In 1860, the first known baseball game between two Black teams took place in the United States in New York. With this, African Americans began to form their own baseball organizations – professional and amateur – across the country.
By the 1880s, schools and organizations assembled their own teams, like St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural Institute for Black youth, which was established at Belmead in Powhatan County (shown above). Through the 1920s, several official clubs popped up in Black neighborhoods such as Church Hill, Sidney, Jackson Ward, and Southside. Church Hill teams produced a famous third baseman named Ray Dandridge, who was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In the 1930s, Dandridge played in the Negro National League for the Detroit Stars, the New York Cubans, and the Newark Eagles. Since Major League Baseball was segregated at the time, the Negro Leagues (established in 1920) were the only place where the best Black players in the United States could play professional baseball.
A Jackson Ward businessman named Wilbur Sutton recognized the promise in Richmond’s Black baseball scene. In 1947, Sutton founded a team in the Negro American Association, the minor league for the Negro National League. Formed out of a local club called the Capitol City Elks, his Richmond Giants became Richmond’s first minor league team, pre-dating the Flying Squirrels (since 2010), the Richmond Braves (1966-2008), and the Virginians (1954-1964).
The Giants played at Mooers Field on Roseneath Road and Norfolk Street. When on the road, their circuit took them through Virginia, the Carolinas, and as far away as Florida. They traveled through the difficult terrain of the Jim Crow South, which severely limited their hotel and restaurant options. The players reported standing outside the back doors of restaurants to get sandwiches. Their schedule could be grueling, as they often played two or even three games a day, six days a week.
The Richmond Giants were good enough to make the playoffs, but the venture had bad timing: 1947 was also the year that Jackie Robinson signed onto the Brooklyn Dodgers and thus, integrated Major League Baseball. Soon, other teams rallied to scoop up the best players from the Negro Leagues. With the best talent gone, interest in the Negro Leagues waned. Inevitably, the fortunes of their minor leagues followed. The Richmond Giants folded in 1949, after only a two-year run. The team was ultimately revived into a different league and persisted until 1954, but the heyday was over.
As for the original Giants, the majors weren’t in the cards for any of them for various reasons. Some simply did not make it, others claimed they could make much more money staying put and playing the Caribbean circuit in the winter. The team’s biggest star, southpaw pitcher Reginald “Sonny” Carroll met Jackie Robinson and was courted by the Dodgers, but family commitments prompted him to decline and stay in Richmond.