Joe Morgan’s Top 10 Negro Baseball League Legends
Baseball drew its color line during the mid-1880s when all-white professional teams, such as the powerful Chicago White Stockings, refused to take the field against integrated clubs. By 1899, baseball owners did not allow a single African American to play in the major or minor leagues. But African Americans continued to play on independent teams, and in 1920 Rube Foster created the Negro National League.
MLB’s unofficial policy of segregation (team owners never publicly acknowledged the color line’s existence) remained in effect until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Up to that time, baseball’s deplorable shortsightedness not only deprived African Americans of the right to compete at baseball’s highest level, it also robbed major-league fans of the opportunity to see some of the game’s most amazing talents.
Many Negro League players would have been starters in the Major Leagues had they been given the chance. One of them was Jackie Robinson — although his MLB debut was delayed, costing him numerous peak years. A number of them would have rewritten the game’s record books.
The ten men listed here — all Hall of Famers — would have been all-stars in any league, during any era.
Many sportswriters and big leaguers who played against Gibson believe he was the greatest all-around catcher ever. Gibson, who played for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, was a superb defensive receiver. Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson once said, “He catches so easily, he might as well be in a rocking chair, and he throws like a bullet.”
Gibson was also a power hitter with few peers; Negro League and semi-pro box scores credit him with 75 home runs in 1931 and 69 in 1934. During a 17-season career, he batted .359 and topped .400 on three occasions. His career slugging percentage was an eye-popping .648.
Gibson also was considered a leader, both on the field and off, of a powerful Homestead Grays team that won ten pennants during Gibson’s career, which lasted from 1930 to 1945. Johnson said Gibson would have fetched $200,000 in an open major-league market. Sadly, Gibson never found out what he would have earned in the white major leagues. The catcher died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 33 in January 1947, only months before Jackie Robinson broke the color line.
The color line lifted just in time for this 42-year-old pitching legend — Satchel Paige was the Negro League’s biggest drawing card — to join the Cleveland Indians in the midst of a grueling pennant race. All Paige did for the Indians was go 6–1 with a 2.47 ERA. He even pitched two shutouts.
The rubber-armed Paige, who Joe DiMaggio called “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever faced,” is estimated to have won as many as 600 games during his 30-year Negro League and barnstorming career. During that career he played for many teams, including the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, Birmingham Black Barons, Cleveland Cubs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, New York Black Yankees, Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, Philadelphia Stars, Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Kansas City A’s.
A showman, Paige once reportedly made his entire outfield sit down while he pitched to Josh Gibson with the bases loaded. He struck Gibson out on four pitches. In 1952, 46-year-old Paige pitched out of the bullpen for the St. Louis Browns; he won 12 games and saved 10 more. The following season, he was among the league leaders in saves with 11.
Satchel made one last major-league appearance when he pitched three innings for the Kansas City A’s in 1965. He struck out one while allowing only one base runner and no runs. He was 59 years old. One can only imagine the big-league records Satch would have set had only the owners let this baseball marvel play in his prime. Ted Williams and Robin Roberts, two Hall of Famers, said that Gibson and Paige were as talented as any players they had ever seen. Both of them should have been on baseball’s All-Century Team in 1999.
Many of his contemporaries cite Oscar Charleston as the greatest player in Negro League history. At least one sportswriter, who saw both players in their prime, said he would rate Charleston over Willie Mays! Blessed with great speed, Charleston played a shallow center field because he was confident in his ability to race back to catch anything hit over his head. He had so much lateral range that his other two outfield mates usually played right next to the foul lines.
A powerful hitter, Oscar won at least four batting titles and several home-run crowns. He is among the top five Negro Leaguers in batting average (.339) and home runs, as well as the all-time leader in stolen bases. (Negro League records are sketchy and incomplete.) Writer/analyst Bill James named Charleston the fourth-greatest player of all time.
Charleston, who also successfully managed in the Negro Leagues, was known as an astute judge of talent. When Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey wanted to break major-league baseball’s color line, he hired Charleston as a scout. Charleston brought both Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella to Rickey’s attention.
In this career, he played for the Indianapolis ABCs, Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants, St. Louis Giants, Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and other teams.
John Henry Lloyd
Many baseball historians cite Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop — some even say the greatest player — of all time. Wagner considered John Henry Lloyd his equal. John Henry was in his early 30s when the Negro Leagues were founded; he spent his early career playing for independent black and Cuban teams.
Yet he played in the Negro Leagues for a dozen years while compiling a career batting average of .344. (His all-time average was .337.) In 1929, the 45-year old shortstop batted .370. And to prove that was no fluke, the next season, hit .369. During his career, he played for the Macon Acmes, Cuban-X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Columbus Buckeyes, New York Black Yankees, and other teams.
Walter “Buck” Leonard
This left-handed, power-hitting first baseman combined with Josh Gibson to give the Homestead Grays one of baseball’s great home-run tandems. Walter “Buck” Leonard helped Gibson power the Homestead Grays to nine pennants in 16 years.
