As baseball’s playoff season begins, controversies about professional sports are all around. Specifically about the names and images of teams, both in baseball and professional football.
In baseball, the Cleveland Indians continue to be an ongoing source of embarrassment for their demeaning and cartoonish logo, aka “Chief Wahoo.” Literally cartoonish in this case, as Chief Wahoo closely resembles the benighted Native American stereotypes found in old Warner Bros. cartoons.
In football, the Washington Redskins may have a slightly less horrific logo, but still play the game using a name that can be seen as nothing but offensive, no matter how dumb the team’s loyal fans play.
Yet these ongoing problems are not new, and, in fact, Louisville was the host city for a team that, way back in the 1930s, most likely sets the bar for all-time bad taste. They were called the Zulu Cannibal Giants. And, by most accounts, they were based in the River City from 1934 through 1937.
Let’s take a moment to allow the name to sink in. Zulu. Cannibal. Giants.
According to the book “Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution,” the players wore grass skirts, headdresses and war paint. This is how the book described their games: “Pandering to white America’s worst attitudes and most stereotypical views of blacks, the players entertained fans between games with various ‘comedy’ acts including staged fights with spears and shields along with a crap game featuring loaded dice and players brandishing razors.”
It’s also reported their bats were shaped to resemble war clubs, and they played barefoot.
The players didn’t use their real names, but rather played under “native” names. According to a reprinted game lineup from 1935 that first ran in the Meridan (Conn.) Daily journal:
“The Cannibals will lineup as follows: Wahoo, right field, Limpopo, first base, Rufigi, center field, Tanna, left field; Taklooie, third base; Bissagos, shortstop, Kangkol, second base, Nyass, Catcher; Kalahare, Pembra, Moke, Impo and Tankafu pitchers.”
The ownership and management structure of the team is a bit hazy, with some differing accounts. According to the book “Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and his Great Black Teams,” written by Syd’s son Alan J. Pollock, the team was started by a former Negro League pitcher named Charlie Henry. The elder Pollock was also the team’s Northeast booking agent; his roots were in Vaudeville.
By 1937, Henry sold the team to Louisville’s Col. Charles B. Franklin, Pollock’s book says. At the same time, Chicago’s Abe Saperstein reportedly bought the team from Henry, also according to Pollock. The author adds that his own father, Syd Pollock, may have also bought the team from Henry. Confused yet?
“In fact, history does not provide a complete list of those who contributed to the Charlie Henry retirement fund buying the Zulu Cannibal Giants,” he writes.
Saperstein gained far more fame for founding and being the first owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, another barnstorming team that combined comedy antics and athletics.
According to the book “The Big Book of Jewish Baseball” — which actually exists — there was even some crossover between the Globetrotters and the Cannibals. “Among the fine players on the team were Goose Tatum, who later became a star of the Globetrotters,” writes author Peter S. Horvitz.
I asked Phil Dixon, author of “The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History,” what he sees as the Cannibal Giants’ place in history. “They have very little place,” he says. “They show the depths people would go to exploit African-American athletes.”
Dixon says the nicknames the men played under were sometimes for the players’ benefit, as they didn’t want anyone to know what they were doing. “It’s a very embarrassing part of the African-American baseball experience,” he says.
He adds that the audiences for these games were mostly whites, not blacks, and the booking agents for these barnstorming black teams were mostly Jewish people, a la Saperstein.
Perhaps the best-known player to ever don the grass skirt was John “Buck” O’Neil. O’Neil, who died in 2006, was a great athlete who led the Negro League in hitting twice, later working for the Chicago Cubs, becoming one of the major league’s first black scouts. He also became a beloved piece of living baseball history, prominently featured in the Ken Burns documentary “Baseball,” with firsthand tales of playing against and with some of the greats of the Negro Leagues, like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.
Yet in 1937, he accepted an offer from Henry to play for the Zulu Cannibal Giants, as it was a pay raise over his then-gig with the Memphis Red Sox, where he didn’t start.
O’Neil started at first base for the Cannibal Giants, though under the assumed name of Limpopo. Remember, Limpopo was also the name of a player in the 1935 lineup, leading to the possibility that these names were given to more than one player.
In a bit of understatement, O’Neil later wrote of this time in his autobiography “I Was Right on Time” that “looking back on it, the idea of playing with the Cannibal Giants was very demeaning.”
O’Neil, though, maintained there was more to the games than mere clowning. “I don’t believe many white fans came just to see us clown around,” he wrote. “Most had respect for us as ballplayers and would’ve come regardless.”
The Cannibal Giants were not an official Negro League team, rather they were considered an independent team. And though they have been said to be Louisville-based, they travelled widely, even playing in Canada.
Given these itinerant roots, it’s not surprising the organization often operated on a thin budget, which led to some hi-jinks.
Alan J. Pollock’s book says the team only had five or six actual players that travelled with the team, driving two cars — one for the players and one for the equipment. They would hit a new town, and Henry would hire local players to fill out the lineup.
“Players were to be paid at dinner after the game,” he writes. Henry wouldn’t feed the players before the game, so they were ravenous. Then, after the game, he would drive the regional players to a restaurant, tell them to order food for themselves and the rest of the team, and then tell the local guys he and the others were going to gas up the cars. “And the Zulu Cannibal Giants would promptly leave town,” leaving the locals high and dry.
Larry B. Franklin, son of Charlie B. Franklin, is an attorney in Louisville and remembered his father’s connection with the team in an interview with Insider Louisville. He was able to fill in a few details.
For starters, he says, the team played at Parkway Field in Louisville, which has since been demolished.
He added that some of the Cannibal Giants were great players, and since their uniforms, such as they were, didn’t have numbers or anything like that, they would put on one another’s wigs and paint so the better hitters would illegally hit for the worse hitters all through the game.
He also says his father never actually owned the team, but merely promoted them, contradicting the information in Pollock’s book.
During the games, he says, there would be other activities — like Miss Sepia beauty pageants — where African-American women would compete.
He also told some great stories about how Jesse Owens, the famed Olympiad, raced against a horse, a motorcycle and baseball players during a Zulu Cannibal Giants game.
Due to Jim Crow-era segregation in Louisville, Owens couldn’t get a hotel room and ended up staying with the Franklins. And he loved Franklin’s mom’s cooking.
Right before Owens was to perform, on game day, Franklin was told to get the famed athlete, who was at the stadium with two beautiful women. “I’ll be back, ladies,” Franklin remembers him saying.
He raced against a horse, and won, as the horse was so high-strung that the starting pistol caused it to flip out.
He raced against a biker and won because the groundskeeper “accidentally” made the ground his bike raced on too wet, and he spun out “five ways and backwards,” Franklin says.
All in all, the younger Franklin was impressed by Owens. “He was a neat guy, and nice to my mom and dad,” he says.
The only hitch is that the younger Franklin was born in 1937, the year many give as when the Cannibal Giants disbanded. For a time, however, Owens did perform during the games of the Indianapolis Clowns, a team the elder Franklin also promoted, which could explain the possible mix-up.
But it’s still pretty cool he got to hang out with Jesse Owens.