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Legends On Deck

The Cream of the Crop: Negro Leagues 100 Best Players (#15-11)

We are now, after this column, just three columns away from the coveted number one spot in the list of who I think are the Top 100 black baseball/ Negro League players of all-time. The next column I will share numbers 10-6 on the list and the column after that will talk about numbers 5-2. Then the player in the number one spot will have a column all his own and that will complete this part of the project. The players below are the players just outside the top 10, but still talented players.

To say the least, this has been a labor of love and I hope you have enjoyed reading about these skillful players as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about them. After the completion of my top 100 list, I have come across some more information and there will be additional columns detailing that information.

So without any further delay, check out players ranked 15 through 11 below. Talk to you again soon.

15-William Julius “Judy” or “Jing” Johnson
Born: October 26, 1900 (December 26, 1899)
Died: June 15, 1989 Wilmington, Delaware
Third Base/Shortstop
Bats Right/Throws Right
Bacharach Giants 1918, Madison Stars 1919-1921, Hilldale Daisies 1921-1929, 1931-1932, Homestead Grays 1930, 1937 Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932-1936

As a third baseman and shortstop, Johnson had a career from 1918 to 1937 in black baseball/Negro Leagues. When he was growing up he played baseball and football in and around the sand lots of Wilmington Delaware. While his father thought he should become a boxer, the youngster preferred baseball. After a year of high school at Howard High, Johnson quit school and took a job in Deep Water Point New Jersey on the loading docks. He began his baseball career in the semi pros playing with the Chester Pennsylvania Stars. After a tryout with the Hilldale Daisies he ended up signing with their “farm” team, the Madison Stars. After a couple of years he was purchased by the Hilldale team for $100 and signed a contract for $135 per month. Johnson was moved to the shortstop position and starting in 1923 with the Daisies he hit .391, .369, .392 in the three years that Hilldale won the pennant of the Eastern Colored League. He was key to the success of that team and continued his hot hitting after the pennant winning years by hitting .327 in 1928 and .390 in 1929.

He went from Hilldale to the Homestead Grays in 1930 as Homestead was in the midst of becoming one of the dominant teams of that era. After a year he went back to Hilldale, before going to his third dominant team the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932. His first four years with the Crawfords he hit .322-.333-.367 and then .306 with the 1935 Crawford team that was without a doubt one of the best teams of all-tie. Besides Johnson that team had Sam Bankhed, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Jimmie Crutchfield, Sam Street and Oscar Charleston. Oh what could this team have done in the majors, could they have rivaled the Yankees and some of the other major league powerhouses?

“Judy” Johnson was a sure handed fielder with great range and an accurate throwing arm. He did not have a lot of speed but his instinct more than made up for that lack of speed. He was cool under pressure and a patient fielder who just could not and would not be rattled on the playing field. He was not a power hitter but his excellent batting-eye allowed him to hit for a good average and with the teams he was on it was more important for him to get on base and let the big men of the lineup drive the runners like him in.

For his career he hit .309 and besides all of the stars mentioned that he had played with he also played with the likes of Biz Mackey, Pop Lloyd, Louis Santop, Willie Foster, Martin Dihigo and Webster McDonald.

William “Judy” Johnson  was recognized for all of his feats on the baseball diamond when in 1975 he was selected for induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown New York.

14-George “Mule” Suttles
Born: March 2, 1901 (March 31) Brockton, Louisiana
Died: July 9, 1966 Newark, New Jersey
First Base/Right field
Bats Right/Throws Right
Atlantic City Bacharach Giants 1921, Birmingham Black Barons 1923-1925, St Louis Stars 1926-1931, Baltimore Black Sox 1930, Detroit Wolves 1932, Washington Pilots 1932, Cole’s American Giants 1933-1935, Newark Eagles 1936-1940, 1942-1944, Indianapolis ABCs 1939, New York Black Yankees 1941

George “Mule” Suttles had a career in black baseball and the Negro Leagues that began in 1918 and ended in 1944 playing either first base or right field. He towering home runs that Suttles hit were hit because of the muscles he developed working in and around the coal mines in Birmingham Alabama where he also played baseball on the semi-pro teams in the area. His professional career began when he was just 17 years old. When he retired he had a lifetime batting average of .338 in league play. He was just a fantastic power hitter who hit prodigious home runs while maintaining a batting average of over the .300 mark. He was helped in his home run hitting by swinging a massive 50 ounce bat that would inevitably add more power when the bat made contact with the ball. He was prone to striking out a lot however the risk was certainly worth the reward. He would feast on low balls that flew out of the park when he made contact with those big muscles and the big piece of timber that he wielded. His legendary blasts were never forgotten by those that witnessed them.

