railroad touring car that was outfitted with a bathroom, an office, a kitchen and an area for dining, sleeping and sitting that could sleep up to 20, according to NLBPA.com. The car served a dual purpose -- it helped advertise the team and the company while avoiding the issue of segregated restaurants and hotels.

The Giants traveled between towns on a 60-foot rail car equipped with beds and a kitchen. NLBPA.com

“In some communities, they were mistreated horribly. People threw things at them and said every word you could imagine,” Lutzke said. “Just the idea that they endured through this racially charged time of Jim Crow … and the Klan is around as well in many of these communities in the Midwest. If you’re embarrassing the local yokels too much, your exit from the community won’t be as smooth as you want. I think people downplay that. They had to do some coping skills if they were blowing out teams. There was that racial animosity going on in communities around the Midwest and Canada that they had to step across those landmines while they’re playing the sport that they love.”

Perhaps the club’s most famous bout took place in 1896, when they played a 15-game series with the Cuban X-Giants to unofficially determine the best team in Black baseball. The Page Fence Giants won in convincing fashion, 10-5.

“Originally, the series was going to be 12 games. Then it went to 14, then it went to 15, then it went to 17, then it went to 19, because they kept drawing crowds,” Lutzke said. “They traveled around Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, and they played games. This was like a traveling Black World Series in Black baseball."

But even though the series proved to be a big draw, not everyone took it seriously.

“There was this postseason letter writing in several national magazines, including the Sporting News, about well, the Cuban X-Giants lost because they were the older guys with a bunch of charley horses," Lutzke said. "It was captured by the national media. You could get game snippets about most of the games in the media in the Midwest at the time, so it was a well-known event going on at this time."

The Page Fence Giants played their first game on April 9, 1895. Fowler, who manned second base and helped manage the club, left that August following a dispute with team management. He joined an integrated team based in Adrian -- the Demons of the low-level Michigan State League -- a team that Honus Wagner played for during a three-week period in 1895. Also on that team was 19-year-old southpaw George Wilson, a fireballer who posted a 29-4 record and hit .327 for the Demons before the Michigan State League was dissolved the following year as baseball’s color barrier became more widely implemented. They were some of the last Black players to participate in organized baseball before 1946.

At 19, George Wilson pitched for the integrated Adrian Demons in the Michigan State League. Lansing Lugnuts

The Giants disbanded after the 1898 season and John W. Patterson, an infielder who went on to become the first Black police officer in Battle Creek, Michigan, helped reorganize the team into the Chicago Columbia Giants for two years before the team merged with the Chicago Unions in 1901. The franchise eventually became the Chicago American Giants, one of the most dominant teams in Black baseball between the 1910s and 30s under the management and baseball prowess of Rube Foster.

“They were the best of the best of the ballplayers,” Lutzke said. “There’s no doubt about that. They were stellar athletes who were banned due to racism in baseball at the time.”

Notable players included Sol White, who replaced Fowler at second base in July 1985 after his integrated Minor League team in Indiana disbanded and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 for his work as a player, manager, executive and baseball writer; Charlie Grant, a future X-Giant, who replaced White at second in 1896 and nearly crossed the color line in 1901 when legendary manager John McGraw tried to pass him off as a Native American; and Billy Holland, a talented singer who belted tunes on the field during games.

An advertisement card for the Page Fence Giants baseball team, circa 1896. Lansing Lugnuts

Some players played sparingly but had strong local ties. One of those was William Wendell Gaskin, a substitute who only got into a few games but was believed to be born in Lansing.

“Gaskin was the full-time chef who cooked food for the players in the first two years," Lutzke said. "He pitched in a couple of games -- not too well, in at least one of them -- but he’s a direct Lansing connection to the Page Fence Giants club.”

That link remains very important to the Lugnuts, who plan to continue wearing the Page Fence jerseys each season in light of Minor League Baseball’s “The Nine” initiative focused on outreach and celebration of the impact of Black baseball pioneers.

“[Page Fence Giants Night] was special,” said Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, who played a major role in organizing the event. “The players loved how they looked, they loved the uniforms and the history of this dominant team, a team that meant something. ... There’s this great significance beyond, ‘We’re honoring a really great Black professional baseball team that deserves to be remembered.’ ... I would argue it was our best night of the year. That was just a fun night.”

The club will continue celebrating the Giants’ roots this season with a bobblehead depicting Bud Fowler in his Page Fence Giants uniform.

“We’re rolling out the bobblehead, we’re keeping the uniforms, so every year we’ll kind of immerse ourselves further into this and push forward as much as we can to grow this and make this a yearly thing,” said Lugnuts assistant GM Zac Clark. “From the uniform standpoint, that was a bit of a game-changer, not only for the visual side of it, but for the landscape of what we were trying to accomplish on this night. Not just telling the story, but taking a step further and bringing it back to life. ... It probably was surprising to us to see how successful [the Page Fence Giants] were, and then realizing that nobody knows this story.”

With the help of local historians and the Black community, Lansing plans to continue honoring the legacy of Bud Fowler, the Page Fence Giants and the history of baseball in Michigan.

"The story of the Page Fence Giants is so little-known. It really blows my mind," Clark said, who is thrilled that the Lugnuts can be a vehicle for sharing that heritage with the world.

Stephanie Sheehan is a contributor to MiLB.com.