Posts Tagged ‘Josh Gibson’

Big Bertha

February 9, 2012

Louis Santop around 1920

The first in a long line of Negro League sluggers who redefined the role of power in the Negro Leagues was Louis Santop. He was born Louis Santop Loftin in Tyler, Texas in 1890. He began his professional career in 1909 in Texas, moved up through Oklahoma, and arrived on the East Coast in 1910. He was big, powerful, and a catcher. There is no question of his hitting prowess or of his power. Everyone agrees he hit well and the ball went a long way when he connected.  There does seem to be, however, some question about his abilities as a catcher. Some sources imply he was a hitter who happened to play behind the plate. Other sources indicate he was a great catcher with soft hands, quick feet (which didn’t age well), and a good ability to call a game. Whichever is correct, there is universal agreement that he was, as much because of his size as anything else, excellent at blocking the plate even in an era with minimal catcher’s gear.

Bertha Krupp von Bohlen

He spent the 19-teens floating among the better black teams of New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Chicago. He was big and powerful and even for “Dead Ball” baseball prolific at home runs and especially gap-power doubles. He picked up the nickname “Big Bertha” during World War I. The German .420 cannon was nicknamed for the Krupp heiress Bertha (a fairly large woman) and packed quite a punch in action. That seemed, to fans and fellow players, to describe Santop also. In the period just before World War I, Santop played with the New York Lincoln Giants. He’s credited with batting  averages of .470, 422, .429, and .455 between the years 1911 and 1914. As usual with Negro League statistics, don’t hang your hat on those numbers. Whether they are exaggerated or indicate lousy pitching, or whatever, they do indicate that Santop could hit well.

A .420 Morser (“Big Bertha”)

In 1917 he found something like a permanent home. Excepting a stint in the military during and just after World War I, Santop played the rest of his career with the Hilldale Daisies of Philadelphia. Hilldale was a dairy company that fielded a youth team. By 1916, they turned professional and barnstormed throughout the East with an occasional foray into the Midwest. In 1923 the Eastern Colored League was formed with Hilldale as a charter member. They won pennants in 1923, ’24, and ’25. Santop was the starting catcher in 1923 but was aging. He began splitting playing time with Biz Mackey (a fellow Hall of Fame inductee) and by late in 1924 was in something like a platoon situation with Mackey. In the 1924 Negro League World Series Santop, playing for Mackey, made a significant error that helped lead to the Daisies losing the World Series to Kansas City. Sources all agree that Santop never recovered from the error and the public tongue-lashing his manager gave him after the game. He lingered into 1926 when he retired.

Out of the Negro Leagues, he played semipro ball for five years then did some broadcast work for a Philadelphia radio station (WELK). He left that job to tend bar. He died in Philadelphia in 1942 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.

As with any Negro League player the statistical evidence for his career is slim. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen gives some stats for the Eastern Colored League years (1923-26) and some for the period 1920-22 when the Daisies were associate members of the Negro National League (that means they played meaningful games against quality competition, but those games didn’t count for championship purposes for Hilldale). Be aware that the numbers are both incomplete and reflect Santop’s numbers in the latter stages of his career (in other words, there is no string of hitting .400 four years in a row).

Over seven years, Santop appeared in 190 documented games hitting .324 with a slugging percentage of .461. No OBP is given so no OPS or OPS+ can be figured with preciseness. I did do a quick hits plus walks divided by at bats and came up with .396 (how many catcher’s interference and hit batsmen could there be?). That would give an OPS of .857 (and no park info for OPS+). He had 189 hits, 29 doubles, 13 home runs, and scored an even 100 runs. He had  87 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, and 42 walks (no strikeout totals available). The stats are also broken down for a 162 game schedule giving 85 runs, 161 hits, 25 doubles, 11 home runs, and 74 RBIs over a 162 game season. Not bad for an old man in the 1920s.

Which brings me to the usual question about Negro League players, “How good was he?” And as usual the answer is, “Got me.” The information is spotty but all indications are that Santop was a first-rate player who would have done well in the white Major Leagues. Would he have been spectacular? I don’t know. In looking for info on Santop I ran across a number of lists of Negro League players trying to rank them by position (Bill James has one in his book if you want to look at a representative example.). There’s something like complete agreement that Santop is second on the catching list behind Josh Gibson (and that Mackey is third). Maybe it’s enough to say that if you’re second behind Gibson, you’re awfully good. Maybe that’s all we can finally say about Santop.

