The Dynamic Duo

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.

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3 Responses to “The Dynamic Duo”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I like this post, and I agree that both players belong in the HOF. Negro leaguers were cheated out of an opportunity that cheated all of us, in the long run, from ever really knowing what they could have accomplished in The Majors.
    One objection I have, however, to modern list-makers of baseball’s all time great players is how they go about ranking the Negro Leaguers and the MLB stars. For example, Bill James ranks Oscar Charleston as the 4th best player of all time, and Josh Gibson ranks 9th. Now, given that James and others are always so adamant that any numerical rankings should only be based on objective statistical analysis, there is simply no way to know where Charleston and Gibson, as well as others, would / should rank in the top 100. Why not rank Charleston #1, and Babe Ruth #2? Is there any objective reason to rank Charleston ahead of Cobb, Mantle and Williams, but behind Ruth, Wagner and Mays?
    I guess I better make this a future blog-post and leave it at that.
    But the comments I just made should not be misconstrued to suggest that Paige and Smith weren’t great players. Obviously, they were.
    Nicely done, Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Reference your last paragraph. I, for one, certainly didn’t take your post as a cut at either Paige or Smith. Look forward to your post on the ranking matter.
    Thanks for reading,
    v

  3. vinnie Says:

    That was my thought too. Considering that no matter how great these players were, the competition they faced was considerably less than major league level, or maybe even minor league level. No doubt that a Paige or Smith could have played with any of the white players of their day, but would they have been better than say, a Don Newcombe? Would Josh Gibson truly have broken the home run records of Babe Ruth, or would he have put up numbers more like a Gabby Hartnett? Think Buck Leonard would be the black Lou Gehrig, or a better version of Luke Easter? I don’t know, but in our rush to perhaps make up for the injustices done to black ballplayers, we shouldn’t go whole hog in the other direction either. To have careers that might have looked like Monte Irvin, or Larry Doby is nothing to be ashamed of or to apologize for.

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