Archive for February, 2011

My Best Negro League Roster

February 28, 2011

A friend of mine who reads this blog called me up the other day. He suggested I post what was, in my opinion, the best Negro League team. I went into a long discourse about why that wasn’t possible because of lack of stats and collaborating info and anything else I could come up with to get out of it. He finally cut me off with a simple, “Wing it.” So for the edification of anyone who happens to run across this, and to cap a long group of Negro League posts, here’s my list of the best Negro League players, with appropriate caveats (You knew those were coming, didn’t you?).

First, I took only guys who played the majority of their careers in the Negro Leagues. In other words guys like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were out, as were Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. Second, I did a 25 man roster with a manager and an owner, and a couple of special add ons. I included 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 3 catchers, and 8 pitchers (at least two of which had to be left-handed). I know that almost no Negro League team ever actually had 25 men on its roster and that if they did they weren’t aligned as I’ve aligned my team. But this is the way I wanted to do it. I have an aversion to comparing players in the pre-mound era with those whose career is mostly after the advent of the mound and the 60’6″ pitching distance.  I simply think the game is so different you can’t compare players (feel free to disagree). That led to a real problem for me, Frank Grant. I think he is probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest black players ever, but that’s unquantifiable to me. So I had to leave him out, and wish I didn’t.

So here we go. All players are listed alphabetically by position. That means there is no indication that I think the guy listed first is better, although he may be a lot better. Don’t expect a lot of surprises, and keep the snickers to yourselves.

Catcher: Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop. This was actually pretty easy. There seems to be a consensus between statheads, historians, and old Negro League players that these three were head and shoulders above the other catchers in Negro League play. Fleet Walker was also a catcher, but I don’t think he was the quality of these three and he also fails to meet the post-mound criteria. Sorry, Fleet.

1st Base: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles. There were two problems here. The first was the necessity of leaving out Buck O’Neill. I don’t suppose there is a more important Negro Leaguer (except for Jackie Robinson), but the information on him makes it evident that he wasn’t really at the top of the line of Negro League first basemen. The second problem is that Mule Suttles spent a lot of time in the outfield. But it was common for Negro League players to do “double duty” in the field, so Suttles at first isn’t actually a bad idea.

2nd Base: Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss. I think I had more trouble settling on the second basemen than on any other position (OK, maybe pitcher). First, I wanted to put Grant in, but just couldn’t because of the problems mentioned above. I also think it might be the weakest position in Negro League play. The list of truly great players here is awfully short. I think these two are probably the best, but I could be talked into someone else.

3rd Base: Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson. Again an easy pick. There seems to be universal agreement that Dandridge was a fielder unlike any other in the history of the Negro Leagues, and that Johnson could outhit anyone who played the position. Who am I to argue with universal agreement?

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd, Willie Wells. Lloyd was an easy pick. If Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop who ever shortstopped, says he’s pleased to be compared with Lloyd, I’m gonna take him at his word. Wells was also pretty easy. Again there seems to be a consensus among the sources that he was a terrific shortstop.

Outfield: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Martin DiHigo, Turkey Stearnes, Christobal Torriente. First, I didn’t worry about getting two each Right, Center, and Left. I ended up with two Right Fielders (Brown, DiHigo), one in Left (Stearnes), and the rest are Center Fielders. One of the things about studying and researching for this list is how quickly you find out Bell is seriously overrated. Now I don’t mean to imply Bell wasn’t a heck of a ballplayer; he was. He may have been the very best Negro League outfielder ever. But there seems to be this idea that he was just head and shoulders above the others (Charleston and Torriente). From what I read, I just don’t see that. Maybe he was better, but if so not by much. Certainly he wasn’t better by the amount a lot of people seem to want to think. It reminds me of what I call the “Derek Jeter Aura”. Is Jeter the best shortstop who started his career in the last 15 or so years? Yes. Is he the  greatest since the position was invented (as some would have us believe)?  Not even close, but try telling that to legions of his fans. And Bell seems to be running through that same situation. Personally, I think Charleston was better (and again that’s a personal opinion, not bolstered by much in the way of facts) and I’m not sure that DiHigo wasn’t the finest Negro League outfielder of the lot (or maybe he wasn’t, it’s tough to tell). I am fairly sure that DiHigo is the most under appreciated of the lot.