Comparing Across Eras

May 30, 2011

Nap LaJoie

I have to admit I’m guilty of something. It’s a small thing, not exactly a sin, but I still do it. I’m guilty of trying to compare players across eras. We all do it. We compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. We compare Lou Gehrig to Mark McGwire. We compare Honus Wagner to Derek Jeter. Baseball statisticians have come up with stat after stat that attempts to compare players. Some of them take the time to try to figure out how the eras differ and then try to factor that into the equation. Some of those do a fairly good job of it, and others stink up the joint when they try. So here’s a look at some of the factors that I think have to be considered when trying to compare players across eras.

1. Segregation. This one should be obvious and I have no idea how you factor it in. How much does Lefty Grove not having to face Josh Gibson change Grove’s overall numbers? Got me, coach. And of course it works the other way too. How much does Satchel Paige’s inability to face Babe Ruth in meaningful competition change Paige’s numbers? Again, got me, coach. I think it is important to recognize this is a problem. I simply have no idea how you fix it.

2. Roster sizes. I don’t want to hit this one too hard. If you have Babe Ruth on your team, you’re going to play him a lot. But roster sizes do matter, at least some. The smaller the roster, the less a manager can rest a player and that can create end of season slumps that might not occur on teams with larger rosters.

3. Rules changes. I tend to harp on the pitching change to 60’6″ as a watershed in baseball, but there are a lot of major rules changes that make it difficult to compare players. How would Cy Young do pitching at 50 feet? Well, we actually know he did quite well for a few years, but we don’t know what that means for someone like Walter Johnson. Pud Galvin never pitched a big  league game at 60’6″. Could he have been successful there? Don’t know and don’t know how to figure it out. There are other problems like ball and strike count, stolen base rules, etc. My guess is that some of them can be accounted for by looking at before and after stats and seeing how much change occurs (sort of like figuring out how much expansion changes things), but I don’t know you can account for every situation, particularly the mound. I also know this is a much greater problem in trying to factor in 19th Century players.

4. Equipment. How good was Honus Wagner in the field? A look at his basic fielding  stats shows he was OK, but nothing special. Some of the newer stats begin to show us just how good he was, but many of the older ones don’t take the difference in equipment into account. When you’re playing shortstop with a glove that looks a lot like my winter gloves, you’re not going to put up fielding statistics that equal those of players with modern gloves.  Take a look at modern catching equipment versus the gear of players as recent as Ray Schalk (of 1919 fame). Fielding statistics have gotten better over the years, but much of that is  artificial, brought on by equipment changes. Same for batting. Moderns bats are a far cry from the table legs used by guys at the turn of the 20th Century. There’s a wonderful picture of Nap LaJoie that I stuck in above. Take a look at the bat. Now think about a modern bat. Tell me that one factor doesn’t affect stats.

5. Fields. Modern baseball parks are a far cry from early parks. I’m not talking about the distance to fences, that’s easy to factor in. What I’m talking about is the general condition of the playing surface. Wagner talked about picking up a  ball and watching a cloud of  dust, a handful of pebbles, and the ball all going toward first at the same time. Don’t know how many times that actually happened, but it’s not going to happen at all today. Those uneven fields created more errors and also made normal chances more difficult. I think you can determine the best fielders of the era, but to compare them to modern fielders is difficult enough without worrying about the condition of the playing surface in 1910.

6. Going off to war. Really cuts down on your playing time and is specific to time and place.

Most of what I’ve talked about so far is generally known, and I think statisticians have made good-faith efforts to factor in those things. How much success they’ve had is another question. I don’t know that Win Shares or WAR or anything else adequately accounts for these things, but it’s evident that they are trying. It’s the following two items that I think have been vastly underappreciated by people who try to compare players.

7. Medical advances. You do know that if Tommy John never has the surgery named for him that he never enters a Hall of Fame discussion, don’t you? If that surgery were available in 1935, maybe Dizzy Dean wins another 100 games (or maybe something else goes wrong and he doesn’t). Modern arthritis treatments might give Sandy Koufax another twenty win season. My point is that medical advances change the ability of players to compete just as changes in bats and gloves and fields do the same. I don’t know that anyone has considered this. I also don’t know how you would factor it in, but I think it should be noted at some point.

