Tampa Bay Giants

Tampa's Other Giants: African American and Afro-Cuban Baseball

Six years before the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first game at Tropicana Field, the San Francisco Giants made a commitment to move into the new domed stadium. On the morning of August 7, 1992, the St. Petersburgh Times proclaimed that “Tampa Bay has Giant Deal.” While the deal fell through, and the Giants stayed in San Francisco, it served as a reminder for another team that had played in Tampa. The Tampa Giants were an African American and Afro Cuban team that played in the city during the first half of the 20th century.

Tropicana Field is associated with the local Major League Baseball franchise. After years of spring training games, youth leagues, and minor baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first game on March 31, 1998, against the Detroit Tigers before a crowd of 45,369. Although Major League Baseball had finally arrived, it was six years later than many had hoped. In the summer of 1992, San Francisco Giants owner, Bob Lurie, agreed to sell the team to a group led by future Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli. The sale was finalized on September 27th and plans to relocate the team were set in motion. After what was thought to be the last game in San Francisco, Giants’ manager Roger Craig said “One day, [Darrell Lewis’s] grandkids will talk about it, that he made the last out at Candlestick.” A sign in the crowd said simply: “DON’T TAMPA WITH OUR GIANTS.” The mood was different in Tampa. Tampa Bay Giant’s t-shirts were printed, newspaper articles that analyzed the new team’s roster were written, and fans excitedly waited for the move to be official. Despite the hope and the pessimism, the Giants stayed in San Francisco. The National League denied the move and actively sought out investors that promised to kept the team in San Francisco.

Had the move gone through, the Tampa would have had to reckon with history. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Tampa Giants were a traveling all-African American baseball team. They were comprised of African Americans and Afro-Cuban players. They played teams from other cities in Florida as well as teams from Cuba. The Giants were very successful both on the field and off. Playing their home games at Plant Field, the Giants often drew hundreds of fans. On June 28, 1915, the team drew 900 spectators to Plant Field to witness their game against an African American team from Key West. They also attracted world-class competition from both Cuba and the United States. In October of 1915, the champions of the national Negro League, the A. B. C. Club traveled to Plant Field to played the Giants. Attendance was expected to be comparable to the 1915 Cigar City League championship game a few days prior to the Giants game. The following summer, the Cuban All Stars, who played exhibition games against Major League teams in the North, played the Tampa Giants. By the 1940s, a local businessman, George Morris and his Pepsi bottling company began to sponsor the Giants.

Being on the edges of the Confederacy, Jim Crow laws were in place in Tampa. Segregation on the baseball diamond was no different. Plant Field, where the Giants often played their games, was segregated throughout the first half of the 20th century. Yet, for many African Americans and Afro-Cubans in Tampa, the ability to travel, and the opportunity to be paid for playing baseball was still better than their prospect of finding work within the city. Nevertheless, players recalled the harsh reception that they found when traveling to different cities. They were denied service at restaurants and faced harsh criticism and derogatory remarks from fans. While the Tampa Bay Giants of the 1990s would have had existed in a post-civil rights city, the memory of segregation was present within the team’s name.