Monday, January 18, 2010

A Dream Team... in honor of Dr. King

On this Martin Luther King Day, I've decided to honor those great players who were denied a shot at the big leagues because of the color of their skin.

Of course before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the so called logic of the day said black players were not as talented as the white players.

I guess it was a coincidence that in the 23 years after Jackie arrived, 16 of the National League MVPs were awarded to players who had Negro League experience.

So in the same spirit of my Home Grown vs. Acquired series from last year, I will write up the THE ALL TIME SHUT OUT OF THE MAJORS BECAUSE OF SEGREGATION roster.

There will be a starting line up plus a bench with reserve infielders, outfielders, a back up catcher, a top pinch hitter, 5 starters, 5 relievers and a 25th man who could be anything.

And like the Home Grown vs. Acquired, I will have a steadfast rule:

These are the greatest Negro League Players to have NEVER played in the Major Leagues. Now this means the most famous player from those mythical teams is eliminated: Satchel Paige.

Yes it is a tragedy that we never got to see Satchel face down Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx in his prime, but he did wind up playing in the bigs, winning a World Series ring and playing in a few All Star Games.

Also Negro League stars like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby got to play in the bigs along with the likes of Junior Gilliam, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks.

That hard fast rule of "Never Playing in the Bigs" eliminates Luke Easter and Home Run Brown because of their cameos in the majors.

Sorry... I'm a hard ass for rules and there is no shortage of players who were denied even a glimpse of the show.

Also the great late Buck O'Neill deserves a salute and should have been a manager, but he did become a coach for the Cubs.

These are the men who were completely shut out.

They should be legends... and even though many are in the Hall of Fame, they are obscure to even a baseball lunatic like me.

Many of these legends were elected to the Hall of Fame... too many were put in posthumously.

And one thing is for sure... big league baseball was denied some amazing nicknames!

Let's salute them.

THE STARTING LINE UP

Catcher- JOSH GIBSON

The tragedy of the Negro Leagues is no better personified than Josh Gibson.

Was he Babe Ruth's equal in power? Was he Mickey Cochrane's equal behind the plate? What team would he have led to the World Series?

What team would retire his number? What stadium would have his statue? Which slugger accused of steroids would be scolded "You passed Josh Gibson on the home run list... but Gibson was better!"?

Right now his reputation is almost legendary and sadly his accomplishments are shadowed in a 20th century mythology. Did he hit 800 homers? Did he hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium? We'll never know for sure.

He died months before Jackie Robinson made his Dodgers debut.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame.



First Base - BUCK LEONARD

A powerful left handed slugger, Leonard was the glue of the star studded Homestead Grays teams of the 1930s and 1940s. His teams won 9 straight pennants and he batted .391 in 1948.

He was evidently offered a big league contract in the 1950s, but he turned it down as he felt he was too old to compete in the big leagues.

He went on to play several more years in the minors and in Mexico.

Was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Pirates honored him during the 1994 All Star Game at Three Rivers Stadium.



Second Base - WILLIE "THE DEVIL" WELLS

A clutch hitter and dazzling defender, Wells made up for his weak throwing arm by studying the hitters and mastering the art of positioning. He is also one of the pioneers as one of the first people to wear a batting helmet.

Why the hell am I putting "The Shakespeare of Shortstops" at second base? Well three reasons:

1. He needs to be in the starting line up.
2. The weak armed shortstop started at second base in the East West Game of 1945.
3. I wasn't going to bench Pop Lloyd.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 1997.



Shortstop - POP LLOYD

Considered to be a great situation hitter and smooth shortstop, he was nicknamed "The Black Honus Wagner."

Evidently Wagner was honored to be compared to Lloyd.

He played professionally over 4 decades (1906-1932) and along the way batted .343 to go along with his outstanding defense.

He played for 10 different teams including the 1910 Chicago Leland Giants, considered to be one of the best teams of all time. If only they had a chance to play the 1910 AL Champion A's or NL Champion Cubs.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 1977.


Third Base - JUDY JOHNSON

A terrific all around hitter, Johnson was never the power threat like Gibson or Leonard. But he was a scientific hitter who was consistently among the league leaders. He was a Wade Boggs of a previous generation.

Johnson was a member of the amazing 1935 Homestead Grays team that featured Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston.

Was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975.