8. Salaries. Back when I was collecting baseball cards the info on the back sometimes told you what the guy did in the offseason. Most players had to have a “real” job to make ends meet. Most of those jobs weren’t going to enhance your baseball skills. A guy like Richie Hebner dug graves. That might keep him in shape, but didn’t particularly help his batting eye. An old Cardinals pitcher named Ray Washburn sold insurance. Checking  actuary tables probably didn’t hurt his eyesight too much, but I’ll bet it didn’t help his throwing motion. With modern salaries making it less necessary for players to have a “real” job in the offseason they have more time to hone their baseball skills, thus making them better players. This doesn’t mean they all do it in the offseason, only that the opportunity is there for modern players, an option that wasn’t as readily available in 1960. Again, I’m not sure how that’s factored in, but it probably should  be noted.

So the next time you decide to see if you can figure out which was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, don’t forget to factor in a bunch of things that don’t always show up in the stats. There are others that I didn’t mention above (like advances in training methods), but these will do for starters. Have fun.

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.

Josh

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 Phenom of Phenoms

December 20, 2010

The loss of Bob Feller reminded me just how much of a “phenom” he was. He joined the Indians at 17, then left in September to begin his senior year in high school. Upon graduation he returned to Cleveland and renewed his career. There have been a great number of “phenoms”, some fragile like Stephen Strasburg, some injured like Herb Score. Back in the 1950s the “Bonus Baby” rule required “phenoms” signed for huge bonus’ to stay on the Major League roster for two years (“We gotta discourage this bonus nonesnse.”). Those men played out their minor league careers in front of Major League audiences. When they should have been playing Double A and Triple A ball they were spending entire seasons on the bench with an occasional foray to the field. Some of them disappeared. Others became stars after they served their time on the bench. Eighteen year old Harmon Killebrew played nine games in his rookie season but became a feared power hitter who ended up with over 500 home runs and a plaque in Cooperstown. Nineteen year old college freshman Sandy Koufax got into 42 innings in 1955, but became a Hall of Famer and the best hurler I ever saw. Watching both in the first few years of their careers was painful, but it panned out in the end.

But there was another “phenom” who was just as good and just as painful to watch in his early years. He got to the big leagues at age 16. It wasn’t exactly the Major Leagues he got to. They wouldn’t let him into the Majors when he was 16 and it had nothing to do with his age. He joined professional baseball at the highest level he could by entering the Negro Leagues. His name was Roy Campanella and he was very, very good.

Campanella was of mixed race, which in 1930s and 1940s America meant that no matter his actual skin tone, he was considered black. He was a natural at baseball, excelling at school and on the sand lots. At age 16, he dropped out of school and in the spring of 1937, still aged 16, he joined the Washington Elite Giants, who moved to Baltimore in 1938. I heard an interview with Campanella years ago in which he pronounced the name of the team as E-LIGHT Giants, not E-LEET Giants. Don’t know if it was his personal pronunciation or the actual pronunciation of the team name, but I’ve called them E-LIGHT Giants since. I’m not about to contradict Roy Campanella.

By his own confession he wasn’t much of a catcher at age 16. The Elite Giants (however you pronounced them) had a great catcher of their own named Biz Mackey, who later on was elected to the Hall of  Fame. Campanella credited Mackey with making him a Major League caliber catcher.

In the Negro Leagues, Campanella became a star and was considered something of a rival of Josh Gibson as the finest catcher in the leagues (at least as far as anyone was going to rival Gibson). In 1942 Campanella jumped to the Mexican League where he was equally good. In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball, slowly, tentatively, and ever so carefully cracked open the door of integration. Late in 1946, the Dodgers signed Campanella (by now universally known as “Campy”). While in Nashua in the minors, the team manager (Walter Alston) was tossed from the game. He appointed Campanella as his replacement, making Campy the first black man to manage white players in a professional minor league game. Behind when Campy took over, the team ultimately won the game. He made the Major League team in 1948, settling in as the regular catcher. He became a regular all-star, a regular MVP candidate, and a three-time winner of the MVP award. Although “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” may have been more famous, in the time that they and Campy all played in New York, Campy won as many MVP awards as the other three put together (as did Campy’s closest rival, Yogi Berra).

