The Chicago Union Giants

The Chicago Union was an independent team formed in 1887 and one of the first professional, Black baseball teams to last more than a year prior to the Negro Leagues era beginning in 1920. In 1887, before the start of the 1888 baseball season, William S. Peters joined other Chicago businessmen Henry Elby, Albert Donegan, and Frank Leland to organize the Chicago Unions. They started as an amateur Black baseball team who were based in Chicago but quickly became a dominant force in Black baseball in the Midwest.

A player identified only as Johnson, of the Chicago Union Giants, stands at bat at a field in Chicago in 1905 while spectators watch from the bleachers.

Most of the Chicago Unions’ games were played on Sundays against other amateur teams and local town teams. Some of the best Black baseball players in the Midwest were drawn to the Chicago Unions team which developed into the premier Black baseball team in the Midwest. The 1888 Chicago Unions were managed by manager and catcher Abe Jones. Frank Leland was the team’s starting right fielder and W.S. Peters played first base. In the 1890s Leland and Peters were the top two figures in Black baseball in the Chicago area. In 1891 the Chicago Unions played their home games at a small park located at 67th Street and Langley Avenue.

The Unions, along with the Cuban Giants, were the only Negro teams to survive the Panic of 1893, an economic depression that swept across the United States that began in 1893 and ended in 1897. Every other significant Negro team which operated prior to the Panic ceased to exist. Prior to the start of the 1894 season, Peters and Leland secured new playing grounds for their team at a field that was located at 37th Street and Butler Street. The Chicago Union was considered the best Black team in the Chicago area for that season. The Unions had strong seasons through the rest of the 1890s but in 1899, they lost the western championship to the Columbia Giants, also based in Chicago.

Members of the Chicago Union Giants, a Negro Leagues team, pose for a photograph around 1905 in Chicago.

Prior to the start of the 1901 baseball season, Peters and Leland parted company. Each man operated a Union Giants team under his own name. Leland took the top players from the Chicago Unions and combined them with the best players from the Columbia Giants and formed a new team that he called the Chicago Union Giants. Over the years Leland and Peters argued intensely, especially over the use of the name Union Giants. From 1901 to 1905 Peters’ team was most often referred to as Peters Union Giants. In 1905 when Leland’s changed the name of his team to the Chicago Leland Giants, Peters started referring to his team as the Chicago Union Giants.

In 1917, Peters sold his team to former player Robert P. Gilkerson. The new Gilkerson Union Giants remained one of the best and most famous African American teams in the region through the late 1930s when they finally folded.

The Gilkerson Union Giants caused a sensation wherever they played. They were considered so good that beating them made the season for local teams.

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