Pitcher: Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Leon Day, Bill Foster, Luis Mendez, Satchel Paige, Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith. This may have been the hardest of the lists to determine. First, there aren’t a lot of really good left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues, so finding two (and one-quarter of the list being left-handed didn’t seem unreasonable) became a pain. Next, there were more than six righty’s that had to be considered. I hated to leave any off, but this list is my best guess.

Manager: Rube Foster. OK, he had to be here somewhere. He seems to have been a better pitcher than manager and a better manager than executive, but the founder of the Negro Leagues ought to be here.

Owner:  Cum Posey. I said that both second and pitching caused me the most problem. That’s true of players, but finding the best owner to put on the team was almost a nightmare. Who do you take? J.L. Wilkinson owned the most famous team (the Monarchs), Effa Manley of Newark was probably the most famous owner, Gus Greenlee owned the best team (the Crawfords). I looked at all of them and chose Posey, the man who owned the Grays. I think the Grays were the most consistantly successful team in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. I decided that made Posey the owner.

One of a kind: Double Duty Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known to pitch one game of a double-header, then catch the other game. You have to be kidding me. 

Post Negro League Career: Charley Pride. One of the great things about being married to my wife is that every morning I get to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Now I may be wrong about this, but “Just Between You and Me,” as far as I can tell, Pride had the best non-sports related career of any Negro Leaguer.

A Charley Pride baseball card

The musical information shown here tells me this card is a fake, but I just couldn’t resist putting it up for show and tell.

Here’s hoping you’ve learned something from this sojourn into the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Failing that, I hope you enjoyed them. With the end of Black History Month, I’ll think I’ll take up something else.


RIP the Silver Fox

February 27, 2011

Normally I take Sunday’s off, but I just saw on the msnbc website, that one of the all-time heroes from my youth died. Duke Snider was 84 and the last of the Hall of Fame “Boys of Summer”. RIP, Duke. Here’s a nice shot from the ‘net.

The Duke of Flatbush


February 25, 2011

Josh Gibson

Here’s a list of a dozen things you should know about Josh Gibson:

1. He was born in 1911 in the South, but moved to Pittsburgh when still young.

2. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

3. He also played in the Dominican, Mexican and Puerto Rican Leagues. Some sources claim he was even better there than in the Negro Leagues.

4. With him behind the plate, the Grays won the Negro League World Series in both 1943 and 1944. How much World War II changed Negro League rosters, I don’t know.

5. He married in 1929 and his wife died in childbirth the next year. She had twins, both of which survived.

6. Although sources vary, the most common numbers I could find list him as 6′ 1″ and 210 pounds.

7. Negro League statistics, when they exist, are all over the place. Gibson’s are no exception. When MLB decided to add a bunch of Negro League players to the Hall of Fame in 2007, they had researchers compile stats on as many Negro League players as they could find. This included Gibson. While admittedly incomplete, the numbers they found indicate he hit .359, slugged .648 (but no on base percentage is available, so no OPS or OPS+ is known), played 510 games in 16 seasons peaking at 53 in 1934 (an average of 39 per season), had 666 hits, 109 doubles, 41 triples, and 115 home runs for 1202 total bases. He knocked in 432 RBIs and scored 467 runs with 22 stolen bases.  Let me point out that with barnstorming, games against white teams, and against Major League players, Negro League seasons were considerably shorter than Major League seasons.

8. In 1943 Gibson developed a cancerous brain tumor. His 1944 season is still good, but the last two years are evidently effected by the illness.

9. He was angry that Jackie Robinson was chosen over him to integrate Major League baseball. In Robinson’s defense Jackie was considerably younger.

10. Gibson died in 1947 of a stroke. He was 35.

11. The 1996 movie Soul of the Game, which dealt with the signing of Robinson, featured Gibson as one of the two major figures Branch Rickey was looking at (Satchel Paige was the other) when he opted for Robinson. The movie is highly fictionalized.

12. In 1972 he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

The First Generation

February 23, 2011

I want to look at something I found that is just a bit unusual. I’ll be the first to admit that I looked at the initial generation of black players to make the Major Leagues as guys whose careers are incomplete. After all, so my argument went, they lost so much time to segregation that we only have a part of their career to study. Turns out that argument is only partially true. In the case of older players like Sam Jethroe or Luke Easter or Satchel Paige or Willard Brown it’s correct. But there is another group of first generation blacks who don’t fit at all into that argument. In what you’re about to read, do not forget that this is a  very small sample of players and is nothing like a definitive look at all the players of the era.

