Cumberland Posey, the only person in Baseball and Basketball Temples of Fame, wasn’t just a great athlete. He was also one of the black league’s most savvy businessmen and talent assessors, a staunch supporter of black baseball, and a pioneer of the sport.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Pittsburgh-area native became the first African-American to play sports at Penn State and then Duquesne, where he used a pseudonym. Posey later became the owner of the Homestead Grays, considered one of the greatest teams in Negro League baseball history.
“He’s one of the three most important owners in Black League Baseball,” says Jim Overmyer, author of Homestead Grays Cum Posey. Overmyer includes Posey among the most influential figures of the Negro Leagues along with fellow Hall of Fame member Rube Foster, a team leader, and James L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs.
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Posey’s business acumen allowed him to “take a long-term view,” says Overmyer, which led to the Grays’ financial and competitive success as they barnstormed and played in the Black Leagues. He was also a revered figure in Pittsburgh.
“Some may say that he crushed the weak as well as the strong on the way to the top of the ladder,” wrote Wendall Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally leading black newspaper. “But no matter what his critics say, they can’t deny that he was the smartest man in Black League baseball and certainly the most successful.”
Cumberland Posey: a descendant of freed slaves
The grandson of freed slaves, Posey was born on June 20, 1890 in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a borough seven miles southeast of Pittsburgh. His father, Cumberland “Cap” Willis Posey Sr., became what is believed to be the country’s first licensed black riverboat engineer. Elder Posey built riverboats and founded and owned the Diamond Coke and Coal Company.
Posey’s mother, Anna Stevens Posey, the first black to graduate from her high school in Athens, Ohio, called for equal recognition of civic groups of African American women. She once fired warning shots with a pistol to frighten two men who were trying to rob her husband.
Posey grew up in a chic brick house on East 13e Homestead Street, near Carnegie Steel Works on the south bank of the Monongahela River. In 1911, Posey, an excellent athlete, played in the middle of the field for the Murdock Grays, a professional team. (The team was later renamed Homestead Grays to reflect its original base.)
In 1920, with the help of his father, Posey bought the Grays with businessman Charlie Walker. From 1918 to 1918, Posey, a 5-foot-9, 140-pounder, played for the team.
The Grays originally played only locally, traveling to matches on streetcars or commuter trains. But Posey saw a financial opportunity in barnstorming due to the popularity of the team. So the Grays added games against semi-professional white teams in Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
“[H]We didn’t want to join a league because he could make more money doing what he was doing, ”says Overmyer. “Plus, he could plunder league rosters with impunity.”
In 1929, as the country headed into the Great Depression, Posey realized the time had come to join the Negro League.
Cumberland Posey: player, manager, owner of Homestead Grays
In addition to playing and managing the Grays, Posey made the team a powerhouse that won nine Black National League championships from 1937-1948 and three Black League World Series. He led the 1931 team which, including Barnstorming, finished 163-23 and is considered one of the best baseball teams of all time.
Besides Posey, the Grays had four other future Hall of Fame members: wide receiver Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth of the Negro League; outfielder Oscar Charleston, considered one of the most complete players in baseball history; first baseman Buck Leonard and pitcher Ray Brown. Gibson, Leonard and Brown were the backbone of the 1937 Grays team that went 45-18-1 in the Negro League.
A pugnacious competitor, Posey would not hesitate to remove the Grays from the field when they were the victims of a bad call. “A first-class umpire bait,” says Overmyer. “The giants collapsed and gave up before the fragile-looking Posey,” W. Rollo Wilson wrote in the Mail. “The word ‘stop’ has never been translated for him.”
A skillful fighter, Posey wore blackjack and once broke the arm of an inmate, who hit him through the bars of his cell during a prison visit, Overmyer says.
Due to his close relationship with Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, the Grays played at Forbes Field, home of the Major League baseball team. Posey also had a close relationship with the Griffith family, who owned the Washington Senators in the American Major League Baseball. In the 1940s, the Grays played a few games in the nation’s capital.
In addition to the success on the Grays field, the team was profitable. “I read in the papers that the Cincinnati Reds lost $ 30,000 last year,” Posey told the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph back in the 1940s. “Anytime the Grays made less than $ 30,000 a year, we thought it was a bad season. It gives you an idea of how big a deal black baseball has become.”
Overmyer believes Posey, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, would have excelled as an MLB executive. “The only question I have is whether he would have continued to work for someone else,” he says.
Cumberland Posey also excels at basketball
In the 1920s, Posey was considered one of the best black basketball players in the country. His focus on outside shooting was unique for the time. “Easily Stephen Curry’s grandfather,” Claude Johnson told The Undefeated, referring to the Golden State Warriors star. Johnson is the founder of the Black Fives Foundation, which studies and promotes the history of pre-NBA black basketball.
In 1909, Posey became the first person of color to participate in sports at Penn State. He stayed there for two years, then in 1915 played basketball for the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost, now Duquesne.
Playing Charles Cumbert, Posey led the scoring team for three years, but he never enrolled in college. Many Pittsburgher residents knew Posey was making money in baseball, which made him ineligible for college sports.
In 1988, Posey was inducted into the Duquesne Sports Hall of Fame under his real name, and 25 years later, the university created an endowment of $ 1 million in his name to benefit minority students. In 2016, Posey was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
One of Posey’s admirers and friends in the Pittsburgh sports community was Art Rooney, the longtime Steelers owner known as “The Chief”. Although Rooney said little about it, he did help Posey financially.
On March 27, 1946, the day before Posey died from cancer at the age of 55, the gravely ill pioneer took one more tour through his beloved Homestead. A few days later, “The Chief” served as the honorary porter at his funeral and Homestead Schools closed for the day.
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