The Steve McQueen-directed movie 12 Years A Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnaped and sold into slavery into 1841. It’s based on Northup’s own book about what happened, a best-seller in 1853. Thanks to the indefatigable Bill Mullins I have learned a little-known fact about Northup: one of his grandsons was a professional ballplayer for the Cuban Giants.
During the Civil War Solomon’s son Alonzo enlisted in the 26th New York Colored Regiment and fought in the Battle of Bloody Bridge at Johns Island, South Carolina, in 1864. After the war he married and had a number of children, including John Henry “Harry” Northup (also spelled Northrup or Northrop), born in 1882. Right around his 20th birthday, in late July 1902, Harry Northup joined John Bright’s Genuine Cuban Giants.
He pitched and played outfield for the rest of the 1902 season. His 1903 whereabouts are unknown (so far I haven’t found his name in any Cuban Giants box scores for that year), but late in 1904 he rejoined the team. He seems to have been with them when John García dropped dead from heart failure on the field on October 1, 1904, though I don’t know if Northup was in that game.
Here’s one of many box scores showing Northup playing for the Cuban Giants against the Carbondale, Pennsylvania, team:
Unfortunately Northup hasn’t been found in any box scores for games between the Cuban Giants and other top black teams, which explains his absence from the Seamheads Negro Leagues DB. He also doesn’t appear in either of the Cuban Giants team photos I’ve seen from this period (1902 and 1903).
E. G. Treat, a former New York state assemblyman who had known Harry Northup as a child and had given his first baseball job (as a team mascot), wrote a long tribute to him that was printed in the Cayuga Chief (and reprinted in the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser) upon Northup’s death in 1944.
As a ballplayer, Treat wrote, Northup (frequently known as “Zip”) “just naturally had everything—speed, a true eye, baseball spirit, an indomitable will to win, and a fine arm. He developed into a pitcher of unusual ability…His reputation constantly mounted and the Cuban Giants, the finest colored baseball team of all time, engaged him as a pitcher. In that capacity he starred throughout the entire country and almost every baseball enthusiast knew of him and admired his work. In after years he continued for some time with the [Weedsport, New York] Watsons. His enthusiasm and his baseball experience were great assets to the team. He and Barney McManus [another local player] were the best coaches I have ever seen anywhere and I have through the years seen nearly all the great teams and the great players.”
Treat also penned a poetic tribute to Northup, which went, in part:
If on the green
We could place a team
Of eight players more
Like Zip Northrup,
What a score
We’d roll up.
With bat and run
He was never done
‘Till the game was won.
O’er flowing with fun
Always a gentleman!
Rah, rah, rah for Zip!
Harry Northup’s tenure with the Cuban Giants was the hight point of his baseball career. By 1910 he was married with two kids, and was living in Cayuga County, New York, where he would spend the rest of his life. He continued to play ball for semipro teams into the late 1910s. In 1916 he played for the Dunn & McCarthy team, which won the local Industrial League pennant. The following year he went to work for International Harvester, switched to their team, and again won the championship, becoming the first player to serve on two pennant-winning teams in that league. (It’s possible he was the only African American in the league as well, though I can’t say that for sure.)
Here’s an unfortunately poor-quality image of the 1917 International Harvester team (courtesy of Bill Mullins), with Harry Northup standing third from left (not that you can see his face at all).
(Auburn Citizen, October 11, 1917, p. 2)
Harry Northup continued to work for International Harvester for many years, and was still coaching baseball as late as 1929. Unlike his grandfather Solomon, who disappeared from the historical record in the late 1850s and whose ultimate fate is a matter of some controversy, we know that Harry Northup passed away in Cayuga County in 1944 and was buried there.
Thanks (again) to Bill Mullins for telling me about Northup and providing much of the information above.