Among the players who first integrated the Major Leagues were a number of younger up and coming players. I looked at some of them with an eye toward determining if what we had was something like a full career. I took the players who integrated their teams prior to 1951 then eliminated those guys like Jethroe and the others mentioned above who I knew had established Negro League careers of long duration. I concentrated on their ages. There was some differences in the posted age of various players so I went with’s age (right or wrong, it is at least a starting point). By concentrating on the Rookies of the Year and a handful of other players who came quickly to mind I put together the following list of first generation players who were relatively young (At my age “young” is always relative) and spent time in the Negro Leagues before 1951: 20-Willie Mays; 21-Hank Thompson; 23-Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso,  Don Newcombe; 24-Jim Gilliam; 26-Roy Campanella; 28-Joe Black, Jackie Robinson; and 30-Monte Irvin. They average 24.6 years of age when they arrive in the Major Leagues, and if you leave out Irvin, the oldest, it’s 24.0. Now let’s be honest here. Obviously under a normal career progression, guys like Irvin are already passed their prime and both Black and Robinson are right in the heart of theirs. And Campanella is also different in that he’d been playing Negro League ball since age 16. So even within this group, a number have lost significant time to Negro League play, just not all. This list also leaves out players like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks who come up later and, at least to me, aren’t quite members of that first generation of black Major Leaguers.

So I wondered was 24.6 “old” for a rookie in the 1947-1955 era? For comparison I took a like number of white players. I went to the Rookie of the Year list and took the white players from 1948 through 1955 trying to come up with 10 names, two of which were pitchers. Here’s the list: 21-Harvey Kuenn; 22-Roy Sievers, Herb Score; 23-Gil McDougald; 24-Bill Virdon, Wally Moon, Bob Grim; 25-Harry Byrd; 26-Alvin Dark, Walt Dropo.  The average age here is 23.8, or less than one year difference. And if you leave out Dropo (who with Dark is the oldest), you get 23.4.

The point of all this is not to compare the black players with the white players, although you can if you want. The point is that there is a group of Negro League players who arrive in the Major Leagues at about the same age as white counterparts so we may look at their Major League careers as being as substantially complete as those white counterparts. That doesn’t mean that special circumstances might have changed the age the player arrived in the Major Leagues, only that both groups arrive at roughly the same age. 

Of the black list above only Irvin and Joe Black are older than the oldest of the white players. Campanella is the same age as the oldest white player. As mentioned above, this doesn’t mean that the careers should be directly compared; only that the black players, like the white players, have careers that are substantially complete. It does mean that should you ask if Jim Gilliam was as good as Wally Moon (both were 24 when they arrived in the Majors), you can look over their career stats, and then make a judgement without wondering how much did Gilliam lose to his Negro League career. I think that’s worth noting. What you decide about either Gilliam and Moon is up to you.

The Obligatory Second

February 21, 2011

When I was in the army one of my best friends was a black guy from New York. We did a lot of things together, including heading to a few parties. I had a car, he didn’t, and it was easiest for us to head out together in my Dodge. I remember we pulled up to one party and as we were getting out he commented, “I wonder who the obligatory second is?”  Not unreasonably, I asked, “What the heck is that?” “The people throwing the party can’t admit to tokenism, so they have to invite a second black person to the party so no one can say either of us was a token. That’s the obligatory second.” I told him I thought that sounded terrible. “Actually, sometimes it’s not bad. Sometimes they pick a good-looking girl and I get lucky.” I remember the obligatory second that night was a girl and I also remember driving home alone. He did better than I. Larry Doby was, in many ways, baseball’s obligatory second.

Larry Doby

Larry Doby was born in Jim Crow South Carolina in 1923. The family moved to Paterson, New Jersey where Doby caught the eye of the nearby Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He was signed in 1942 at age 17 to playsecond base. He was good from the beginning, but lost 1944 and 1945 to the Second World War. Back in Newark in 1946, he helped lead his team to the Negro League World Series, a set of games they won 4 games to 3.  Doby didn’t do particularly well. He hit .227, but walked to begin the rally that won game 7 for the Eagles.

In 1947, the Cleveland Indians determined it was time to bring a black player to the American League. The picked Doby over teammate Monte Irvin. Irvin was considered by many contemporary writers as the man who would integrate the AL, but Indians owner Bill Veeck wanted more power and Doby gave him that over Irvin (and Irvin was considerably older). Unfortunately for Doby, the Indians already had a good second baseman, Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Veeck’s solution was to make Doby an outfielder. Doby made his Major League debut on 5 July 1947 in Chicago. He pinch hit and struck out. The day before, 4 July, Cleveland had a home game which they won 13-6. I’m not sure why they didn’t let Doby play on Independence Day in front of a home crowd. For the 1947 season Doby played in 29 games, going 5 for 32 (.156).

