Founded in New York in 1885, the Cuban Giants was the most historically significant black baseball team of the 19th century. Not a single player was Cuban; rather, its promoter sought to piggyback on the popularity of Cuban teams in New York and New Jersey.
In addition to being the first all-salaried professional black baseball club, the Cuban Giants was the first professional team — white or black — to play internationally, participating in a series in Havana, Cuba. It was also the first African-American club to play against white major league teams. Despite being reshuffled and renamed on a regular basis, the team remained one of the finest in the Negro leagues for the better part of two decades.
In 1936, former Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb (1886–1961) became the first player inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He is considered by many to be the best all-round player who ever lived, with an all-time hit record that stood until the mid-1980s.
Cobb, born in Narrows, Georgia, was among the earliest subjects of legendary baseball photographer Louis Van Oeyen, whose finest shot of the Detroit legend was taken on the Fourth of July, 1908. Van Oeyen got right in front of Cobb and captured his swing at the optimal moment — hands held slightly apart on his bat, hips opened, eyes focused intently on the ball.
The American Giants was the longest-running franchise in black baseball history. Organised and led from 1911 to 1926 by player-manager Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster, the team took home multiple championship victories in its first 10 years.
In 1920, Foster launched the Negro National League — the first black professional league — with the American Giants as founding members. The Negro National League dissolved in 1931, an early victim of the Great Depression. But the American Giants survived, becoming a charter member of the Negro American League in 1937, and continuing to play into the 1950s.
New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999) was more than just one of baseball’s greatest players. Famously married to Marilyn Monroe, and referenced in Paul Simon’s pop hit Mrs. Robinson and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, he was an All-American hero. Known for his elegance both on and off the field, ‘Joltin’ Joe’ today perhaps more than any other player is synonymous with the greatness of the game.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Hammerin' Hank Aaron (1934–) was an outfielder for the Milwaukee (later Atlanta) Braves for over two decades. Having started in the Negro leagues at the age of 18, Aaron was soon recruited to Major League baseball. As one of the game's greatest hitters he amassed a long list of records, many of which remain unbroken. For more than 30 years he held the record for most career home runs — famously surpassing the historic mark set by Babe Ruth. Throughout his life, Aaron has been a committed advocate of civil rights.
Native New Yorker Lou Gehrig (1903–1941) was signed to the Yankees in 1923 and gained a reputation for strength and endurance on the field. Gehrig’s unprecedented 2,130 consecutive-game streak was not bested until 1995; his 23 grand slams remain the Major League record.
In 1939, his heath in decline, Gehrig removed himself from the game. On 4 July 1939, Gehrig bid farewell to his fans and fellow players in a speech at Yankee Stadium, calling himself ‘the luckiest man on the face of the earth’. He was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame later that year; his uniform number, 4, was the first in the major leagues to be retired.
Sandy Koufax (1935–) pitched for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955 to 1966. Although his career was relatively short, it was impressive: he was the first major league player to pitch four no-hitters, and the eighth to pitch a perfect game.
Koufax, who was Jewish, made national news in 1965 when he sat out the first game of the World Series, which fell on a Jewish holiday. In 1972, at just 36 years old, Koufax became the youngest player ever inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mickey Mantle (1931–1995) was a center fielder and first baseman for the New York Yankees from 1951-68. Considered the best switch-hitter to ever play the game, Mantle hit 536 home runs over the course of his 18-year career, spent entirely with the Yankees.
The so-called ‘Commerce Comet’ won the Triple Crown in 1956 and was named Most Valuable Player in the American League three times. Mantle was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
On 15 April 1947 Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) changed baseball for ever, becoming the first African-American to play in the major leagues in the 20th century. Having begun his career in the Negro leagues, Robinson was recruited to the Brooklyn Dodgers by manager Branch Rickey, who admired Robinson’s poise and knew he could withstand the racism he would inevitably face.
Robinson retired in 1957, after 10 years with the Dodgers. For the rest of his life, he continued working to advance civil rights.
Many consider Babe Ruth (1895–1948) to be the best baseball player of all time. Over the course of his 22-season career, first with the Boston Red Sox and then as an outfielder with the New York Yankees, Ruth set a host of major league records, and completely changed the way the game was played.
Ruth’s unprecedented batting power put the home run front and centre, shifting baseball’s emphasis from pitching to hitting. The first player to hit 60 home runs in a season, he racked up scores never before seen on the field. In 1936, Ruth was in the first class of inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.