The Top 10 Negro League Unsung Ballplayers
Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were players that paved the way for future Hall of Famers to be able to take their talents from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues. Such HOFs were Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, who was the last Negro league player to hold a regular position in Major League Baseball. With that said, what about other players that were productive in the Negro Leagues? There are players that had wonderful careers, who could have easily made it to the Majors but never had the opportunities. Here is my top ten list of Negro League ball players that have gone UNSUNG.
10. Larry Doby (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class 1998)
Mr. Doby had a small stint in the Negro Leagues, playing second base for four seasons with the Newark Eagles. He helped the Eagles to a Negro League championship in 1946. Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, made Larry Doby the first African-American to play in the American League, eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. In the 1948 World Series, he played centerfield for the Cleveland Indians and was the first black player to hit a World Series home run. He also was the first black player to win a World Series title. He is one of only four players to play in both a Negro League World Series and a Major League World Series. Doby was the first black player to lead the league in homers. He came to the Majors and put up productive numbers helping other Negro League players get the opportunity of reaching the dream of playing at the Major League level. Doby was a .283 career hitter with 253 HR and 970 RBI in 1,533 games.
9. Andrew “Rube” Foster (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class 1981)
Rube Foster was known as the Father of Black Baseball. Rube was a pitcher, manager, owner and founder of the Negro National League. Some baseball historians have given Rube credit with the invention of the screwball. As a player, he spent his first year pitching for the Chicago Union Giants in the dead-ball era, where he compiled a record of 51 wins in a single season. The following year, he came back and surpassed that with a 54 win season, which put him among the best pitchers of the twentieth century. Between the years of 1903 and 1906, Rube’s presence on both the Cuban X-Giants and the Philadelphia Giants led to multiple championships. In 1907, he left the Philadelphia Giants to take over the Leland Giants (American Giants) as both player and manager. Rube managed Leland to an 110-10 record, winning 48 games in a row and taking the Chicago City League pennant. After establishing the best black team in the league, he paved the way by organizing the first black baseball league called Negro National League in 1920. Andrew “Rube” Foster was the president and treasurer of the league while remaining owner and manager of the American Giants. As owner of the most successful black team in the Negro National League, his America Giants absolutely pulverized everyone they faced. They won 11 championships.
8. Hilton Smith (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class 2001)
Hilton Smith may have been the best pitcher on the Kansas City Monarchs if it weren’t for the flamboyant Satchel Paige. Though he was known as “Satchel’s Shadow,” Hilton still managed to become a 20 game winner in all 12 seasons as a Monarch. He often came in after Paige had pitched the first 3 innings of a ballgame because Satchel would draw fans to the stadium. Hilton, would finish off opponents in the same fashion as Paige started the game. Hilton Smith, was known as the best all-around pitcher throwing from both sidearm and overhand with unbelievable control. He had a devastating curveball, high fastball and slider. In 1941, he posted a 25-1 record, losing his only game in a non-league contest. There was a streak where in 89 innings, he gave up 39 hits. Hilton helped lead the Monarch to 7 Negro American League titles and a championship in 1942.
7. Martin “El Maestro” Dihigo (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 1977)
With his speed and throwing arm, Martin “El Mastro” Dihigo was the most versatile ball player to go through the Negro Leagues. He played in the Mexican, Cuban, and Negro Leagues, where he earned election into Hall of Fames for each. He would play multiple positions including pitcher. According to Johnny Mize, “He was the only guy he ever saw play all nine positions skillfully, switch hit and manage.” In 1938, El Maestro won a batting title with a .387 average, while going 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA. He was the first player in the Mexican league to throw a no-hitter. Dihigo won three home run crowns in the Negro Leagues and tied Josh Gibson for another. He also won over 250 games as a pitcher.
6. Reece “Goose” Tatum (Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2011)
Before there was a Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, Reece Tatum, better known as the “Goose,” was the two sport athlete of the 1940s. He played in the Negro Leagues and on the Harlem Globetrotters. Goose was considered one of the top first basemen in the Negro Leagues. Tatum was 6’4″ and was said to have an arm span of about 84 inches long. It’s said, he could touch his kneecaps without bending! His length made him a prime fixture at first base with his long arms and legs helping him stretch on close plays. Reece Tatum was best known as the “Clown Prince,” as he was a crowd pleaser who brought comic acts and other entertaining events to the game. During warm ups, you often saw Tatum catching balls behind his back and joking with opponents. He also was said to be the greatest showman of all-time. He was best known for his star-studded act as a Harlem Globetrotter. He held all Globetrotter scoring records and was a member of the team that defeated Hall of Famer George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers. Goose has been credited to inventing the hook shot (sky hook) that Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul Jabaar made famous in his playing career. Tatum also became owner of the Detroit Clowns in the late ’50s.
5. Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class 1972)
While the New York Yankees had Ruth & Gehrig, the Homestead Grays had Leonard & Gibson, better known as the “Thunder Twins!” Buck Leonard had the hand-eye coordination of Ted Williams and the home run power of Hank Aaron. He was considered one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen. Also known as “Mr. Clutch,” Buck was the clean-up hitter, protecting Josh Gibson for over a decade. The Grays first basement was the captain and fixture for the best Negro team in history for seventeen years. Pitchers feared pitching to him as much as they did Josh Gibson because of his tremendous power. The ‘Black Lou Gehrig” averaged over 40 home runs and a batting average of .350 in his prime. His glove was also a huge weapon, as he was extremely sophisticated at first base. He was compared to the greatest defensive first baseman of all time, George Sisler. He always made the right play and had a very strong throwing arm.
4. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class 1977)
Babe Ruth reportedly believed Lloyd to be the greatest baseball player ever to play the game, and Honus Wagner said, “It’s an honor to be compared to him.” It can be said that John Lloyd was the greatest shortstop the Negro Leagues had ever witnessed. For over two decades, “Pop” was cerebral and an exceptional shortstop with good hands and great range. Early on, he would study his opponents, positioning himself in the field where he was able to get a good jump on the ball. On the offensive front, “Pop” had a lifetime batting average of .343 and displayed extreme speed on the base paths. Playing in the dead-ball era, “Pop” Lloyd used the bunt as a way of getting on base, and with his speed he would often be in scoring position that would lead to a run. He played on numerous teams, but most of his success was had when he played on Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants.
3. James “Cool Papa” Bell (Inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame Class 1974)
James “Cool Papa” Bell was a legendary lead-off switch-hitting center fielder. He was known as the fastest man to ever play the game of baseball. It has been told that he could circle the bases in an astounding twelve seconds! “Cool Papa’s” quickness allowed him to go from first to third on an infield single. This man was so fast that 1936 Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, who would race anyone prior to the ball games, refused to race the speedy Bell. Cool Papa used his blazing speed to make up for his lack of power. He stole 175 bases in a 200 game season. His speed going from home to first is described by a former teammate… “If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your pocket,” says “Double Duty” Radcliffe. In his illustrious 20 year career, Bell played on numberous of championship teams such as the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Homestead Grays. He never batted under .300 in his career, and against competition such as future Hall-of-Famers Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, and Bob Lemon, Bell hit .391 in 58 exhibition games. “Cool Papa” Bell’s defense was so superb, he would be compared to Hall of Fame greats Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays as the best center fielders ever to play the position. After retiring from the game, he made a strong impact on players making the transition to Major League Baseball, influencing such greats as Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Lou Brock.
2. Oscar “The Hoosier Comet” Charleston (Inducted in Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 1976)
In 1921, the left-handed Oscar “The Hoosier Comet” Charleston, led the Negro Leagues in doubles, triples and home runs, while batting a whooping .426 for the season. He comparisons were drawn to Ty Cobb. In nine consecutive seasons, he hit over .350 and twice over .400. His career batting average was .348. “The Hoosier Comet” was known for his speed on the bases and as one of the finest defensive outfielders of all-time. His career in the Negro Leagues lasted four decades as a player and manager. In 1932, Oscar, managed and played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords who were said to be the greatest Negro baseball team ever. The “Hoosier Comet” also excelled against the Major Leaguers with a career average of .358 with 11 home runs in 53 exhibition games. After his playing career, he continued to coach, managing the Pittsburgh Crawfords to a National Negro Championship. He was a tough, demanding manager that had the respect from all players that played under him.
1. Joe “Smokey” Williams (Inducted in Baseball Hall of Fame 1999)
There has never been a pitcher at the professional level to strikeout more than 20 batters in a game. On August 2, 1930, Smokey Joe Williams of the Homestead Grays, struck out 27 Kansas City Monarchs and threw a one-hitter in a 1-0, 12-inning victory. He was 44 freaking years old! The strikeout king was a modern-day Nolan Ryan, as he pitched 27 years in the Negro Leagues. Joe Williams was also known as the “Cyclone” because of his untouchable fastball that led to record-breaking strikeout performances and numerous no-hitters. His lifetime exhibition record against Major League competition was 20-7. He posted barnstorming victories over the 1912 pennant-winning New York Giants and 1915 Philadelphia Phillies, shutting out both teams. Smokey’s most memorable moment occurred in 1917, when he struck out 20 batters while no-hitting the New York Giants. He lost the game 1-0 on an error. The Giants were the representatives in the World Series that year. “The Cyclone” defeated five Hall of Fame pitchers (Grover Alexander, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt, Walter Johnson and Rube Marquard) in exhibitions. He must have been a bad boy if Ty Cobb thinks he could have won 30 games in the Major Leagues. “Smokey” Joe Williams has one up on the great Satchel Paige, as in their only encounter, “old man” Williams outgunned the “young sensation” Paige 1-0.
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