Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Charleston’

The Top Negro League Team

February 7, 2014
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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The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

The First Negro League All-Star Game

February 18, 2013
Steel Arm Davis

Steel Arm Davis

In an earlier previous post I remarked on the formation and history of the East-West All-Star Game. As with most all-star games some of them are very good and others stink up the place. For my money one of the very best East-West games was the first one in 1933.

Held on 10 September in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the game consisted of two fan chosen teams that cut across league lines to create two geographically chosen teams. The East starting team had an infield (from first to third) of: Oscar Charleston (Crawfords), John Henry Russell (Crawfords), Dick Lundy (Stars), and Jud Wilson (Stars). The outfield was from left to right: Vic Harris (Crawfords), Cool Papa Bell (Crawfords), and Rap Dixon (Stars). The battery had Biz Mackey (Stars) catching, and Sam Streeter (Crawfords) pitching. The bench consisted of eight players (a few of them not from either the Crawfords or the Stars) including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Andy Cooper, Judy Johnson and catcher Josh Gibson.

The West team was equally stellar. The infield (again first to third) was Mule Suttles (American Giants), LeRoy Morney (Buckeyes), Willie Wells (American Giants), and Alex Radcliffe (American Giants). From left to right the outfield was Steel Arm Davis (American Giants), Turkey Stearnes (American Giants), and Sam Bankhead (Elite Giants). The battery consisted of  catcher Willie Brown and pitcher Willie Foster (both of the American Giants). The bench comprised seven players (most from either the Nashville Elite Giants or the Kansas City Monarchs) with Newt Allen being the most noted. The West team did not substitute during the game (the only time that occured in the East-West Game), so the subs got the day off.

Steel Arm Davis recorded the first out on a fly from Cool Papa Bell and the East went in order in the first. In the top of the second, Jud Wilson singled to record the first hit, but did not score. The game remained scoreless into the bottom of the third when Sam Bankhead singled, went to second on an out and scored on Turkey Stearnes’ single. The fourth inning saw six runs scored, three by each team. The botom of the third included a two-run home run by Mule Suttles, the first homer in East-West history. The East got two more in the fifth on a single, a hit bastsman, another single, and Wilson’s two run single. That put the East up 5-4. It was their last lead.

The West took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth on two singles sandwiched around consecutive doubles. They picked up three more in the seventh and a final run in the eighth. By the top of the ninth, the East led 11-5 and were coasting. A single, an error, and two sacrifice flies brought the game to 11-7 with Josh Gibson coming up. He hit a long fly to end the game.

The big heroes were Foster, who pitched the only complete game in East-West history, and Suttles who was two for four with three RBIs, two runs scored, a double, and a home run. More than that, the game was a huge success among fans. It made it certain that the game would be continued.

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.

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.