Decision to elevate Negro Leagues could enhance legacy of Manhattan's George Giles

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May 29—George Giles got a taste of major-league hospitality just once, decades after his baseball career had ended.

It was 1989, and the Kansas City Royals were honoring Giles and some other Negro Leagues players. Giles, who grew up in Manhattan, had spent five seasons of his 14-year career with the Kansas City Monarchs. He was regarded as one of the best of his time: an all-star first baseman, strong hitter and lightning-fast runner.

The team treated the men to a weekend of cocktail parties, autograph signings, a banquet, a tour of the stadium, and a formal recognition before a game. They spent time with Bo Jackson. The Royals gave Giles some gifts, including a watch with his name engraved on it. He told the Manhattan Mercury at the time that he already had a watch and wasn't sure what to do with the new one.

And then there was the lodging: a swanky new hotel at Crown Center. Giles had stayed in nice places before, but he thought this one was top-notch.

"Beautiful!" said Giles, who died in 1992. "I mean big league, big league. Something to behold."

It must have seemed a far cry from the types of places Giles had stayed as a Black player in the segregated America of the 1920s and '30s.

"We couldn't stay in hotels; we couldn't eat in restaurants," he said in a 1981 article first printed in Alliance, the Kansas State University minority affairs newsletter. "In cities, there were usually Negro hotels. In smaller towns, we would stay in family houses: two players here, two players there. Sometimes they'd fix us a meal in the colored church, or we'd bring out food from the grocery store in a paper sack."

Now, almost 100 years after Giles started playing, Major League Baseball is changing history — to the extent it can be changed. The organization in December officially decided to elevate seven Negro Leagues to major-league status.

Officials are in the process of combining record books, adding those early Black players to MLB rankings. It's an imperfect process, and it may not make up for all the years of sleeping in cars or in bug-infested motels. But it does prove what many people already knew: many of these guys always belonged in the big leagues.

The MLB's decision also provides an opportunity to revisit the story of a local man who turned out to be among the best baseball players ever.

Manhattan roots

George Franklin Giles was born in Junction City in 1909. His father was a soldier in the 9th Cavalry, a unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, at Fort Riley. George's mother and grandmother were cooks and ran the mess hall at Fort Riley.

The family moved to Manhattan about a year after George was born, and he lived there most of his life.

He went to the Douglas School, the town's Black school, which sat near what is today the Douglass Recreation Center.

Giles grew up playing sports, but he had a passion for baseball, and he found that he was quite talented. In 1924, Giles saw the Monarchs play in Manhattan. The next year, a white man named Evan Griffith gave him $4.25 for a train ticket to Kansas City to try out. Griffith and his brother were two of the most prominent businessmen in town at the time, and Manhattan's Griffith Field, where Giles later played, is named for them.

"It was unheard of back then for grandparents to let a child leave to go to Kansas City," he told The Mercury. "I'd never been to Kansas City in my life. I told my grandmother, 'I can stay at the YMCA on Paseo.'" He said a friend helped him talk her into it.

Giles made it to the YMCA, where he happened to meet a Monarchs trainer who took him to the tryout.

"He took me out there, and I put on my uniform — old Manhattan uniform. I probably looked like a farmer," he said.

Giles did well at the tryouts, though. On his 16th birthday, he signed and played for the Kansas City Royal Giants and then the Gilkerson Union Giants, two teams below the Negro National League level. That first contract was for $120 a week.

In 1927, when he turned 18, he began playing for the Monarchs.

Professional start

Giles traveled all over the country to play, and the schedule was grueling: sometimes up to four games in a day. In the offseason, he and some of his teammates played in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

After the long days, the teams often had few options for lodging.

"Accommodations were bad — very bad," he told The Mercury in the late '80s. "We come to Manhattan to play, and two had to stay in your house, two had to stay over there. That was the way it was all over the country."

In bigger cities, there might be motels, but some of them weren't very nice. He described how, if there were bed bugs, they would lay newspapers on the beds because the "critters don't like the sound of their own feet, and at least then you could get some sleep."

He said he encountered racism not just in the South but everywhere.

"Colorado was just as bad as Mississippi," he said in a 1990 Mercury story. "New York was just as bad as Alabama. It was all the same." He said one of the worst experiences came in Kansas, when he was playing an exhibition game in Abilene.

