(Second in the series: “Witnessing the Greatest Players of All Time”)
Anyone who cares about sports knows the basic story of Jackie Robinson. He was chosen to be the first black man to play professional baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He wasn’t chosen entirely because of his athletic ability, he was also extraordinarily courageous and possessed an inordinate ability for self-control.
His statistics are formidable; in only nine years with the Dodgers, he had a lifetime batting average of .311. He had 1518 hits, 137 home runs, 734 RBI’s and 197 stolen bases. He was an All-Star six times in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954. He won one World Series in 1955, and was the NL MVP in 1949, and the NL Rookie of the Year in 1947. He also won the NL batting title in 1949 and was selected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
This story is about other players who played in the Negro Leagues. Almost no one who is alive today ever had the privilege to see them play.
The Negro Leagues played few league games. In order to allow their players to make a living, they played against other semi-pro teams and other leagues. Although league statistics do not reveal the complete story, authors of baseball history have pieced together a more accurate representation of these great players.
According to baseball writers, the greatest baseball player of all time might have been a catcher who primarily played for the Homestead Grays and also for the ‘Pittsburgh Crawfords’. His name was Josh Gibson.
Baseball devotees who watched him play called him the “Black Babe Ruth.” Negro League fans called Ruth the “White Josh Gibson.”
He averaged a homerun every 15.9 at bats which is equal to the greatest hitters of all time in the majors.
His official statistics in the Negro Leagues do not tell his story. In 16 seasons, he played 510 games. He had 1855 at bats and 666 hits. He hit 115 home runs and had a batting average of .359.
Negro League historians adjusted his output for all games he played. They claim his homerun output was between 800 and 1,000. His batting average was over .400. All of these figures are debatable, but those who watched him claimed that he was the greatest of all time.
Gibson fell into a coma in early 1943. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When he regained consciousness, he refused to have surgery. He died in 1947 from a stroke, just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black major league player. Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
Satchel Paige could be called the greatest right-handed pitcher of all time. While playing in the Southern Negro Leagues his fastball dominated batters. He also threw occasional curve balls and change-ups. When he suffered an arm injury, he developed his “hesitation pitch.” He knew batters would be tensed, preparing for his fastball. He paused at the top of his wind-up, put his left foot on the ground, and hesitated a fraction of a second before bringing his right arm forward. Batters often swung at the pitch before it neared home plate.
Paige would perform exhibitions where he had the infield sit behind him as he proceeded to strike out three batters in a row.
He became the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball in July 1948 when he joined the Cleveland Indians at the age of 42. His last professional game was for the Kansas City Athletics in Sept. 1965. His record was 28 wins, 31 losses, with an ERA of 3.29, and 288 strikeouts. He won a World Series in 1948, and was an All-Star in 1952 and again in 1953. He was the first player inducted into the Hall of Fame based primarily on his play in the Negro Leagues in 1971. He died in his home at the age of 75.
Buck Leonard played for the Homestead Grays from 1934 until 1950. The Grays were considered the best Negro League team throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and are deemed by most to be the best professional team ever assembled in any league.
He was a left handed first baseman who hit in the fourth position behind Josh Gibson. Just as Gibson had been nicknamed the “Black Babe Ruth” because he was left-handed, Leonard was called the “Black Lou Gehrig.”
Between 1937 and 1945, the Grays won 9 consecutive Negro National League championships. He won the batting championship in 1948 with a .395 average. Leonard alternated with Gibson as the home run and RBI champ throughout most of his career.
His Negro League statistics were” a lifetime batting average of .320, with a slugging percentage of .527. In 412 games, he had 60 homeruns, and 275 RBI’s.
He was offered a Major League contract, but declined. He was 45 at the time, and considered himself too old to compete in the Majors.
A switch-hitting, left-handed center-fielder known as “Cool Papa Bell” was known as one of the fastest men to ever play baseball. Many of his home runs were of the “inside the park” variety. During his 22-year career as a player and coach, he was a .341 lifetime hitter, but his speed gave him legendary status. Josh Gibson once said of him: “He’s so fast he could turn off the lights and be under the covers before it got dark.” Legend claims that one time he hit the ball up the middle, and was struck by that same ball as he reached second base. In Ken Burns’ Baseball, he says that Bell had once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt in an exhibition game against white all-stars. Bell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Oscar Charleston was a left-handed player and manager in the Negro Leagues from 1915 to 1945. He was a center fielder for several teams with a lifetime batting average of .353 and a slugging percentage of .576. He was known as one of the best defensive players of all time.
In 1932, he became player-manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. His teammates included Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Judy Johnson. That team was considered the best Negro League team of all time. Their record was 99-36. His batting average during that period was .363. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976.
Baseball was played in its purest form, for the love of the game. Although we never got to see them play, these men, and many more like them, gave thrills to thousands of fans, and because of racial separation, thousands of white baseball fans never had the opportunity to witness their greatness.
If I close my eyes I can see Josh Gibson smashing a ball over center field, or Satchel Paige hesitating at the top of his delivery; I can hear the crack of the bat as Buck Leonard lined a homerun over the right field wall, and I see Cool Papa Bell flying around the bases, and Oscar Charleston leading his team by example. I’m only sorry I never got to see them with my eyes wide open.
By: James Turnage