Reminisce: Stories about the Lima Giants outside baseball

Wilkie Collins and Herman Haithcock were railroad baggage masters; Webb Harrison was a janitor and brothers Fred and Andy Fountain operated a saloon. Ike Boone was a saloonkeeper and unsuccessful boxer while Paul Cumberland worked as a porter at the Norval Hotel.

But on long-ago summer days on long-forgotten fields like the Vine Street grounds and Wheeler Park, they were baseball players, members of the Lima Giants, who “gave as good as they got against the best amateur baseball competition available,” Lima News columnist Mike Lackey wrote in February 2012.

“One constant, from the Giants’ first appearance in 1897, was the issue of race, which rarely went unmentioned,” Lackey added. “An 1899 article called the Giants ‘the representative colored team of the city.”

Their passing did go unmentioned. After July 1934, when a story reporting the Giants 17-4 loss to a team called the Independents ran in the News, there is nothing. What is known of the Giants’ more than three decades of baseball has been gleaned from box scores and occasional, brief game stories.

There is a team portrait, taken, judging by who’s in it, in the early years of the 20th century, featuring early members of the team. In it are Collins, Cumberland, Harrison, Boone, the Fountain (or Fontaine) brothers and a handful of others.

“The looks on their faces show they’re clearly a confident bunch, a baseball team that could win plenty of games,” the News wrote in August 1996. “The men in the aged photograph look stylish in their white, laced up jerseys and dark caps. But little else is known about the Lima Colored Giants …”

Although stories about the team were scarce, there were stories written about the men in the photograph. Few of the stories are about baseball, some are tragic and others just fascinating.

Wilkie Collins, who can be seen seated in the first row of the photo, was born in Delphos in 1878 and pitched and played infield for the Giants. “The Lima Giants won another game yesterday,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote June 30, 1908, “the fast Ottawa team being the victims by the score of 7 to 1. Wilkie Collins pitched splendid ball and deserved a shut-out.”

In December 1909, Collins made news for an athletic feat off the diamond. While working as night baggage master at the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton (C.H.&D.) railroad depot, a departing passenger train caught a baggage truck on which Collins was working, “scattering the express packages” and “throwing Collins off his feet and almost under the wheels of the train,” according to the Allen County Republican-Gazette. “He clung to the rods of the coach to prevent being thrown under the wheels and was dragged across Wayne Street down the stony track.” Collins, the newspaper noted, escaped with “a few bruises.” He eventually moved away from Lima, dying in Washington, D.C., in 1968.

Brothers Fred (in the front row of the photo) and Andy Fountain (in the back row) died before they really got started in life, victims of consumption. Consumption, known today as tuberculosis, was a prolific killer in the first half of the 20th century and hit the Fountain family hard. Andy Fountain “was a well-known ball player a few years ago…,” the Republican-Gazette wrote when he died at the age of 29 in May 1905. “With his brother Fred, he formed either end of a battery (pitcher and catcher) and for many years were the star amateurs between the points in the games of colored teams about Lima.” Fred, the last of three Fountain brothers, died of tuberculosis in February 1906. The third brother had died of tuberculosis before Andy and Fred.

The Fountain brothers are seldom mentioned in connection to the Giants, although a Republican-Gazette story from July 1900 noted that Fred was “knocked senseless” when he was struck in the head by a line drive while pitching during practice in Faurot Park. When Fred died, a saloon he operated in the 100 block of South Union Street was claimed by Ike Boone, who appears wearing a suit in the middle row of the photo and is identified as a manager.

In addition to his involvement with the Giants, running the saloon and getting into numerous legal scrapes, Boone was a boxer, fighting nine times in the 1890s without registering a win. His penultimate fight in 1899 was apparently illegal, with the Lima News writing several days before the bout that “the affair is kept very quiet in order to escape the interference of the police.”

It didn’t. “The twenty round glove contest between Ike Boone, of this city, and Billy Johnston, better known as the Black Diamond, of Indianapolis, which came off at Guyers (Geyer), Auglaize County last night, was stopped in the fifth round by a deputy sheriff of Auglaize county, who was among the spectators and stepped into the ring, and arrested the principals,” the Republican-Gazette wrote January 27, 1899. “The fight came off in a room above Sheet saloon, and everyone who could, reached the windows and leaped out.” The web site listed the fight as no contest but noted that “Boone was having the better of the fight” when it was stopped. Boone died in 1915.

Sitting to the left of Boone in the photo, also in a suit, is Paul Cumberland, who, like Boone, is identified as a team manager. Cumberland, a porter at the Norval Hotel, died in 1924. Like most of the other men, his obituary does not mention his affiliation with the Giants.

Charles Stewart, standing in the back row, was a barber who was nearly 90 years old when he died in 1968. Also in the back row is John W. Harrison, Webb Harrison’s brother, who worked as a teamster and was 88 when he died in 1962. Herman Haithcock, who was a member of the Giants in 1903 but is not identified in the photo, worked for 50 years as a baggage master for the B&O (the successor of the C.H.&D.) and died in 1960. Two of the men in the photo, Bennie Willis and Charley Sharp, left Lima before 1910.

Sharp, described in 1903 and 1904 as captain and manager of the Giants, also was known for his ability to entertain. “Charley Sharp, of Lima, known the world over as the champion society and comic walker of several states, led the procession,” the Republican-Gazette wrote in an April 1897 story about a “cakewalk” (a dance with a cake awarded to the best dancers) at Music Hall.

Another player, Albert Simmons, who was arrested in 1908 for living with a woman to whom he wasn’t married, was gone by 1930. The woman was white.

Of all the men in the photo, however, Webb Harrison, seated in the middle of the front row, is the best known. Harrison began his career as a ball player in 1898 and played for teams in Richwood, Marysville, Plain City, and Marion. “He played third base for the Columbia Giants and then in 1903 came to Lima and ended his career as a professional ball player with the Lima Giants in 1916,” the News wrote in June 1923.

Harrison, however, continued to play baseball. “But some Wednesday afternoon when time hangs heavy,” the News wrote, “baseball fans run out to Murphy Street park and watch Webb and the other policemen play baseball.” Harrison died of “dropsy” (usually congestive heart failure) less than two years later.

“Webb E. Harrison, 47, the friendly traffic officer known to thousands of Lima and Allen County motorists, has moved his last traffic jam and the shrill blast of his whistle is stilled forever,” the Republican-Gazette wrote in a front-page story May 29, 1925. More than 600 people, including the city manager, police chief, and other city officials, attended Harrison’s funeral at the Second Baptist Church. “Automobiles, which took up every bit of parking space on both sides of Spring Street for more than two blocks, followed in line to Woodlawn cemetery, where the body reposed beneath a veritable flower garden,” the Republican-Gazette wrote June 2, 1925.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].