When looking back upon baseball history, the Zulu Cannibal Giants remain a mere footnote in the lineage of the sport. If compared to some of the more well-known barnstorming teams throughout baseball history, they share many similarities with the House of David and the Weiss All Stars, yet still, amongst them, the Zulus remain largely forgotten.
It is perhaps because they were of African-American descent that we know so little about their profundity. With baseball being a segregated sport until the coming of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in 1947, African-Americans had been organizing their own professional ballclubs as far back as the mid 1880s. The Chicago Unions, Page Fence Giants, and later, the Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs drew hundreds of thousands of fans to the ballparks to watch a game very different than those seen in the white leagues. Stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard became the luminaries by which baseball fans are taught a history of the sport.
Described by broadside posters of the day as ‘eccentric’, ‘weird’, and ‘primitive’, these ‘cannibals’ traveled throughout the United States and Canada, taking on amateur and professional baseball clubs alike. Formed by Charlie Henry, a former Negro League pitcher in Louisville, KY during the early part of the ‘30s, they donned war paint, long haired wigs, grass skirts and even played in their bare feet. Inspired by the Ethiopian-Italian conflicts of the era, the players even assumed tribal names and engaged in gibberish jabbing during game play.
Hailing from ‘Zululand’, these ballplayers were advertised as former lion hunters and war heroes – foes to be truly feared. It was said that under employment with the team, players were not to eat before games, in the hopes that they would become ravenous in the late innings to further intimidate the competition.
However, like some of the semi-pro teams they played against, the Zulus were simply thought of as a comical act, one that was never really taken seriously in the official Negro Leagues. And in the eyes of most Americans at the time, blacks would only succeed if they were clowns, engaging in antics rather than outplaying or outsmarting their opponents. But in terms of baseball, such a novelty was a profitable one. Their clowning on the diamond brought thousands to each ballpark they traveled to.
Over half a century ago, they were considered little more than an oddity. However, once we really educate ourselves to their existence, much like the Grays and Monarchs, underneath the façade of that machine were some of the best and most gifted athletes of the era.
This ballplayer’s name was ‘Kankol.’ That much we know – his real name has been lost to the ages. The same goes for most images of him and his teammates, be they promotional press photos or the grainy advertisements extolling their athletic prowess. And despite how jarring this image might look to us now, it was a reality of baseball’s pre-integration era.