More than just a slugger, Buck won three batting titles. In 1939, he enjoyed his best season as he led the Negro Leagues in hitting with a 417 batting average. Over a 17-year career in the Negro National League, his lifetime stats show a .341 average in league play and a .382 average in exhibition games against big leaguers. Leonard was also considered a Gold Glove–quality first baseman, able to range far to his right to steal base hits headed for the hole.
When the New York Giants — undoubtedly motivated by the prospect of seeing their arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers corner the market in Negro League players and establish a dynasty (which Brooklyn did anyway) — signed Monte Irvin as a free agent in 1949, he was already 30 years old and 12 years into his professional career — well past a ballplayer’s prime performance years.
It didn’t stop Irvin from making an immediate and dramatic impact during his seven years in the National League. The leftfielder/first baseman smacked-down racism and mashed NL pitching, compiling a lifetime .283/.383/.475 triple slash line and an OPS+ of 125 (meaning he was 25 percent better than the average hitter, a remarkable achievement).
Moreover, in 1951 he led the National League in RBIs and propelled the Giants team that came from 13½ games out of first place in mid-August to tie Brooklyn and set the stage for a three-game playoff that culminated in Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.” Although the Giants lost to the New York Yankees in the subsequent World Series (this was the era when New York City owned baseball), Irvin hit .458 — and stole home!
The first act of his career, spent with the Newark Eagles, was almost as show stealing. “Mr. Murder” hit for both average and power, and provided a potent bat in a Newark Eagles lineup, starring on the 1942 club that also included legends Willie Wells, Biz Mackey, and Mule Suttles. He was considered one of the Negro League’s greatest hitters and won the 1946 batting title. Over his career, he played for the Newark Eagles, New York Giants, and the Chicago Cubs.
Cool Papa Bell
The story is as oft-told as it is apocryphal: Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn off a light switch and slip under the covers before the room got dark. That never happened, but there’s no doubt that Bell was one of the fastest men ever to play baseball. He was once clocked circling all four bases in an astounding 12 seconds.
Cool Papa often went from first to third on bunts and scored from second on sacrifice flies. On at least three occasions, he stole two bases on a single pitch. A line-drive hitter who was an inside-the-park home-run threat any time the ball got past an outfielder, Bell hit .316 over a 21-season career. He played for the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants, and Homestead Grays.
The incomparable Martin Dihigo played all nine positions with such consummate skill and panache that both his contemporaries and historians have called him possibly the most versatile player in baseball history. “El Maestro,” as he was known, was a Pan-American legend, starting in his native Cuba but also in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and 12 seasons in the Negro Leagues.
Playing in the Mexican League in 1938, he went 18–2 and led the league with 0.92 ERA (and a league-best 184 Ks), while also winning the batting crown with a .387 mark — and besting Satchel Paige in the final league playoff by hitting a walk-off home run off the exhausted Paige’s reliever. He was Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson combined, hidden behind the color line. Dihigo is also a member of the Cuban, Venezuelan, and Mexican Halls of Fame.
He played for the Cuban Stars, Homestead Grays, Hilldale Daisies, Baltimore Black Sox, and New York Cubans during his illustrious career.
Smokey Joe Williams
Ty Cobb, not the most generous of men, once said that Smokey Joe Williams would have been a sure 30-game winner had he been allowed to pitch in the Major Leagues. Williams may have been the fastest pitcher of his time, regardless of league. Chicago Giants owner Frank Leland would boast, “If you’ve ever seen the speed of a pebble thrown in a storm, you have not yet seen speed the equal of this wonderful giant from Texas.”
Before baseball integration, African-American all-star teams played Major League teams and Major League all-star teams often in exhibitions around the country. In 1912, while pitching against McGraw’s Giants, the National League champs, Williams crafted a 6–0 shutout. Three years later, against the pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies, he outlasted Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1–0, with a three-hitter. Then, in 1917, Williams is said to have no-hit the Giants and struck out 20 but lost on an error in another 1–0 finish (though there is no evidence that he allowed no hits).
During his career, he played for the New York Lincoln Giants and the Homestead Grays.
Every team Rube Foster played for was known as the Giants — the Chicago Union Giants, Cuban Giants, Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Chicago Leland Giants, and the Chicago American Giants. That was appropriate because he was a giant personality, the most dominant figure in Negro League baseball for the first quarter of the 20th century. Foster didn’t throw nearly as hard as Satchel Paige or Smokey Joe Williams, but he won just as often. He was a crafty pitcher who kept hitters off-stride with the twisting, “fadeaway” screwball he later passed on to New York Giants ace Christy Mathewson.
Foster joined the professional ranks in 1902 when he won 51 games, including 44 in a row, while pitching for the Cuban Giants. The following season he topped that performance by going 54–1. A shrewd baseball tactician, Foster assumed the role of pitcher-manager for the Chicago Leland Giants in 1907. He guided that team to a remarkable 110–10 record.
Three years later, Foster’s Giants won national fame by winning 123 games and losing only six. He offered to match his squad against any white major-league club in a best-of-seven series for the “true baseball championship of the world.” No one responded to his challenge. In 1920, Foster founded the Negro National League, which is widely regarded as baseball’s first viable black major league.