Left Field - TURKEY STEARNES

One of the great power hitters in Negro League history, Stearnes also led the league in triples and used his deceptive speed in the outfield.

A .300 hitter in 14 seasons, Stearnes was employed by the Detroit Tigers' owner in his auto factory.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame and the Tigers have honored him with a plaque at Comerica Park.




Center Field - OSCAR CHARLESTON

No less of an authority than Buck O'Neill called Oscar Charleston the greatest player he ever saw. This was a man who scouted and signed Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Lou Brock... so he had a good eye.

Charleston was a top defensive outfielder who hit for power, hit for average. While Babe Ruth was tearing apart the majors in the 1920s, Charleston was doing the same in the Negro Leagues. And in exhibitions against white teams, the competitor in him would come out as he hit .318 and 11 homers in 53 games.

Both the Sporting News and Bill James listed him as one of the greatest ballplayers of any race ever. He would have become one of the legendary figures in baseball history... instead of an agonizing footnote.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously.


Right Field - COOL PAPA BELL

Satchel Paige had the line that Cool Papa was so fast that he could flip a switch and be in bed before the room was dark.

I assume that was an exaggeration. But his speed and longevity in the league suggest he was the Rickey Henderson of a previous generation. He was always among the league leaders in stolen bases, batting averages and run scored... making him the prototypical lead off man in any era.

Bill Veeck offered an aging Bell a contract with the Browns, but he turned it down, hoping it would go to a younger black player.

Was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.


Top Pinch Hitter Off Of The Bench - BOOJUM WILSON

No less of an authority than Satchel Paige called Boojum Wilson the hardest out he ever faced. A star over three different decades, Wilson was a steady .300 hitter and one of the Homestead Grays biggest stars during the 1930s and was the captain of the 1931 champion squad.

He hit .400 several times and was one of the most consistent third baseman during the Golden Age of the Negro Leagues.

His nickname was in reference to the sound his line drives made when they hit the wall.

A veteran of World War I, he is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 2006.


THE STARTING ROTATION

Starting Pitcher - BULLET JOE ROGAN

Known as Bullet Joe for his accuracy more than his speed, Rogan threw a variety of pitches and deliveries for an exceptional career. Rogan played for the Army baseball teams during World War I and returned to America to join the Monarchs.

Not only did he post big winning numbers and a low ERA, he also hit .400 in 1924 to lead the Monarchs to the pennant. Who needs a DH?

Also showed how terrific Negro League nicknames were. His name was Charles Wilber Rogan... yet he went by Bullet Joe!

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 1998.


Starting Pitcher - LEON DAY

One of the great pitching stars in the 1940s, Day recorded a perfect season in 1937, posting a 13-0 record. He also hit .320 that season.

A great strikeout artist, he set the Negro League single game record of 18 in 1942.

He fought in World War II, landing on Utah beach in 1944. When he returned to America he was part of the 1946 champion Newark Eagles, the last Negro League champion before Jackie Robinson's Dodger debut.

He was still alive when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995, but died before the ceremony.


Starting Pitcher - WILLIE FOSTER

He was the half brother of Negro League star manager and innovator Rube Foster, but don't think there was any nepotism here.

He was a great left handed pitcher who won as a control artist and durability. In 1926, he started and won both games of a double header on the last day of the season to clinch the pennant. When the Negro Leagues began their East - West All Star Game, Foster was selected as the starting pitcher.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1996.


Starting Pitcher - RAY BROWN

Through the 1930s and 1940s, Brown was one of the league's top pitchers. He dominated mainly with his deadly curve ball that he had the guts to throw in any count.

He showed his guts in another way. He married the daughter of Cumberland Posey, the owner and manager of the Homestead Grays.

Being part of the family meant he didn't jump from team to team like most Negro League stars did... and he kept on winning, including a shutout in the 1944 Negro League World Series and a perfect game in 1945.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2006.


Starting Pitcher - JOSE "THE BLACK DIAMOND" MENDEZ

I'm not one for nicknames about people's race... but let's face it. El Diamante Negro.

The native of Cuba was not a tall man (he was 5'9"), but he dominated Cuban and Negro League teams in the 1900s and 1910s.

While in Cuba, white stars would face him in exhibition games... and he would mow them down. A's catcher Ira Thomas said he was close to Walter Johnson's equal. To this day, Johnson is mentioned as one of the great pitchers of all time.