Campanella was a great catcher. He had large and soft hands, could move easily despite a distinct bulk. He blocked the plate well, threw to second well (not all that significant a skill in the low base stealing era that was the 1950s), could move under a foul fly with ease, and did a wonderful job with pitchers, especially considering the racial problems created by a black/white battery. And he could hit. God, could he hit. I never saw anyone swing the bat harder. We had a joke in the house that when he swung and missed you could feel the breeze cool you through the TV. He hit .300 three times, had 30+ home runs four times (once going over 40 for a then record number by a catcher), led the National League in RBIs once, and even managed to steal eight bases one year. As he put it about the steals, “They were laughing so hard, they forgot to throw the ball.”

In 1954 he got hurt; his throwing hand. It never healed properly and periodically bothered him for the rest of his career. In the year he stayed healthy (1955) he was still terrific, winning one more MVP award and appearing in the Dodgers first ever World Series triumph. In 1956 and 1957 he was on the wane. The hand was a problem, so was age. He was only 35 and 36, but he was a catcher and the aches, pains, injuries, and squats took their toll. In 1958 came the car wreck and the end of his career. He made the Hall of Fame in 1969, three years before  Josh Gibson. Death came in 1993.

Campanella was a big league player at 16 (a year earlier than Feller). He was a superior catcher and hitter who because of his age may be the “phenom of phenoms”. It’s hard to place him in the pantheon of great catchers because he loses his earliest years to racism and is hurt in the final couple of years of his career (without reference to what the car wreck might have cost him in playing time). Still he rates in the ten best among catchers. I’ve seen some lists that place him has high as second. I’ll settle for top five and the knowledge that he stands at the head of a long line of young “phenoms” who made their mark in baseball.

Roy Campanella

Thanks, Ted

May 20, 2010

Just a short post today. I want to give a shout out to Ted Williams, not for anything he did on the ball field, but for something he did after he retired. I think it is arguably his greatest contribution to the game.

In 1966 Williams received a ticket to the Hall of Fame. He used the occasion of his acceptance speech to wonder aloud why such important Negro League players as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson weren’t already remembered on the plaques that graced the Hall. The speech, occurring in the midst of the modern American Civil Rights movement, caused a stir. A lot of people began asking the same thing. Baseball’s answer was “Well, we don’t know a lot about the Negro Leagues.” Williams and others answered. “Well, find out.” And because it was Ted, By God, Williams, the powers that be did so and in short order the elite of the Negro Leagues achieved enshrinement. Others were to follow, including executives and writers.

The Negro Leagues owe Williams a great debt for bringing the subject to the front burner. So do the rest of us. Thanks, Ted.

Negro Leagues World Series, Round II

February 10, 2010

After a 13 year hiatus, the Negro Leagues restarted a postseason series. The old Eastern Colored League was gone, replaced by the Negro American League. The Negro National League had been revived and by 1942 the two leagues agreed to work together, at least enough to play a World Series. Unlike the 1920’s series’ the new set would be four games out of seven for victory. The series’s ran from 1942 through 1948. The premier American League teams were the Kansas City Monarchs, the Birmingham Black Barons, and the Cleveland Buckeyes. In the National League, the New York Cubans and Newark Eagles each had good seasons, but the league was dominated by the Homestead Grays, who played in 5 of the 7 World Series’. Ironically both the Cubans and Eagles won their series’ while the Grays went 3-2. Below is a short summary of each series:

1942: Kansas City Monarchs defeat the Homestead Grays 4 games to none. Timely hitting by players like Buck O’Neill and Newt Allen, coupled with Hall of Fame pitching by Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith shut down the Grays power in a sweep. Grays players Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Jud Wilson couldn’t get timely hits, while pitcher Ray Brown was vulnerable.

1943; The Grays win a seven game series against the Birmingham Black Barons 4 games to 3. The power hitting Grays, supplemented by an aging but still fast Cool Papa Bell squeak out a victory against a Barons team that featured Double Duty Radcliffe still playing after starring in the 1920s World Series.

1944: The Grays pound the Barons again, this time winning in five games.

1945: The Cleveland Buckeyes win their first pennant and stun the Grays in a four game sweep. Buckeyes stars Quincy Trouppe,  future National League Rookie of the Year Sam Jethroe, and Arch Ware proved you could beat the Grays without great power.