By 1948 he was the starting center fielder. Cleveland got hot, Doby did well, and for the first time since 1920, the Indians made the World Series. They won in six games, Doby hitting .318 with a home run. For the regular season he hit .301 with an OPS of 873 and 14 home runs. As a fielder the results were mixed. He led the AL in errors in center field, but was third in the league in assists.

He remained with Cleveland through 1955, twice leading the AL in home runs, and once in both RBIs and runs. In the 1954 111 win season he finished second the the mVP race (to Yogi Berra), being  acknowledged as the most valuable Indian. Unfortunately for Cleveland, 111 were all the wins they were going to get as the Giants swept the World Series. Doby was part of the reason they lost. He hit a buck-25 with no extra base hits and four strikeouts (he had two hits and two walks). In 1956 he was traded to Chicago where he took over center field for the White Sox. His career was on the slide. He went back to Cleveland in 1958, then to Detroit and back to Chicago in 1959. He retired at age 35. He became the third American player to head to Japan when he joined the Japanese Leagues in 1962. He coached at both Montreal and Cleveland, then in 1978 became manager of the White Sox. Again, he was second. Frank Robinson had become the first black manager in the Major Leagues (ironically enough at Cleveland) and Doby was overlooked again. He remainded somewhat overlooked until 1998 when the Veteran’s Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame. His death came in June 2003.

For his big league career, Doby hit .283 with an 876 OPS (136 OPS +). He had 253 home runs, 970 RBIs, 2621 total bases, 1515 hits, and 960 runs (Note the closeness of the RBI and runs number. You don’t see that a lot.) Not a bad career. But over the last few days around here there’s been a lot of comment (including mine) about just how good Negro League players were. Well, with Doby we actually have something like a complete career.  Signed at 17, he’s in the Negro Leagues at ages 18 and 19. By 20 and 21 he’s in the military. At 22 he’s back in the Negro Leagues, and makes his Major League debut at 23. That’s not a bad career progression for the era. Think of 18 and 19 as inital years in the minors then, like a  lot of other minor leagues he goes off to war. He returns to the minors in 1946, then makes his cup of coffee debut at 23. Hank Bauer, to use only one example of a player whose career is interrupted by war, makes his debut (19 games) at age 25. None of that is meant to imply that 1940s Negro League teams were only minor league in quality, but is meant only to give an age progression comparison. So unlike a lot of Negro Leaguers of the first generation who get to the Majors in mid-career, Doby gives us a look at how a  good  young Negro League player could play at the highest level. That was pretty good.

The Last Great Negro League World Series

February 18, 2011

Although the signing of black players to Major League teams began the end for the Negro Leagues, they managed to hold a World Series as late as 1948. But by 1948 the Negro Leagues were on life support. They still had good players. Willie Mays played in the last Negro League World Series (his team lost). But as a whole the leagues were dying. At the end of 1948 the Negro National League folded. But prior to losing most of their best players to the white leagues, the Negro Leagues had one last great Series in 1946.

As with the Major League World Series (won in 1946 by the Cardinals), the Negro League World Series was a best of seven. The 1946 version featured the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. The Monarchs were a well established team that had been victories in previous Negro League World Series’ going all the way back to the 1920s. Manager and back-up catcher Frank Duncan’s team featured NAL batting champion Buck O’Neill at first, Hank Thompson at second, Herb Souell at third, and Series hitting star Chico Renfroe at short (Renfroe had backed up Jackie Robinson earlier). The outfield consisted of Willard Brown in center flanked by Ted Strong in right and a whole group of left fielders including pitchers Robert Griffith and Ford  Smith. The catcher was Joe Greene, who caught a staff that included Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Ford Smith, Chet Brewer, and James LaMarque.

1946 KC Monarchs

The Negro National League winning Newark Eagles weren’t nearly as famous. In fact, their owner, Effa Manley, may have been more famous than the team. They’d never won before, but put up a 47-16 record to take the pennant. Manager Biz Mackey’s (like Duncan the back-up catcher)  infield consisted of  Lennie Pearson at first, Larry Doby at second, Clarence Israel at third, and  Monte Irvin at short.  Cherokee Davis and Bob Harvey patrolled the outfield with pitcher Leon Day taking the other position on days he didn’t pitch. Regular catcher Leon Ruffin backstopped a staff that included Day, Max Manning, Lennie Hooker, and Rufus Lewis.

