By Rick Dapp
Harrisburg is a city with many historical markers. They exist in places where they may be expected and in places that take casual observers by surprise. If you look near the west end of the Walnut Street People’s Bridge on City Island, you will find one that is accurate and yet slightly ambiguous. It’s the marker for the renowned Harrisburg Giants baseball team.
The marker reads: “Harrisburg-based Negro League baseball team founded around 1900 and operated by Colonel William Strothers until his death in 1933. One of 27 major Negro League teams across the nation, the Giants finished in second place in the Eastern Colored League in 1925. Among well-known players were hall-of-famer Oscar Charleston, Spottswood Poles, Ben Taylor, John Beckwith, Fats Jenkins and Rap Dixon. They played here at Island Park through 1957.”
Admittedly, the marker is accurate relative to the players and the time frame for the team. And historical markers only have so much space for information. But the marker for the Harrisburg Giants is missing a critical bit of information regarding this remarkable team.
The Giants did play at the various versions of the baseball park on City Island, which was prone to occasional flooding and rebuilding throughout the first half of the 20th century, but the Giants of the Eastern Colored League 1923-1928 called the West End Grounds their home field. And the West End Grounds were nowhere near City Island.
To find the West End Grounds, you need to travel north on 4th Street in Harrisburg, and back in time about 85 years, to the intersection of 4th and Seneca streets. If you arrive at the destination today, you will find numerous homes on three corners, and the only patch of open ground is a grassy area in front of a church on the fourth. However, before the area was developed and housing replaced the open spaces to be found in uptown Harrisburg, the West End Grounds were home field of not only the Harrisburg Giants of the 1920s, but also the site of football games and other city athletic competitions.
Local historian and Harrisburg Giants authority Ted Knorr provided some background and insight regarding the West End Grounds recently, saying “West End Grounds existed from the late 19th century for football, baseball, assumedly track, boxing, exhibitions and the like. It was located at the end of the trolley line up 4th Street at Seneca. Not sure where the main gate was. I always place home plate at 3rd and Seneca, with Seneca being first base line and 3rd being third base. If so, that would be opposite the Island Field layout. It was home field briefly for the Senators when Island Field was redone in the early 1920s. It was one of the home fields for the Harrisburg Giants during their four-year existence in the major leagues of Negro League baseball. According to the newspapers, it was torn down immediately after the 1927 season, but that is from an article written on the last day – not reporting on the demolition. There does appear to be the use of a park – perhaps different – after that date.”
The recent Hollywood production regarding the achievement of Jackie Robinson, who, with the support and courage of Branch Rickey, became a Brooklyn Dodger and the first African-American to break the color barrier of major league baseball, provides a glimpse of what confronted the Harrisburg Giants during their existence. The Senators played generally on City Island, and the Giants played uptown – playing on the island only when it was available. Harrisburg’s competition in the Eastern Colored League included teams from Atlantic City, Baltimore, Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia. Those teams certainly didn’t play in the bigger stadiums of the major leagues. The Atlantic City team played at Bachrach Park; the New York teams played at Catholic Protectory Oval and at Dyckman Oval; and the Philadelphia team played at Hilldale Park – hardly Ebbets Field or Yankee Stadium for the segregated sport of baseball in the first half of the 20th century.
What makes the West End Grounds significant in the history of the Harrisburg Giants of that era was that a future baseball hall-of-fame member, Oscar Charleston, not only played there, but also managed the team from 1923 to 1928. Charleston, who never had the opportunity to play in major league baseball due to the non-integrated nature of the sport at the time, has been called the finest all-around player in Negro League history and has been compared to the legendary Ty Cobb. In 1921, he batted .434 while leading the Negro National League in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases. In 1922, he became the highest paid African-American of his time, and later that year he married Jane B. Howard of Harrisburg. In 1924, he signed on to manage and play on the Eastern Colored League’s Harrisburg Giants, where he stayed for four years, imprinting the West End Grounds and Island Park with his brilliant style.
Clarence “Fats” Jenkins (who, most assuredly, wasn’t) not only played outfield for the Harrisburg Giants in that era, but was also a standout professional basketball player for the New York Rens.
Herbert “Rap” Dixon completed the outfield of the Harrisburg Giants during their tenure at the West End Grounds. He would go on to play as a teammate of the legendary Satchel Paige later in his career. Although Dixon was born in Kingston, Ga., he was raised in Steelton, Pa. where he was discovered by the Harrisburg Giants founder, Colonel William Strothers, playing sandlot baseball. The Dixon-Charleston-Jenkins combination has been considered by many to be one of the greatest outfields – segregated or not – of all time.
The date of the demise of West End Grounds is unclear, although Calobe Jackson, Jr., another Harrisburg historian and Harrisburg Giants authority, notes, “I have never seen a picture of this field but understand that the box office was at 3rd and Seneca across from the old time bar that was located across Seneca Street. This bar existed before Prohibition and came back as a local pub. Some doctors at Polyclinic took it over and named it the Emergency Room. A pizza parlor is now in this building. If you take a look inside, you will see that some of the old trappings remain.”
An article from the Harrisburg Telegraph, dated September 16, 1925, unearthed by Jackson, provides additional information regarding the status of West End Grounds, which had apparently been rented from the Harrisburg Trust Company, the owner of the property. The article noted that the bleachers and grandstand were to be salvaged and that arrangements were being made for the club to play at Island Park. This information only increases the mystery of exactly where the Harrisburg Giants concluded their tenure during their Eastern Colored League days.
There are over 80 Pennsylvania historical markers in Dauphin County alone, including one in Hershey commemorating Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point scoring record at Hershey Park Arena in 1962. That marker was erected in 2002. The marker commemorating the Harrisburg Giants at City Island was erected in 2005. The most recent marker, honoring the Rockville Bridge, was erected in 2010.
Perhaps it’s time to consider putting another one up – at 4th and Seneca streets.