The Negro National League was formed on Feb. 11, 1920 at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City. Well, anyway, that is the day that I have written in my notes … I see in other places it listed at February 13, 1920. I see no reason at all why we shouldn’t just make it a three-day celebration.
And to celebrate, I’m putting up a poll … based on a question from brilliant reader Patrick who writes a cool baseball blog. His question: If you could go back and see any one player from the Negro Leagues — that is, the leagues BEFORE Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier in 1947* — who would it be?
*As you probably know, the Negro Leagues lasted more than a decade after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. In fact, numerous great players — Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and others — played in the Negro Leagues after Jackie Robinson crossed the line. But we’re going to focus on the years before 1946.
I’ve listed off 10 players who I would have loved to see. There are many, many others of course — Ray Dandridge, Willie Wells, Torriente, Smokey Joe Williams, Leon Day on and on — but let’s focus on these 10. I think I know who will win the polling, but let’s see what you have to say. Remember, the question is not “Who was the best player?” but rather, “Who would you love most to go back and see?”
Cool Papa Bell
Fastest player in baseball history? There are two great legends about him — one about how he hit a line drive up the middle and was called out when the ball hit him as he slid into second base. The other, which a couple of people have insisted is true, was that he once bunted the ball down the third-base line and was tagged out by the pitcher as he slid into third base.
Forget the myths, though. There is no question that Cool Papa Bell was preposterously fast — so fast that Jesse Owens, as he traveled around the Negro Leagues on various publicity tours would not race him. James Riley has him stealing 175 bases in 200 games one year. Player after player said that if a grounder bounced twice, you had no chance whatsoever of throwing out Cool Papa.
Buck O’Neil used to say that Willie Mays was the greatest Major Leaguer he ever saw, but Oscar Charleston was the greatest player he ever saw. Hitting, power, speed, defense, arm and a disagreeable intolerance of losing … he was sometimes called the Black Ty Cobb, which offended his sensibilities. He did hit like Cobb, but with more power. He ran like Cobb, but thought himself faster than Cobb. He was such a good fielder, he would play ludicrously shallow center field … practically begging the hitter to try and hit a ball over his head.
“He’d give you 50 homers and he’d steal you 80 bases,” Buck used to say. “And he was like Mays or DiMaggio in center field.”
They say he played all nine positions — not as a stunt, but as a matter of his day-to-day job. He mostly played second base in his early years, with some shortstop mixed in. He mostly played outfielder as an older player. He did a little catcher now and again, just to show he could. , Dihigo is in three Halls of Fame (Mexican, Cuban and Cooperstown) and his greatness as a hitter, a pitcher, a fielder at almost any position is unquestioned.
One thing that’s fascinating about the Negro Leagues is how versatile ALL the players were. This was in large part a necessity because of the smaller rosters. But it does pose the question: With players being so versatile and not specializing as much, did that mean the quality of the league wasn’t as good? I don’t have an answer for this. Well, I DO have an answer, an opinion, but I’d be fascinated to hear what you think about it.
A hitter of legendary power — it is said that he hit ball out of the old Yankee Stadium, and it is also said he hit a ball out of Philadelphia that was caught the next day in Pittsburgh. Well, with Gibson, sadly, these legends are all we’re left with. He, like Charleston, was often compared to a white player … in his case he was called “The Black Babe Ruth.” But unlike Ruth, Gibson rarely struck out even by the standards of the time — he had an astonishingly powerful swing but it was also controlled. Gibson’s statistics are hard to chase down. James A. Riley in the Biographical Encyclopedia credited Gibson with 964 homers in his career, which is certainly possible when you count all the barnstorming games.
Baseball Reference’s stats, which I believe come out of the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame Committee study in 2005 (I’m not 100% sure of this) have him with 107 homers in 1987 plate appearances — so, roughly 35 to 40 in a full season, and this would be against the peak Negro Leagues competition. In 1943, these stats have him hitting .486 with 22 doubles, five triples and 12 homers in 183 plate appearances … that’s really not too bad. You wonder what he might have hit against the weakened competition in the Major Leagues that year.
Get ready for another white player nickname — he was called the “Black Lou Gehrig” — and Leonard was one of the coolest guys in baseball history. He worked on the railroads before he played baseball, and he was a great hitter — power, average, you name it, — but even more he carried himself with such dignity that everyone who came across him admired him.
