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.