Until Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color line in 1947, professional baseball opportunities for black Americans were mostly limited to the black leagues. These leagues showcased impressive talent, from powerful hitters Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson to pitchers Satchel Paige and Joe “Smokey” Williams. Thirty-five Black League players have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 2020, Major League Baseball recognized the records and statistics of 3,400 players who played in the Black Leagues from 1920 to 1948. The inclusion of these players in official MLB records is the result of the Negro’s efforts. League Researchers and Authors Group. The MLB-backed group has amassed the most comprehensive statistics database of the Black Leagues by knocking out boxscores from 345 different newspapers.
Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, led the NLRAG and continues to check the statistics. “We will never have 100 percent of the Negro League stats,” he said. “But we have a sample large enough to quantify and justify the greatness of these baseball players.”
Using NLRAG research, below is a starting roster made up of some of the best players in Black League history. (The statistics are from Seamheads.com, which is said to have collected the most comprehensive statistics in the Black Leagues.) Seven of those players have been entered into the Hall of Fame.
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1. Starting pitcher: Joe “Smokey” Williams
CAREER: 1907-1932 | 156-94 record | 1,571 strikeouts | TIME. 2.45
Satchel Paige may be the Negro Leagues’ best-known pitcher, but in a career that spanned more than two decades, Williams had a career that rivaled any pitcher of his generation, black or White.
In a 1-0 win over the Kansas City Monarchs in 1930, Williams, who spent much of his career with the New York Lincoln Giants, landed a hit and struck out 27 strikes. future Hall of Fame Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rube Marquart and Waite Hoyt. Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players in major league history, said Williams would have been a “sure 30-game winner” had he played in the majors.
In a survey carried out in 1952 by the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the main black newspapers in the United States, Williams has been named the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro League. In 1999, 48 years after his death, Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
2. Seeker: Josh Gibson
CAREER: Batting average 0.366 | Home runs 239 | 1,046 RBI | Visits 1 208
Gibson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, was known as “Black Babe Ruth”. He may have hit over 800 home runs in a career mostly spent with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
The stories that Gibson hit home runs that flew out of old Yankee Stadium are hard to pin down. Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest power hitters of all time, narrowly missed in 1963. But there is no doubt that Gibson had enormous power.
“No one has hit the ball as far as Gibson,” said Buck Leonard, his former teammate. “I didn’t see the one he’s supposed to hit at Yankee Stadium. But I saw him hit a ball one night at the Polo Pitches that went between the upper deck and the lower deck and came out of the stadium. More late the night watchman came in and asked, “Who hit the damn ball over there?” He said he landed on the El. He must have been 600 feet. “
3. First base: Buck Leonard
CAREER: Batting average 0.342 | Home runs 103 | RBI 593 | Shots 803
Leonard, a Gibson teammate on the Homestead Grays, joined him in the Hall of Fame in 1972. As teammates, they led the Grays to four consecutive Negro League World Series titles from 1942 to 1945.
“Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who has ever lived,” said Monte Irvin, another Black League player and Hall of Fame member. “If he had had the chance to play in the major leagues, they might have called Lou Gehrig ‘The White Buck Leonard’. “
In 1948, after beating .395 and leading the Grays to their third Negro World Series title, Leonard flirted with opportunities to play in the big leagues. But by then he was way past his prime. Reflecting on his baseball career, Leonard, who died in 1997 at the age of 90, told a reporter, “We used to go and see major league baseball players. We waited to see if there was a difference. There were none. Not a difference between the major leagues.
4. Second base: George “Tubby” scales
CAREER: Batting average 0.324 | Home runs 72 | RBI 633 | Visits 928
Scales has hit 0.300 or better 14 times in its 25 seasons, which included stints with the New York Lincoln Giants, Baltimore Elite Giants and Homestead Grays. Nicknamed “Tubby” for heavy build, Scales was considered by his peers to be an excellent curveball hitter.
“Tubby is an underrated player who is rarely talked about,” said Lester.
