The Crawfords

A lot of people have spent a lot of time writing books and articles   expounding on which team was the greatest ever. The 1927 Yankees frequently win. Recently there have been pushes for the Yankees of 1939 and of 1998. Might I suggest there is another contender; the 1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League. They may not have been the greatest team ever, but they were close.

In 1931, Gus Greenlee purchased the Crawfords, named for a prominent black grill in Pittsburgh. He set out to make it the premier black ballclub in the United States. To do that he needed to do a couple of things. He managed to get a handful of other owners to join in reestablishing the Negro National League. This gave his team a place to play with a certain amount of guaranteed gates and a way to showcase his team in other locations outside western Pennsylvania. Of course, he also needed players. Between 1932 and 1936 he put together a powerhouse that may have been the greatest concentration of players ever.

He picked up Oscar Charleston first. Charleston was toward the end of his career and had moved from the outfield to first base. He could still play and he could still hit but Greenlee wanted him to be his player/manager. It was a good choice. Charleston was well liked and well respected by the team.

The rest of the infield consisted of Dick Seay at second, Chester Williams at short, and Judy Johnson at third. Johnson was the star. He played an excellent third base, hit for good average, had speed, and was supposed to be a good clubhouse man. Williams could hit pretty well, but had no power. He was good in the field and was considered the premier fielding shortstop of his day. Seay hit eighth for a reason. As a second baseman he was terrific, but didn’t do much with the bat. 

The four primary outfielders were Cool Papa Bell in center with Jim Crutchfield, Sam Bankhead, and Rap Dixon flanking him at various times. Bell led off and was noted for his speed and bat control. In the field he was fast enough to cut down shots into the gaps and had a decent arm. Crutchfield, Bankhead, and Dixon were a step down from Bell, but could all contribute with both the bat and the glove.

Josh Gibson was the catcher. He is almost universally conceded to be the finest player in Negro Leagues history. Some baseball historians contend he was the best catcher to ever play, regardless of race. His power was legendary, the stories mythic. He is in many ways the Negro Leagues equivalent of Babe Ruth, not just in playing ability, but also in the level of myth surrounding him. He gets credit for 800 or more home runs, but less than 200 can be documented, so nobody knows how many he hit, but apparently it was a lot.

The pitching staff could stand up to most teams in any league. Led by Satchel Paige, Gibson’s only rival for the title of most famous Negro Leaguer, the team also consisted of Double Duty Radcliffe, William Bell, and lefty LeRoy Matlock. Paige was a legend in the era. He was supposed to have the best fastball of the age and could make a baseball do whatever he wanted. There are stories of him sending his fielders to the bench so he could strikeout the side without being distracted (the same sort of stories also exist about Dizzy Dean, among others). Radcliffe was known for pitching one end of a double header then turning around and catching the other game. Matlock became famous for stringing together 18 consecutive wins in 1935.

The 1934-1936 Crawfords are the specific teams that get consideration as the finest Negro League team. They won the pennant in 1934 and 1935. In 1936 there was a dispute with the Washington Elite Giants over the pennant winner. A seven game series to determine the champion was suggested, but cancelled after only one game, which the Elite Giants won.

By 1937 the team was getting old. A number of players like Paige, Gibson, and Bell went to Latin America to play for more money. By 1939 the team was in such bad shape both economically and in talent that Greenlee sold the team, which was moved to Toledo.

For a few years the Crawfords dominated Negro League baseball. Their players produced 5 Hall of Famers in Gibson, Paige, Bell, Charleston, and Johnson and a number of other players who were much more than role players. they fell prey to the economics of the era and of Negro League baseball in general, but are still remembered as a premier franchise in black baseball.

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