He was held in such high regard that it’s said Washington owner Clark Griffith actually met with him years before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, though of course nothing ever came of it. It is also said the Bill Veeck wanted to sign him to play for the St. Louis Browns, even though Leonard was about 40 at the time.
There are many ways to judge a fastball. There’s the speed of it. There’s movement of it. There’s the control of it. And there are a few other more subtle qualities — there are some windups that throw off a hitters timing, for instance. In any case, there’s an argument to be made that when you throw all of it together, Satchel Paige threw the greatest fastball in the history of baseball. You probably have heard the Paige would name his pitches — trouble ball, bee ball, jump ball, long tom, smoke ball and, my personal favorite, midnight rider — but people who faced him said they were all just various versions of his amazing fastball, which he could throw at different speeds, from different angles and over a stick of chewing gum, the long way.*
There are those who would say that Satchel Paige wasn’t the best pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, but everybody would admit he was most AMAZING pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues because of his longevity and the essential pitcher of the Negro Leagues because of his unmatched promotional powers. He pitched forever, and he pitched practically every day, and the baseball fan in me would give pretty much anything to have seen him when he was young.
*Not only COULD he throw his fastball over a stick of chewing gum, he would before just about every game.
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Bullet Joe Rogan
Like Dihigo, one of the great pitcher/hitter combinations in baseball history. With Rogan, nobody was quite sure which one he did better. He was a relatively small man — no taller than 5-foot-7 — but he swung a tree-trunk of a bat and could place the ball anywhere he liked. Years later, Buck O’Neil would say Rogan gave him hitting lessons, and poor Buck could not keep up with what the man was telling him. Rogan was, according to his Baseball Reference page, a .338 lifetime hitter who hit as many as 13 home runs in a shortened season.
He might have been even more famous as a pitcher. He threw hard — that’s where the Bullet nickname comes from — but he threw numerous other pitches, not all of them as legal as the purists might like, and he rarely lost. His Baseball Reference record was 119-50, but it was said that if you include the hundreds of exhibitions he played all over the country, he won more than 400 games.
Rogan was also the hero of the first Negro Leagues World Series in 1924, pitching three complete games and hitting over .300.
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This is more of a personal choice — I’ve long loved Hilton Smith. Oh, he was a great player. He, like the other nine on the list, is in the Hall of Fame. He had a fabulous curveball, perhaps the best in Negro Leagues baseball. He gained fame — if you can call it fame — as “Satchel’s Relief.” Paige in his later years would start just about every game because he was such a drawing card. And so many days he would pitch two or three innings to entertain the crowd, and then Smith would come in to pitch relief. It wasn’t an especially comfortable arrangement because Smith believed, at that point in their careers, he was the better of the two pitchers.*
*Bob Feller also thought he was better than Paige in the 1940s.
But Smith kept most of those thoughts to himself. He kept most thoughts to himself in general … he was a quiet and modest man. There was actually a strong sense in the early 1940s that Smith was the perfect man to break the color barrier. His father was a teacher (he would become a teacher himself), he had attended Prairie View A&M, he was smart and driven and a brilliant player — a great candidate for breaking the color line. But he was also a pitcher, and for various reasons it seemed very unlikely that the first black player in the modern Major Leagues would be a pitcher. After he finished playing ball, Smith went on to work a steel plant in Kansas City and was so humble about his baseball achievements that people who worked with him for many years had no idea he was once one of the best pitchers in the world.
They called him Turkey for the way he ran — flapping his wings all the way.
There are so many wonderful stories about Stearnes and how much he loved his bats. He used to keep them in special cases and, on occasion, he would talk to them. And he knew how to swing a bat. According to his Baseball Reference page, he hit 176 home runs against top competition — I believe this is the most of anyone in Negro Leagues history by this statistical measure. He had a ferocious and beautiful left-handed swing — Buck said it was like a combination of Billy Williams and Ted Williams — and he just kept hitting baseballs for 20 years.
He was sort of Josh Gibson before Josh Gibson. A bull of a man who, it was said, used a 50 ounce bat. Think about that for a second: A FIFTY-OUNCE BAT. The guy was swinging a three-pound bat, and hitting fastballs out of the park, it’s hard to imagine. I have a Duane Kuiper bat in my office which I swing regularly at imaginary fastballs, and this bat was about TWICE AS BIG as the Kuiper bat and I’m in awe. I’m not alone.
One great Mule Suttles story — recounted by James Riley — is that against Memphis one year he hit three home runs in a single inning. And the next time he came to the plate, the Memphis team — in his honor — just walked off the field.