In a survey carried out in 1952 by the Pittsburgh Courier, Scales was ranked fourth best second baseman in Negro League history, behind Jackie Robinson, Bingo DeMoss and Bill Monroe. (The last Negro League teams withdrew in the early 1960s.)
5. Shortstop: Willie “The Devil” Wells
CAREER: Batting average 0.326 | Home Runs 172 | 1,159 RBI | Visits 1,809
Over a 24-year career, Wells was an excellent field shortstop who could strike for average and power. He compensated for a weak throw with great anticipation; and to quickly get rid of a ball he used a flat glove.
“He made his glove flat by removing all of the heel padding,” Negro League star Buck O’Neil told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2003. “And when he was done, it looked like the glove didn’t even fit in his hand.”
After being hit by a pitch and suffering a concussion in 1939, Wells used a coal miner’s helmet as a batting helmet – the first use of this safety device, according to baseball historians. He later used a construction worker helmet, his daughter, Stella, said.
As the Newark Eagle, Wells was part of the so-called “Million Dollar Infield,” which included Ray Dandridge, Dick Seay and Mule Suttles. “Players would often say, ‘Don’t hit the ball to shortstop because the Devil is out there,’ said Lester of Wells, Hall of Famer in 1997.
6. Third base: John Beckwith
CAREER: Batting average .347 | Home Runs 107 | RBI 586 | Visits 796
At 6-3, 220 pounds, Beckwith has been one of the game’s most intimidating hitters over his 19-year career. Babe Ruth would have said that not only can Beckwith hit harder than any black baseball player, but any man in the world.
In 30 games in 1931, Beckwith reached 0.364 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs.
Beckwith was known as a tough teammate, Lester says, explaining why he’s moved so often in his career. But he believes he was as good a hitter as any player of his day, including Oscar Charleston, Gibson and Turkey Stearnes.
7. Voltigeur: Oscar Charleston
CAREER: Batting average 0.350 | Home tours 211 | 1319 RBI | Visits 2,034
Charleston, which played from 1915 to the late 1940s, was one of the first stars of the Negro League. “In my opinion, the greatest baseball player I have ever seen was Oscar Charleston,” said Bennie Borgmann, St. Louis Cardinals scout. Twenty Years Too Soon: A Prelude to Integrated Major League Baseball. “When I say this, I do not neglect [Babe] Ruth, [Ty] Cobb, [Lou] Gehrig and all.
A “version of the early days of Willie Mays,” Lester calls one of the most complete players in Black League history.
In 2001, famous baseball statistician Bill James ranked Charleston – who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976 – as the fourth best player of all time behind Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays.
8. Outfield: James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell
CAREER: Batting average 0.331 | Home Runs 74 | RBI 757 | Visits in 1 958
A solid all-rounder, Bell was best known for his speed. “Once [Bell] hit a line right in front of my ear, ”said Paige, considered one of baseball’s all-time greatest storytellers. “I turned around and saw the ball touching him slide in second.”
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, a Negro League pitcher and receiver, loved to share how Bell took second place on cavities: “If he gets cavities and bounces twice, put it in your pocket. rear, ”he said.
Bell played 24, 10 years with his hometown team, the St. Louis Stars. His Hall of Fame induction took place in 1974. “He was a great role model for me and for many young black men,” Lester says.
9. Outfield: Turkey Stearnes
CAREER: Batting average 0.348 | Home Runs 200 | RBI 1.069 | Hits 1,404
Stearnes, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, hit over 0.400 three times and led the Black Leagues seven times during an 18-year career with multiple teams.
“He was a Ricky Henderson before there was a Ricky Henderson,” said Lester, referring to the all-time MLB leader in interceptions.
In 2001, Bill James ranked Stearnes 25th all-time best and best left-hander in the Black Leagues. Stearnes shares the record for most times leading the league in trebles with six, tying Sam Crawford of the Detroit Tigers.
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