It's safe to say El Diamante Negro could have held his own and then some.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2006.


THE BULLPEN


Closer - HILTON SMITH

Known as the man who finished many of Satchel Paige's games, he seems a natural for the bullpen closer role.

But far from being a go-fer for the great Paige, Smith had wonderful pitching credentials of his own.

He was a 20 game winner in each of 12 seasons with the Monarchs, threw a no hitter in 1937 and went 25-1 in 1941.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 2001.



Right Handed Set Up Man - DAVID BARNHILL

One of the truly consistent pitching stars of the 1940s, Barnhill would frustrate hitters with a variety of motions and windups, and perhaps a bit more.

Barnhill was accused of scuffing the ball and cutting it. Whatever he did, it worked as he lead the New York Cubans to the 1947 Negro League title.

Later he was signed by a Giants minor league squad. Despite putting up all star caliber numbers in the minors, the Giants refused to bring him up. They had enough black players on the big league squad.


Left Handed Set Up Man - ANDY COOPER

A dominating left handed pitcher, Cooper would often start one game and relieve the next. He pitched to a .671 winning percentage and saved more games than any player in his league's history.

He pitched in organized segregated ball from 1920 to 1941 and went on to become a successful manager for the Kansas City Monarchs.

Was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 2006.



Reliever - SMOKEY JOE WILLIAMS

Statistics from the Negro League era are hard to compare with the Big Leagues. Often times leagues played shorter schedules and other times there was nobody keeping score except taking note of the final score.

All that being said, in 1914, Williams went 41-3. I don't care who the competition is... that is an amazing mark.

Ty Cobb complimented him, saying he'd be a 30 winner easily in the majors. When the most notoriously racist player in baseball history tips his cap to a black man, it is worth noting!


Reliever - CANNONBALL JACKMAN

Jackman wowed future big leaguers and major league legends alike with his pitching abilities. John McGraw wished he could sign him for the Giants and joked he'd give $50,000 to the man who could make Jackman white.

Jackman played most of his career for all black New England teams and was obscure even by the standards of the Negro Leagues.

Those who saw him claimed he was Satchel Paige's equal.

We'll never know for sure.


THE BENCH



Reserve Infielder - RAY DANDRIDGE

A smooth fielding and power hitting third baseman, Dandridge was considered to be a superior talent to Jackie Robinson and was a candidate to break the color barrier.

Instead he toiled in the minor leagues, winning the league MVP in 1950, and never received a call to the Giants until he retired.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1980s. I remember reading the story about his election and his career in wonderful 1987 Sports Illustrated article.

Try reading the first few paragraphs without getting choked up.


Reserve Infielder -MARTIN DiHIGO

Future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize played winter ball in the Domincan Republic on an integrated team. Despite the fact that he was a fearsome slugger, pitchers would walk the batter ahead in order to face Mize.

Why? Because they didn't want to face DiHigo.

The incredible versatile DiHugo could play anywhere on the diamond. He hit .426 in 1926... the same year he led the league in homers.

Into the 1930s he also became a star pitcher. In 1938 he went 18-2 with an 0.90 in the Mexican League while batting .387. Not bad.

He also was a terrific chef. I told you he was versatile.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 1977.


Reserve Outfielder - MULE SUTTLES

One of the best power hitters in Negro League history, he once hit a ball in a game in Cuba that traveled about 600 feet.

He swung a massive 50 ounce bat and got his homers in bunches, getting three in one inning once.

Sabermetric fans would love his 1926 season where he hit .413 and slugged 1.000 for the season.

The slugger that got fans to chant "Kick Mule" was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 2006.


Reserve Outfielder - CRISTOBAL TORRIENTE

Another native Cuban who was too dark skinned to play in the majors... so all he did was dominate the Cuban and Negro Leagues in the 1910s and 1920s.

A solid defender, he had a powerful left handed line drive swing. He batted .411 for the American Giants pennant winner in 1920. In 1926 he became a top hitter for the Monarchs.

And in the off season he would head off to Cuba and tear apart their pitching as well, out hitting Babe Ruth in a series of exhibition games.

The hard drinking and hard partying Torriente died in 1938 at age 44. 68 years after his death, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.




Reserve Catcher - BIZ MACKEY

Mackey played all over the diamond including being a .423 hitting infielder for the Hilldale Daiseys in 1923.