1946: The Newark Eagles dethrone the Grays to win the Negro National League title. With future Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Biz Mackey (yes, he was still around), and Leon Day, the Eagles take on the Kansas City Monarchs of Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, Buck O’Neill, Chet Brewer, and Hank Thompson. The Eagles and Monarchs battle for the full seven games before Leon Day wins game seven making the Eagles champs. It was a unique series for two reasons. It was the only Word Series won by a team with a female owner, Effa Manley, and the last series before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1947: The New York Cubans make the series for the only time in their history. Their Latin based roster includes Luis Tiant (father of the later American League pitcher), Minnie Minoso, Jose Fernandez, and pitcher Dave Barnhill. They face off against the Buckeyes who had won it all two years previously. Trouppe, Ware, and Jethroe were still around and were joined by pitcher Toothpick Sam Jones. The Cubans won 4 games to 1. The season had been rocked by the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and the departure of the first black players to the white leagues.

1948: The Grays returned to the series for the first time since 1945. Gibson was gone, but Leonard and Bankhaead were still around. They were joined by power hitting outfielder Luke Easter. They took on the Black Barons, also returning to the series, for the first time since 1944. Most of their old gang was gone, but they had a new outfielder named Willie Mays who looked promising. Despite Mays, the Barons lost 4 games to 1, thus giving the Grays the last Negro League World Series title.

After 1948 the Negro Leagues floundered. The National League folded, the American League hung on as nothing much more than a minor league. Many teams took to being independent and went back to barnstorming. The era of the great Negro League teams was over. So was their World Series.

The Crawfords

February 9, 2010

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.

Some Random Thoughts on the Negro Leagues

February 6, 2010

February is Black History Month around the US. It seems appropriate to look at the Negro Leagues during February, so I’m going to do a couple of posts. Let me start them with a disclaimer. I’m no expert on the Negro Leagues. I find them interesting and the info fascinating, but I’d never pretend to be an expert on the matter. That being said, a few comments follow:

1. There were several of them. Most famous were the Negro American League, the Negro National League (1920s version), the Negro National League (1930s-40s version), and the Eastern Colored League. There were a host of  others, but these four dominate most of the conversations about segregated baseball.

2. The leagues were led by the same sorts of people who led the white Major Leagues, entrepeneurs and opportunists. I’ve heard some less than favorable comments about a number of the owners because they made their money in less than “savory” occupations. A couple ran pool rooms (“You got trouble right here in River City”), some were loan sharks, others ran numbers. Of course if you were a black American in the era you had to live in specific places and keep to specific jobs, very few of which were of the “best” quality. I’m reminded of the Christian attitude towards Jews in the Middle Ages. Put them in cramped ghettos, make them hold specific jobs, and then be astounded when they ended up dirty and usurers. So I find it stunning when people are shocked (“Shocked to find there’s gambling going on”) to find so-called disreputable types running teams. I’m also remined that the owners of the white teams frequently weren’t among “the salt of the earth.”

3. Not all the owners were black and male. Two of the most successful franchises were the Kansas City Monarchs and the Newark Eagles. The Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was white and the Eagles owner, Effa Manley, was female (she ran the team, but co-owned with her husband). Both ran very successful franchises, each winning a Negro League World Series and both eventually were elected to the Hall of Fame.

4. The quality of play seems to have been about on par with the Major Leagues. There are few reliable stats about the Negro Leagues, but anecdotal evidence and the few stats that do survive indicate that the top players and top teams were very much the equal of the Major League teams. Certain of the weaker teams may have been only minor league quality, but then the same can be said of a number of Major League teams in a given year.

5.  Judging by the impact black players, many of them coming over from the Negro Leagues, made in the majors, especially in the National League in the 1950s, it is evident that the top line players were equal with the best of the Major League players. Between 1949, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to win the National League MVP and 1963 when Sandy Koufax won his (a 15 year period) black players won 11 National League MVP awards (Robinson, Roy Campanella-3 times, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks-twice, Frank Robinson, and Maury Wills) to only four for white players (Jim Konstanty, Hank Sauer, Dick Groat, and Koufax). They also win five of the next six. I can’t prove it, but my guess is that black players would have also done well in the 1930s and 1940s.

6. Finally, there is no way to compare the Negro Leaguers with their Major League counterparts. They play in totally different leagues and even if the stats were available they exist isolated from each other. Does hitting .350 in the National League in 1935 mean the same thing as hitting .350 in the Negro National League? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. I would guess that Josh Gibson, Louis Santop Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith were the equal of any of their contemporaries in the Major Leagues, but I can’t prove it. Great shame.

It’s important to celebrate the Negro Leagues, not to deify them. Josh Gibson doesn’t need an apotheosis, he was good enough as is. But let us remember to celebrate them. Hopefully we won’t see their like again.