"I never heard the world 'n*----' used so much in my life," he said. "I told the manager, 'Man, let's hurry up and get this game over with so we can get out of town, because I'm tired of hearing this word 'n*----.'"

In the summers, Negro League teams would play in exhibition games against white teams with some of the legendary players of the time: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean. He said the black teams won at least half of the time. But circumstances certainly weren't equal.

"I never could understand this racial thing," he said in the Alliance article. "It was kind of disgusting. When we were barnstorming, the white teams would stay in a hotel, and we'd be changing in a farmer's barn. Once, we changed clothes in a jail. I remember once in Colby, Kansas, we set out tubs of water in the sun to get them warm so we could take a bath."

Rise to prominence

In 1929, after two years with the Monarchs, Giles exercised his free agent rights, which was something white players at the time couldn't have done. They were bound by a "reserve clause" to their teams, while Black players signed annual contracts.

Giles had just married Helen Miller, and they had a baby on the way. They ultimately had four kids.

That year, Giles barnstormed for the Union Giants and made more money than he would have with the Monarchs. The next year he signed with the St. Louis Stars and helped them win Negro National League titles in 1930 and 1931. He bounced around a little, playing with the Homestead Grays and the Monarchs again before moving to New York to play with the Brooklyn Eagles and the New York Black Yankees.

In 1935, at 26, he became the first player-manager for the Black Yankees.

Giles gained a reputation as one of the best in the league. People said he was as fast as his teammate, the legendary Cool Papa Bell.

At KU's Spencer Research Library, a file box labeled "The George Giles Papers" contains a homemade scrapbook full of contemporary newspaper clippings singing Giles' praises.

"If Giles were white, he could play first base for any major-league club," wrote newspaper columnist Joe Ryan in 1930. "He is a murderous hitter against any kind of pitching, hustles every minute and fields his position perfectly."

Bill James, the widely influential baseball statistician and historian, ranked Giles as the sixth-best first baseman in the Negro Leagues; some rankings put him as high as fourth. His fielding percentage put him above the 75th percentile for first basemen, according to Seamheads.com, a Negro Leagues database. His batting average was .315 over 11 seasons, with a projected average of 92 RBIs and 31 stolen bases per season.

Ultimately, though, Giles became disenchanted with baseball — or rather, with all the things Black athletes had to put up with to play baseball. Though he said he tried not to worry about the things he couldn't change and focus on working hard, the disparity in treatment got to him. He was playing for the Satchel Paige All-Stars when he knew he was done.

"We were playing Dizzy Dean's All-Stars in Holdrege, Nebraska," Giles told the Topeka Capital-Journal in 1990. "They stayed in the best hotel in town and we had to stay in another town a ways away. We 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."

He retired in 1939 at 29 years old.

Coming home

Manhattan was Giles' "winter home" for most of his playing career.

When people were traveling through, Giles' family often put up not just his teammates but other Black people who needed a place to stay. Over the years, they had a number of notable guests: Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington. Joe Louis even rented a house from Giles for about a year while he was at Fort Riley, according to an interview from the Riley County Historical Society's records.

After he quit baseball, Giles worked a few different jobs in Kansas. He worked in a Eudora defense plant during World War II. He had a barbecue restaurant for a time. Eventually, he opened a small inn, George's Motel, and an adjacent men's-only tavern, which he ran for many years on Yuma Street.

The motel served the Black community, providing a place for people to stay when they were on the road. It was the kind of place he might have liked to stay during his playing days.

George's Motel was listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a national publication during the Jim Crow era that told Black travelers where they could stay and eat safely when they were in unfamiliar territory. It was one of just two places listed in Manhattan in the 1952 green book; it remained listed into the 1960s.

Dave Baker, director of the Douglass Center, said he remembers watching Giles play at Griffith Field when he was growing up in the 1950s. Baker said his father and Giles were friends and played on the same local team after Giles had retired. Dave's father, Jesse Baker (longtime coordinator of the local youth baseball program) played catcher and Giles was on first. Dave Baker was the bat boy. He said those games drew a lot of people.