1946 Newark Eagles

The first two games were in Newark, with the teams splitting the games. Kansas City won the first game 2-1 with a fine relief performance by Paige, who also scored the winning run. Newark evened the Series the next day winning 7-4. The key to the game was a six run rally in the 7th inning. Paige relieved again, and this time the Eagles got to him with Doby providing a key home run.

The Series moved to Kansas City for games 3-5. The first two games in KC were blowouts. In game 3, the Monarchs racked up 15 runs and 21 hits in crushing Newark who put up five runs on seven hits. The Eagles got revenge in game 4, winning 8-1. Doby doubled and tripled for the key runs. Paige again relieved and was again ineffective. Game 5 saw Newark collect ten hits, but score only one run, while the Monarchs made five runs on nine hits. In a key development, right fielder Ted Strong left the Monarchs to play ball in the Puerto Rico winter league making it necessary for pitcher Ford Smith to take his post in right.

With Newark down 3-2, the Series went back to the East Coast. Game 6 developed into an offensive slugfest. Irvin and Lennie Pearson both slugged two homers, Buck O’Neill and Willard Brown each  had one. The Eagles evened the Series with a 9-7 win. That set up game seven, only the second time the Negro League World Series had gone the full seven games (1943). The key development occurred prior to the game when Paige didn’t show up for the game. No one seems to know exactly why. Stories about bribes, drinking, loose women, and all sorts of other things pop up, but there seems to be no definitive answer to Paige being MIA. The way he’d pitched in the Series, it might have made no difference. Newark scored first, but KC tied it in the sixth and went ahead 2-1 in the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth, both Doby and Irvin walked. Cherokee Davis followed with a two run double to put the Eagles ahead 3-2. KC failed to score in the ninth and Newark won its only Negro League World Series.

The Series had a usual assortment of heroes and goats. For the Eagles Irvin, Pearson, and Davis had great games with Irvin hitting .462 with eight RBI’s and three home runs. For the staff Lewis was 2-1 and Manning 1-1. Hooker was also 1-1, but with an ERA of 6.00. Ace Leon Day ended up 0-0, also with a 6.00 ERA. For the Monarchs, Renfroe hit .414, O’Neill had two homers, and Brown had three, despite hitting only .241. The loss of Strong was a blow, but as he was hitting only .111 when he left the team, it may have effected the pitching more than the hitting. Hilton Smith was 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA and hit well when he played the outfield. But the rest of the staff didn’t do as well. Paige was also 1-1, but with a 5.40 ERA, a blown save, and of course missed game 7 entirely.   LaMarque won his only decision, but had an ERA over 7.

There would be two more Negro League World Series matchups before the NNL folded. Both were played with depleted rosters and neither lived up to the 1946 version. It was to be the final Negro League World Series with the top quality players available and in many ways was the true end of an era.


February 16, 2011

1949 MVP Trophy

I received two very thoughtful and well thought out comments on my post “The Dynamic Duo”. I suggest you read both. Neither comment attempts to diminish the skills of the players in the Negro Leagues, but both comments raise a major issue about the Negro Leagues that is always going to be a problem: how do these players relate to the white players of their era in terms of baseball skills? Unfortunately, we do not know, nor can we make more than educated guesses. Even the statistics I quoted in the article are fragmentary and complete statistical information is probably impossible to find.

Anyway, the comments got me to thinking about the issue (which is not necessarily a good thing).  I asked myself “Is there a way to get something of a handle on how good these players may have been (and I stress May Have Been)?” I decided that there was no way to get a real answer to the question, but at least there was one way to get something of a feel for the answer. We can look at how well black players did in the first twenty or so years after integration (1947) of the Major Leagues. Although the players that make it to the Major Leagues are different from the Negro League stars like Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and John Henry Lloyd, they possess skills that can be quantified because we have the stats. Did the big leagues get lucky and the greatest set of black ball players ever all show up in the 1950s? Maybe, but the odds are against that being true. Surely some of the prior players were the equal, or at least almost equal, of the black stars of the 1950s. If that’s the case, then the Major Leagues missed out on some truly fine talent.

