There’s a pretty good chance that, even if you are somewhat familiar with the Negro Leagues, you have never heard of Bullet Rogan. We know too little about him. He played the bulk of his professional career in the 1920s, before there was even moderate coverage of the Negro Leagues, and he died in 1967, before Robert Peterson’s ground-breaking history, “Only the Ball Was White” created interest in revisiting the Negro Leagues.
Charles Wilber Rogan — though some would say his named was actually Wilber Joe Rogan (and he was sometimes called “Bullet Joe” — was 5-foot-7, 160 pounds … so it’s easy to misunderstand his greatness. He was a small man, but not little. His game, in every way, was power. It’s easy to get fooled by the players sizes early the 20th Century. Mel Ott was just 5-foot-9, 170. Ripper Collins was 5-foot-9, 165. Pud Galvin, who was said to throw the best fastball of his day, was barely 5-foot-8.
Rogan was born in Oklahoma and he grew up in Kansas City, Kansas., where he showed a natural gift for baseball both as a hitter and a pitcher. That’s not a particularly descriptive review of his childhood. but it more or less covers what we know. In one of his rare interviews, he said he was born playing baseball. He ran away to join the army before he was 18 — he apparently lied about his age — and his baseball talent was recognized immediately. Nobody knows exactly when they started calling him Bullet, but it seems likely that it was just about the first time anyone saw him pitch. He threw that hard.
In 1915, when he was 22, he was recruited to play for the 25th Infantry Wreckers in Hawaii, perhaps the best African American baseball team in the country at the time. This was before Rube Foster and others founded the Negro National League in 1920, so the Wreckers were covered by African American papers across the country. The Wreckers would play other Army teams but would also travel around to play civilian teams. Future Negro League stars like Heavy Johnson and Dobie Moore played for the Wreckers. Rogan became their star almost immediately.
A fantastic find here — a story from Rogan’s first game with the Wreckers — shows that there was a lot of buzz about Rogan right from the start.
“The chief interest in the game was the first appearance on the local diamond of Rogan, late of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry, who arrived on the last transport. There is hardly a company commander in the Twenty-Fifth Infantry who has not made a bid for this man’s assignment to their company, without success. … He played the first three innings at third base and made a great impression. He looks like the classiest infielder the regiment has had in some time. In the fourth, he went into the (pitcher’s) box and here his success was even more pronounced. He had worlds of speed and a quick delivery following a leisurely windup that is in itself puzzling to any batter. At the bat, he had three chances and in each case met the first ball pitched on the nose but each time in in the direction of some fielder.”
Within a year, Rogan’s pitching was being celebrated in the Chicago Defender (“Rogan Strikes Out Eighteen Men;” “Rogan Wins Again: “Twenty-Fifth Wins Without Rogan”). It has been written that Rogan’s fellow Kansas Citian, Casey Stengel, recommended Rogan to the new Kansas City Monarchs J.L. Wilkinson, and that may be true, but Rogan was no secret. When the league was founded in 1920, Rogan was one of the best known black players in the country. There were numerous efforts to get him signed. The Monarchs won the bidding war.
Stengel admired Rogan for the rest of his life. He and Rogan barnstormed together for a time and years later, when asked about Rogan, said he was “one of the best, if not the best, pitcher who ever lived.”
And Buck O’Neil, who played with Rogan at the end of his career, would counter that Rogan was an even better hitter than he was a pitcher.
That’s the sort of baseball player we are talking about here.
Rogan was 26 when he joined the Kansas City Monarchs. He played centerfield when he wasn’t pitching, pitched when he wasn’t playing centerfield, and he was fantastic either way. He was mostly known for his pitching. He was one of the first to throw without wind-up, which probably made his lightning fastball seem even faster. Frank Duncan, who caught Satchel Paige and Bullet Rogan, would say that Rogan threw harder. And Paige himself, while he wasn’t much for comparing himself with anyone else, would say that Rogan threw as fast as Smokey Joe Williams, the gold standard in the Negro Leagues.
But he was an extraordinary hitter too. Buck used to talk about the giant bat Rogan used — he thought it weighed more than Babe Ruth’s 50-ounce model — and how even as he approached 50 he could still swing that tree trunk and hit the ball just where he wanted. In his third year in the Negro Leagues, according to the best statistics available, Rogan hit .395 with 13 homers in 225 plate appearnces. Two years later he hit .392 and slugged .603 as he led the Monarchs to the first Negro Leagues World Series against Hilldale. Rogan was the star as the Monarchs won.
The next year, he hit .381 and slugged .590 and, as a pitcher, went 17-2 with a 2.31 ERA.
But the numbers are foggy. Everything from the Negro Leagues in that time, sadly, is foggy. There are signs of Rogan’s brilliance beyond the numbers. He shut down an All-Star team that included Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons. He led a team to the Cuban championship in winter ball. He hit close to .300 as a 43-year-old in 1938 — this was when Buck O’Neil played with him. “Bullet Rogan knew more about hitting than any man alive,” Buck used to say.
Bullet Rogan stayed around the game for years after he retired from playing, He served as an umpire for many years. He then settled down in Kansas City, where he worked for the post office. He was one of the first big stars in Negro Leagues Baseball, a dominant hitter and pitcher, but he was not elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame until 1998, some 31 years after he died.