But in 1925 he settled behind the plate and led Hilldale to the championship over Kansas City with 3 hits in the clincher.

Considered to be the greatest catcher in the history of the Negro Leagues before the arrival of Josh Gibson, people who saw Mackey said he was Gibson's superior defensively.

He was elected posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 2006.


25th Man - DOUBLE DUTY RADCLIFFE

Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe had one of the great nicknames in baseball and lived a great long life to go from stardom, to obscurity to adoration.

He played in the 1920s and 1930s with some of the great players of all time (including Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston) on the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

He earned his nickname by being a solid catcher and starting pitcher, often catching one end of the double header and tossing a shutout on the other end.

And as a manager of an integrated off season team, he was the first known black man to manage white players.

He lived to be 103 years old, his biography written and was cheered in his later years as one of the great living legends of the Negro Leagues and, with Buck O'Neill, its greatest ambassador.

Manager -RUBE FOSTER

Foster would have made this roster as a pitcher... but it was as a manager and an innovator that he earned the title "Father of the Negro Leagues."

In 1905 as a pitcher he went 51-4 and out dueled Rube Waddell, earning his nickname.

He managed from 1907 to 1926 and no less of an authority than John McGraw would watch his games to get managing ideas.

Just imagine if the two managed head to head in the World Series.



That is quite a roster of players who could have changed baseball history forever.

And I write this list with all apologies to Newt Allen, Sam Bankhead, Jimmie Crutchfield, Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Dick Lundy, Uncle Bill Monroe, Dobie Moore, Bruce Petway, Spotswood Poles, Big Bertha Santop, Ted Strong, Ben Taylor, Quincy Trouppe and any other former Negro League star I may have left out... it's a tough roster to crack.


As I wrote in my piece about Jackie, Larry Doby and the talent pool, my fascination and frustration with segregation isn't simply about social justice. It's about BASEBALL!

Who would want to see post war baseball WITHOUT Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock, Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell, Jim Rice, Rickey Henderson, Andre Dawson... etc etc etc?

You would think the likes of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, both cheered as American heroes before World War II, would have opened up the possibility for integration earlier.

Then again, they played individual sports against a common enemy: Nazi Germany. In a team sport, they were taking the job of a white guy away.

Which brings up the question that can never be answered: What great baseball moments were we deprived?

Which stars could have led teams to the World Series and become beloved legends in their cities?

The Pirates have a plaque for Honus Wagner, the Tigers honor Ty Cobb, the Yankees honor Ruth, Gehrig et al...

Which team would have had a statue for Josh Gibson, listing the pennants won for their squad?

Which team would Cool Papa Bell have piled up stolen base titles for?

Would Bullet Joe Rogan get Babe Ruth swinging to end a World Series?

Would Satchel Paige in his prime had matched up against Dizzy Dean in his prime?

We'll never know...

But one thing is certain... these great players from a shadowy past deserve at least a quick salute and a read on line today.





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9 comments:

  1. Great article Sully! You really put a lot of work into getting your info. That roster and stats you talked about must have took hours of research. You really are a good blogger dude.

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  2. Great Work, This may be one of the best pieces I ever read. Thanks for writing this and giving me and others an education.

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  3. This is fantastic!

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  4. This article packs a power punch. Felt it strong here in DC.

    By the way, if you make a Nats game this year, they have a statue up of Gibson.

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  5. Anonymous6:40 AM

    Excellent, well thought out article.

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  6. Nice work here.

    I might have put Frank Grant at second instead of Wells, Suttles was a 1B, and I would flip Stearnes and Bell since Stearnes was naturally a RF, but that's all quibbling.

    Dihigo is in the HoF in three different countries - Mexico, Cuba, and the US. That's pretty damn awesome.

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  7. Sully,

    I like how you include Jackman in your pen. He easily could be in your rotation. His career as a starter is/was quite impressive. Check out UMASS Boston on 2/23 for a panel presentation on Negro League Baseball including a discussion about the New England Teams.

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  8. Anonymous5:02 PM

    Great blog, thank you ever so much for the wonderful read.

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  9. Great read. You certainly. Give credit to those who did not get enough of it. I would add, as an honorable mention, J.L. Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. He was a white guy, but night baseball became a reality because of him. And where would baseball be without that?

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