To determine just how good the first set of black players were, I decided to look at one simple set of information, awards. It may not be the best set to look at, but it has the advantage of being simple to find, reasonably simple to interpret, and is supposed to be a  measure of greatness. Having said all that, I acknowledge that the voting can be down right goofy to say the least so that everything said above about a measure of greatness and simple to interpret can be utter nonsense in specific years (For instance I still think Duke Snider should have beaten Roy Campanella at least once for an MVP.). I also decided to concentrate on the National League because it was first to integrate, got deeper into it quicker than the American League, and had no superior team like the Yankees who won consistently from 1947 through 1954 without a black player (and, yes, I know they lost in 1948 and 1954). Finally I stopped the research in 1966, twenty years after the initial appearance of Jackie Robinson. All that means this is fairly arbitrary in both what I’m looking at and when I end it, but I have neither the time nor inclination to carry this on to 2010 or look at every possible bit of statistical information.

Rookie of the Year: The initial RoY was in 1947. In both that season and the next there was only one award. Both years a NL player won the award, so we have a full 20 seasons of RoY’s in the NL. Of the 20 winners 11 were black (Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Sam Jethroe, Willie Mays, Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, and Dick Allen). That’s more than half. But also if you look at the dates, an inordinate number of them appear early in the period. By the 1956 choice ( Frank Robinson), seven had already won the award. By the last half of the twenty years (1957-66) the ratio reverses and there are more white winners (6) than black (4).

MVP: The MVP award had been going since 1931, so it was already established with a supposedly known criteria (Yeah, right). Between 1947 and 1966 black players won 12 National League MVPs (J. Robinson, Roy Campanella-three, Mays-two, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks-two, F. Robinson, and Cepeda). That’s almost exactly the same number as RoY wins (12 to 11). This time the awards are more well spread across the twenty years, but because you can only be a rookie once and an MVP lots of times, there is duplication in the MVP vote meaning that only eight black men won the MVP award.

For the same period in the American League it wasn’t until 1964 (Tony Oliva) that a black player won the RoY and the first black MVP in the AL was Elston Howard in 1963. Obviously black players made less impact in the AL in this period. Also I did not do the Cy Young award because it did not begin until 1956 and only went to two awards in 1967. (FYI Don Newcombe is the only black pitcher to win the award through 1966.)

So it’s certain that black players made an almost immediate impact on the Major Leagues, especially the NL. One other stat of interest is that 1947, the first year of integration, gave us the first black player in a World Series. In 1948 saw the first team (Cleveland) win the Series with a black player. The last all white Series was 1950 (New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies) and the first Series where both teams had black players was 1954 (Cleveland and New York Giants).

 Does all this prove that the Negro League players who were denied entry into the Major Leagues were Hall of Fame quality or even big league quality? Of course it doesn’t. But to argue they weren’t becomes a least a little more difficult when you see just how good their immediate followers were when they reached the Majors.

Roy Campanella freely credited Biz Mackey (Baltimore Elite Giants catcher and Hall of Fame class of 2007) as both a mentor and the man who made him a better catcher. Was Campy better than Mackey? Don’t know. But I do know that if Campy learned to be as great as he was by watching and listening to Mackey, then Mackey was one heck of a ballplayer. I’m afraid that’s the best we’re ever going to be able to say about the Negro League players who never got to the big leagues.

The Dynamic Duo

February 14, 2011

With appropriate apologies to Batman and Robin, the above title can apply to a great number of teammates who have played baseball. In pitching there is Mathewson and McGinnity, Ruffing and Gomez, Koufax and Drysdale, Maddux and Glavine, Johnson and Schilling to name a handful. As befits its status as a quasi-Major League, Negro League baseball also has its dynamic duo: Paige and Smith.

Stachel Paige

Satchel Paige is arguably the most well-known Negro League player. Over the years he’s become the stuff of legend, some of it even true. He’s easily the most quotable of the Negro League players and his “Don’t look back” line has entered American lore. He was also a great pitcher. He spent time in the Negro Leagues, in independent all-black leagues, in Mexico, and the Dominican Republic and he was successful everywhere. There were those who thought he might be the man who broke the “color barrier” and integrated Major League baseball, but he proved too outspoken and controversial. He did eventually get to the big leagues with Cleveland and was among the first black men to play on a  World Series champion when the Indians won the World Series in 1948. He became the first black player to pitch in the Series when he came into game 5 of the ’48 World Series in the seventh inning. He pitched two-thirds of an inning in relief  giving up neither runs nor hits nor walks (and not striking out anyone either). He eventually got enough time in to earn a pension from Major League Baseball and was the first Negro League player elected to Cooperstown in 1971.

