The Top Negro League Team

The 1931 Homestead Grays

The 1931 Homestead Grays

Back in 2007 Major League Baseball put together a panel of experts. This was the year after the Hall of Fame let in, what has so far been the last group of Negro League players. The task of the panel was to determine the best ever single season Negro League team. I emphasize  they were looking for a single season team, not looking for a single team that dominated for a long period of time. There were a lot of obvious contenders, the various Crawfords teams of the 1930s, the Monarchs of both the early 1920s and the 1940s, the 1920s Daisies, and of course various Homestead Grays teams. Ultimately, the panel concluded that the top Negro League team of all time was the 1931 Homestead Grays.

It was a very good team, but it’s also a fairly typical Negro League team. The roster is small, the players man multiple positions, statistics are sketchy, newspaper accounts are infrequent, and there are various numbers used for their win-loss record. In what’s below, I am going to use what statistics I can find (most notably on Baseball Reference.com) and what other records are easily available. In other words, this isn’t going to be a thorough enough look to serve as someone’s term paper, let alone a dissertation. But then someone else already did that (see the final paragraph below).

Over the course of the season the Grays played a lot of barnstorming ball, some against quality teams, some against thrown together teams, some against all-star teams, some against white teams, some against black teams. Their exact record is unknown. One source indicates they were 10-2 against minor league teams while winning 143 games. Baseball Reference.com can verify at least 10 losses by the various pitchers on the team. Their exact totals are unknown.

So who made up this team? As usual with Negro League teams, players took up a lot of positions during the season. In many ways the Negro League team rosters remind me of an 1800s Major League team with small rosters that put a premium on multi-position players.  The main infield consisted of Ted Page, George Scales, Jake Stephens, and Hall of Fame third baseman Jud Wilson. Both Bill Evans and George Britt (not Brett) also played in the infield. Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston, Vic Harris (who later managed the Grays), Ambrose Reid, Ted Radcliffe did most of the outfield work. The 19-year-old catcher was Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, with Benny Jones as his backup. The pitching staff consisted of  Britt, Hall of Fame hurlers Bill Foster and Joe Williams, Roy Williams, Charles Williams, and Radcliffe. Both Foster and Charles Williams were lefties. Radcliffe was nicknamed “Double Duty” for his ability to pitch one game of a double-header then either catch or play the outfield in the other game. Cumberland (Cum) Posey served as manager and was responsible for scheduling most games.

What records are available on Baseball Reference.com show Foster with an 8-1 record as the ace. He struck out 64 while walking only 24 with a 0.987 WHIP. Smokey Joe Williams shows 34 strikeouts, nine walks, a1.116 WHIP, but a 4-3 record. Charleston’s .346 leads the team in average, while Wilson’s .586 leads in slugging percentage. Wilson also has three home runs, tops on the team. Gibson has the RBI lead with 10. another set of stats available at the same site has Gibson with six home runs (see what I mean about stat lines).

Whether the 1931 Grays are truly the finest single season Negro League team or not is certainly debatable. As mentioned in the first paragraph the Crawfords teams of 1935 or 1936 certainly can be considered (and are my personal choice). Having said that, you can’t go too far wrong if you pick the Grays.

And for anyone interested in the team, there’s a decent book about them. Phil Dixon (who’s a greater expert on Black Baseball than me) wrote American Baseball Chronicles: The Great Teams, the 1931 Grays. It’s available at Amazon.com for $17.99 in paperback and his numbers differ (at least somewhat) from Baseball Reference.com.

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8 Responses to “The Top Negro League Team”

  1. Bernard McKenna Says:

    That was a great team, but I think the Baltimore Black Sox of 1929 deserve some consideration as well.

  2. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    V, I guess that it’ll never be an exact science as far as Negro League statistics are concerned. I sometimes wonder if even the early MAJOR LEAGUES’ statistics are as accurate as we think. People who were at the games back then (in the early National and American Leagues) most likely thought that nobody would give a damn about this stuff a century later, let alone a year down the line, and I have a lot of doubts about the accuracy of the statistics back then. I mean, these people didn’t even know that the National or American League would last another YEAR, let alone over a century, as both leagues have now lasted. Who would’ve know???

    On top of that, it was subject to one’s interpretation as to what constituted a so-called “major league”. The “minor leagues” were as important to the small towns as their “major league” counterparts in the big cities. And, of course, nobody really knew if the Pacific Coast League was a major league or not, did they? The quality was up there with that of the National and American League. I even have doubts that records were all that accurate before “Major League Baseball” became trademarked and all that.

    So when were the statistics really seriously kept on a consistent basis? Was it when the “National Agreement” was agreed to in 1903? http://roadsidephotos.sabr.org/baseball/1903NatAgree.htm

    Was it not even until 1921, when the “National Agreement” was agreed upon? http://roadsidephotos.sabr.org/baseball/1903NatAgree.htm

    So if the so-called major leagues might not have have been officially established until 1921, then how is it really possible to know, for certain, the statistics of the NEGRO Leagues, as there was no definitive source (which were, if anything, even MORE amorphous than the so-called “major leagues” were)?

    Am I making any sense, or am I coming off like I’m just full of hot air? It’s probably taking me a lot to say in all of these paragraphs than some people could put more succinctly. Maybe it’s because it’s all so complex and confusing.

    Glen

    • Bernard McKenna Says:

      Glen,
      I get what you’re saying and completely agree. I do know that the Baltimore Black Sox hired an official scorer for their home games, dating back to 1917 (they were founded in 1913), but many of those records are lost. The International League, like the PCL, played at a very high level in the 1920s.

  3. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    I only knew about the high level of the P.C.L. I wasn’t aware of that the International League played at a high level, as well, at least in the ’20s. Would you say that, at that time, that they were as strong of a league as the P.C.L. as of the 1920s?

    Also, I put the wrong link for the 1921 “National Agreement. This is what I meant to put—-

    http://www.bizofbaseball.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=58:1921-major-league-agreemen&catid=37:1900-1960&Itemid=47

    Glen

  4. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    I meant that the previous was a link to the “MAJOR LEAGUE” agreement. Oh, boy. Am I ever out of it!!!!

    http://www.bizofbaseball.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=58:1921-major-league-agreemen&catid=37:1900-1960&Itemid=47

    Glen

  5. William Miller Says:

    You know what’s scary? An eleven-year old boy (not my son) asked me yesterday who Jackie Robinson was. So much of what we take for granted in terms of the information available, vs. the info that actually filters into main-stream America, doesn’t always match up. That’s why it’s easy to see how much debate there is regarding these teams and players from so long ago. When even the most basic info seems to be so easily set aside (though not necessarily on purpose), it simply falls through the cracks of our collective consciousness. Soon, all we have left are sketchy legends and myths.
    Nice post,
    Bill

  6. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Bill, I never heard of Elvis Presley until I was about nine. And he was still alive then! I don’t think that eleven is really that old to not know who Jackie Robinson is, especially if the kid doesn’t follow baseball. I’m assuming that he doesn’t if he asked a question like that.

    But there are two reasons, I guess, why someone wouldn’t know who Jackie Robinson is, even with the internet, otherwise known as “the information superhighway”.

    One is that kids don’t read as much as they used to.

    Another is, and this has been said many many times, the lost art of storytelling, where stories are passed from generation to generation.

    Glen

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