One time in Tropical Park in Havana Cuba, Suttles hit one of those home runs, one of the more memorable ones he had hit. The centerfield fence in Tropical Park was over 500 feet from home plate and the fence was 60 feet high. Suttles hit a ball that cleared that 60 foot wall with onlookers estimating the ball travelled over 600 feet.

Leon Day said that one time in Washington Suttles hit a home run over the centerfield fence at Griffith Stadium. Ray Dandridge told the story that one time Suttles hit a ball in centerfield in Louisville that was caught 500 or more feet from home plate. In 1929 while a member of the St Louis Stars Suttles hit three consecutive home runs against the Memphis Red Sox and that when Suttles came up to bat for the fourth time the entire Memphis team walked off the playing field.

Suttles was an average fielder, not very graceful or quick but if he got to the ball he would not miss it. Of course his prowess at the plate with the bat made up for ay of the shortcomings he had on the playing field. He was a home run threat every time he came up to the plate.

When a player is good, he attracts other good players as teammates and Suttles was a good player. During his career he played with some of the greats of black baseball and the Negro Leagues like Cool Papa Bell, Dizzy Dismukes, Willie Wells, Willie Foster, Jelly Gardner, Ray Dandridge, Dick Lundy and Dickie Seay.

13-Cristobal Torriente
Born: November 16, 1893 Cienfuegos, Cuba
Died: April 11, 1938 New York, New York
Center field/Left field/Right Field/Pitcher/Third Base/First Base
Bats Left/Throws Left
Cuban Stars 1913-1918, All Nations 1913, 1916-1917 Chicago American Giants 1918-1925, Kansas City Monarchs 1926, Detroit Stars 1927-1928, Gilkerson Union Giants 1930, Atlanta Black Crackers 1932, Cleveland Cubs 1932, Habana 1912-1913, Almendares 1913-1916

Cristobal Torriente’s career in black baseball lasted from 1913 to 1928, a total of 15 years. He also played in Cuba for a number of years as well. Like a lot of the players of that era in black baseball he was versatile and could play almost anywhere and everywhere on the diamond. He starred as a member of Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants between 1918 and 1925. He was regarded as an outstanding fielder who covered a lot of ground. He also had a strong and accurate throwing arm which made him an asset on any team he was a member of. He was the only power hitter on Foster’s team and he used that power to left right and center field making him especially dangerous to the opposing pitcher and team. He, like Yogi Berra was a bad ball hitter making him a very hard out. If needed Torriente could also steal a base to help manufacture a run making him an integral part of Foster’s team and style of play.

During the first three years in the Negro National League it was Torriente who helped lead the American Giants to three titles as he hit .411-.338 and .342 for those seasons. The .411 mark gave him the batting title in 1920 and he won the title again in 1923 with a .412 batting average. Also during the three title years Torriente teamed with Floyd “Jelly” Gardner and Jimmie Lyons to form what may thought was the finest defensive outfield as well as one of the quickest outfields as well. His lifetime batting average in the Negro Leagues was .333 and in 13 seasons in the Cuban Winter League his batting average was .352 for those seasons.

Along with Martin Dihigo and Jose Mendez, Cristobal Torriente are considered to be three of the best players to ever come from the island of Cuba that played in the Negro Leagues and black baseball. Torriente was one of the first 10 players selected for induction into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and then in 2006 he was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Torriente’s list of great teammates include Bingo DeMoss, Oscar Charleston, Frank Wickwire, John Beckwith, Willie Foster and Norman “Turkey”Stearnes.