Hilton Smith

Hilton Smith isn’t nearly as well-known, which is a great shame. Smith was from Texas, born in 1912. He got to the Negro Leagues in 1932, then spent time with a semi-pro team in North Dakota. In 1937, he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs staying through 1948. Between 1940 and 1947 he teamed with Paige to create a great one-two pitching punch for the Monarchs. The team won the first of the newly restarted Negro League World Series’ in 1942 and played in the 1946 Series. In 1940 and 1941, prior to the advent of the new World Series, the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant. For the period they pitched together Smith was as good as Paige. Some of his contemporaries considered him better (In Paige’s defense, he was considerably older and on the decline phase of his career.). Unlike Paige, Smith never made the Major Leagues. He retired after 1948 and lived in Kansas City. He died in 1983 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001.

How good were they? Generally, that’s a question you really can’t answer when discussing the Negro Leagues because the statistics aren’t available. But with these two at least a partial answer is available. In 2007 the Hall of Fame inducted a whole group of players, owners, contributors from the Negro Leagues. In order for the special committee doing the voting to have some basis for making an informed, intelligent decision a group of statisticians and baseball researchers were commissioned to find as much statistical information as possible. They also looked for information on then-current Hall members like both Paige and Smith so as to give the committee a set of comparison points. In his book Shades of Glory Lawrence Hogan compiled those stats and made them readily available for readers. Admittedly, the stats are incomplete, but they do offer a glimpse into the quality of the players involved. As the researchers got closer to 1947 (the year Jackie Robinson first appeared in a Brooklyn uniform) the stats became at least a little more complete, but still not definitive. As Paige and Smith both pitched into the 1940s that gives us a somewhat truer view of them than otherwise possible with many earlier pitchers.

So back to “How good were they?”. For his career, using stats available, Paige won 103 games, lost 61 (a .628 percentage), pitched 1506.2 innings over 263 games with an ERA of 2.02. He gave up 1174 hits, 253 walks, and struck out 1231. Smith won 71, lost 31 (a .696 percentage), pitched 812.1 innings over 146 games with an ERA of 1.68. He gave up 674 hits, walked 96, and struck out 430. From 1940 through 1947, their time together on the Monarchs, Paige was 27-24 (.529 percentage) to Smith’s 43-20 (.686 percentage). Paige pitched 104 games, Smith 84. Paige gave up 352 hits, Smith 412. Paige walked 69 to Smith’s 56. Paige struck out 395 to Smith’s 208. Both had lower ERA’s than their career number. You can figure the WHIP yourself if you want. As far as I know, the research on Negro League ballparks is too incomplete to determine ERA+ numbers for either. To show you how incomplete these numbers are, I found a quote from Smith indicating he won 161 games. Apparently only 71 (44%) can be verified.

When I first sat down those numbers, my initial reaction was “Big deal.” Those aren’t bad numbers, but a lot of pitchers have much better statistics. But after a couple of minutes I realized who I was dealing with and what it meant. Even with truly great Negro League players like Paige and Smith it’s tough to really get a handle on them. The seasons are so short, the non-league barnstorming games don’t count, the numbers are so fragmentary that some sense of greatness gets lost. From just the numbers I have I’m not sure I wouldn’t consider Smith the superior pitcher, but they are so incomplete I can’t make that an informed statement. And that’s really too bad.

Whatever their actual numbers, Paige and Smith represent one of the truly finest pair of pitching teammates in baseball.  Had they played together on a Major League team they would be, in my opinion, both Hall of Fame pitchers. It’s right that they both made it to Cooperstown even without a chance to dazzle white audiences while in their prime.

Good Bye, Andy

February 11, 2011

So I see that Andy Pettitte is retiring. I’m going to step away from my normal look at the past of baseball, and the current emphasis on the black experience in the sport, to comment on his departure. I’ve never been a Yankees fan, but I’m going to miss him.

 Pettitte came along just as the Yankees were turning around their franchise. He was a big part of that turn around, arguably the centerpiece of the starting pitchers. Without him, I’m not sure the team would have won four championships in five years. I know it will always be considered the Torre/Jeter Yankees, but Pettitte was as important as any other player because he provided a steady, reliable starter. Frankly, there aren’t just a heck of a lot of those. He has some good stats: 240 wins, a .635 winning percentage, a WHIP of 1.357, 2251 strikeouts, 962 walks, an ERA of 3.88, and an ERA+ of 117. He also gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. In the postseason he has 19 wins (a record), a winning percentage of .655, a WHIP of 1.304, 173 strikeouts, 72 walks, an ERA of 3.83, and more hits than innings pitched. In other words, he’s almost the same pitcher in both the regular and post seasons (which is something a lot of truly great pitchers can’t say). And of course, he has five championships, starting three of the deciding games.