"A lot of the towns, surrounding towns, would come to Manhattan to play that team on Sunday evening, because they didn't have ball fields like Griffith Field," said Baker, who is also the former K-State head baseball coach from 1976 to 1984. He was the first Black head baseball coach in the Big 8. "So every Sunday there was a big ball game at Griffith Field."

Cheryl Collins, director of the Riley County Historical Society and Museum, said it's important to realize how popular baseball was in the community during the first half of the 20th century. She said people would fill the stands at Griffith Field to watch ball games.

"Baseball was really important to people in the period that George Giles was a highly successful baseball player," she said. "So I think that gave a prominence to that beyond just having a hometown boy make good, because baseball was such an important part of the community's life in general."

George's legacy

Jackie Robinson famously crossed the color barrier in 1947. Giles said he and the other players he knew were thrilled for that landmark moment, despite that it ultimately meant the end of the Negro Leagues.

Giles' son, George Jr., also became a baseball player, and he was headed for the majors until a head injury sidelined him.

But it was his grandson Brian Giles, a second baseman for the New York Mets and other teams in the 1980s, who finally made it all the way.

Brian, 61, said what he remembers about his grandfather is his strong voice and presence.

"Once he started talking, you listened," he said during a recent video call with The Mercury from his home in Las Vegas.

He said George Sr. didn't like to talk about himself much, but Brian said perhaps knowing what his grandfather went through made him "want it more." He was emotional talking about it.

Brian said he is certain his grandfather was proud of him and his accomplishments on the field. But would George have been happy to see his grandson surpass his achievements? Brian doesn't accept the premise of the question.

"Actually, I think he was more successful, doing what he did in times that presented African-American ballplayers (with challenges)," Brian said. "He endured a whole lot. And all of them just kept at it."

Writer and historian Phil Dixon, who has written many books on the Negro Leagues and is one of the people credited with preserving its history, knew George Giles very well. Dixon said he interviewed Giles many times, and they wrote dozens of letters back and forth over the years. Giles helped him identify players and flesh out the history of Black baseball. He also encouraged his writing.

Dixon said while the move to elevate the Negro Leagues — and by extension, its players — is generally positive, it's an imperfect process and won't show the true scope of the contributions players like Giles made.

"He's not here to benefit from it, right, but it could give him some recognition," Dixon said. "The way that they're doing the statistics, for instance, they're picking only certain league years. George Giles, although he was playing, was on teams that weren't in some of those leagues some of those years."

Several of the seasons that Giles played for the Kansas City Monarchs, for instance, won't count because the Monarchs were in the Negro National League — not one of those specific leagues that MLB is counting. The Monarchs then spent a few years as an independent team, barnstorming through the Midwest. The 1933 Monarchs team, which Giles was on, was full of star players and won over 100 games, but it won't be counted in the MLB records. Exhibition games (even those against white major-league teams) generally won't count. It also doesn't help that Giles retired early.

"It doesn't give a true reflection of his talent," Dixon said. "Excellent hitter, great speed. He was a clutch player, a good first baseman, defensively and everything."

Other problems are missing or incomplete records from many games. Many box scores and at-bats are missing. MLB officials use a formula to fill in the gaps, which Dixon calls a "guesstimation."

"It's not the real history," he said. "It's them trying to mock Major League Baseball history, which has been a problem for black teams all along. It's a whole different animal because of racism."

Dixon said if you compare Giles to a white contemporary with similar stats, it's clear that Giles would have been a major-league player. Joe Kuhel, for instance, was a first baseman for the Chicago White Sox. He came up around the same time as Giles and had similar stats, but Kuhel had a successful major-league career, Dixon said.

For players like Giles, "it wasn't a lack of ability, it was a lack of opportunity."

The important thing, Dixon said, it not to think of the Baseball Hall of Fame as the be-all and end-all.

"Even today, when I do interviews, I have to correct people's thinking," he said. "I was in an interview recently, it was in Indiana. They were saying, 'So who do you think belongs in the Hall of Fame?' They want to make it the pinnacle. There were many players who were good enough, many who contributed a great deal."

That said, Dixon felt Giles' contributions to baseball go beyond what he did on the field.

"Giles in my estimation, he'll never make the hall of fame, but he'll still be a hall-of-famer to people like me," Dixon said. "In telling the story, he helped me tell the story."

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