Then there’s the HGH moment. Now I’m not prone to believe any of these people when they start going on about “Well, I didn’t know” or “I didn’t do it” or “I only did it once” or “There must be some mistake, ” or “Who? Me?”  But Pettitte’s admission to having used HGH once when he was hurt and wanted desperately to get back to his team has a ring of truth about that makes me give him the benefit of the doubt, at least a little. Maybe it just means he’s a much better actor than the others, but maybe he really meant it.

I’ve already heard the talk about the Hall of Fame, both pro and con. His winning percentage is in the same range as Jim Palmer, Mike Mussina, and Kid Nichols. But it’s also in the same range as Tex Hughson and Ed Reulbach.  In strikeouts Lefty Grove and Eddie Plank straddle him. His WHIP is better than Mark Gubicza’s but worse than Steve Stone’s. His 19 playoff wins is a record, and he’s second in playoff strikeouts, but he had more rounds to get them in than Whitey Ford. He has five rings, but Red Ruffing has six and Nolan Ryan only one. So I sat down and started thinking long and hard about it. I have a basic rule of thumb that if you have to think long and hard about whether a player is a Hall of Famer or not, he probably isn’t. That’s my judgement on Pettitte, but I do hope he gets a bunch of votes the first time he shows up on the ballot. He is, at least, one of the finest pitchers in the history of the Yankees franchise.

A Soldier’s Story: A Review

February 9, 2011

It’s been a while since I did a movie review. But I’ve been reminded recently of a very excellent movie that touches on baseball and the black experience in America. It’s called A Soldier’s Story and it makes for excellent, if chilling, viewing.

The movie is an adaption of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play and tells the story of a black army unit in 1944 Louisiana. The unit is a baseball team masquerading as a chemical company. The team manager and top sergeant, Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), is found dead on the road to the base and a black captain (Howard Rollins) is sent from Washington to find out what happened to him. During the flick we meet the company, which includes the shortstop (Denzel Washington), the clubhouse man ( Art Evans), and outfielder David Allen Grier, among others. We find out about how the team played, how the unit reacted to the sergeant. But we don’t meet the center fielder, C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley) We also find out that Sergeant Waters was an absolutely awful human being. A black man, he was horrified at the position black people held in society and was determined to change it. His solution may have been worse than the problem. He decided to rid the world of what he called “low-class geechees,” black men, generally from the South, who fit into white stereotypes of  lazy, shiftless, “sittin’ around the shack”, blacks who gave the race a bad name. By getting rid of those black people who he considered were holding back the black race he could insure that blacks would do better and move up in society. He was, in a strange sort of way, as bigoted as the white officers in the unit. And for Waters, the worst offender of all was C.J. Memphis, southerner, cotton picker, blues singer, “yassir, bossin”, C.J. Memphis. What happens to Memphis and the team is the centerpiece of the story and finding out who killed Waters becomes secondary to finding out what kind of man he was.

Larry Riley as C.J.

Howard Rollins does a good job as the captain, Denzel Washington shows you what’s coming in his later career with a fine performance, and Art Evans is good as Waters’ flunky. Larry Riley does a wonderful job as C.J., but this is Adolph Caesar’s movie. He dominates every scene he’s in. He hovers over the other scenes like a phantom. He is evil. He is vicious. He is one of the truly great villains of moviedom. It’s worth renting the movie just to watch him perform.

Adolph Caesar as Waters

The movie also contains some good music, much of it provided by Riley, but Patti LaBelle’s turn as “Big Mary” is great just to listen to her sing. If I had to pick one scene to tell you to watch for, it’s a scene in a bar between Caesar and Evans in which Sergeant Waters tells Evans what happened to him in France. Caesar is absolutely chilling. The role gained him an Academy Award nomination. The movie was also nominated for best picture. Neither won, and within a few years Caesar was dead from a heart attack.

It’s not an easy movie to enjoy, but it’s worth the time.  Don’t miss Caesar’s performance as a truly great villain. The movie was filmed in Arkansas and lasts a little over two hours.