12-Willie “El Diablo” Wells
Born: August 10, 1905 Austin, Texas
Died: January 22, 1989 Austin, Texas
Shortstop/Third Base/Second Base/Pitcher
Bats Right/Throws Right
San Antonio Black Aces 1923, St Louis Stars 1924-1931, Detroit Wolves 1932, Homestead Grays 1932, Kansas City Monarchs 1932,1934 Cole’s American Giants 1933-1935, Newark Eagles 1936-1939,1942,1945 Chicago American Giants 1944, New York Black Yankees 1945-1946, Baltimore Elite Giants 1946, Indianapolis Clowns 1947, Memphis Red Sox 1944, 1948 Birmingham Black Barons 1954, Veracruz 194-1941, 1944 Tampico 1943, Mexico City 1944, Canadian League 1949-1951

“El Diablo” Willie Wells played primarily as a shortstop in the Negro Leagues and black baseball from 1924 to 1949. The sand lots of Texas were where Wells learned to play and love the game and in 1923 while with the San Antonio Black Aces, Rube Foster of he Chicago American Giants and Dr George Keys of the St Louis Stars discovered him. Wells opted to sign a contract with the Stars. It took a lot of hard work and perseverance early on in his career but Wells turned himself into a pretty good hitter. He would hit .378 in 1926 and .346 in 1927. Wells also set a home run record in 1926 when he hit 27 home runs in just 88 baseball games.

He remained a hot hitter and won a batting title in 1929 when he hit for a .368 average. He won another title in 1930 when he hit for a .404 average, In large part because of Willie Wells the St Louis Stars were able to win the championship of the Negro National League in 1928, 1930 and 1931> Well known sports writer Dan Daniel wrote in the New York World Telegram in 1934 about Wells: “the current counterpart to John Henry “Pop” Lloyd is Wee Willie Wells of the Chicago American Giants. He is batting .520 and fielding 1.000 and also stealing bases like Cool Papa Bell.

Wells was a pioneer in that he was one of the first players  to come up with a version of the batting helmet because he was thrown at so much by pitchers. This began after he was hit in the head by Bill Byrd of the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1936. For the last four years of the 1930’s Wells hit .357-.386-.396 and finally .340 seemingly unaffected by the repeated balls thrown at him.

He spent a number of years in Cuba and during his seven years there he batted .320 for his Cuban career. He then went to Mexico where he became known as “El Diablo”. What Wells would do if he was taken out in a hard slide at second base is to fill the end of his baseball glove with small stones and pebbles to put a bit more emphasis on tags to future base runners.

Later on he became a well-respected reputation as a manager. It was during this time (mid 1940s) that the talk increased about blacks becoming a part of major league baseball and Wells was always mentioned in the conversation as a player who could handle the switch.

He hung up his playing spikes with a .339 lifetime batting average and a .392 average in exhibition games against the major league teams. He passed away in 1989 and eight years later he joined the most exclusive club in baseball, Hall of Fame inductee.

Wells played with some of the game’s greats like Cool Papa Bell, Mule Suttles, Ray Brown, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Mule Suttles and Biz Mackey.

11-Martin Dihigo
Born: May 25, 1905 Matanzas, Cuba
Died: May 22 (20), 1971 Cienfuegos, Cuba
Second Base/Outfield/Pitcher/First Base/Third Base/Catcher
Bats Right/Throws Right
Cuban Stars East 1923-1927, 1930 Homestead Grays 1928, Hilldale Daisies 1929-1931, Baltimore Black Sox 1931, Venezuelan League 1933, New York Cubans 1935-1936, 1945 Santa Domingo 1937 Habana 1922-1923, 1924-1929, 1938-1939, 1940-1945 Union Launa 1941-1943, 1946 Nueva Laredo 1944, San Luis Potosi 1947

If this list was of the 100 most versatile players Martin Dihigo would have been ranked number one, as it is he is ranked 11th on the greatest players. It did not matter where he played as wherever he did play he played that position very well. When he began playing baseball in the United States it was mostly as a second baseman. As he gained more experience he played more at first base or third base as well as the outfield. Wherever he did play he was great at that position, a star everywhere with no exaggeration. There has not been anybody before him or after him that has approached the versatility and talent of the great Martin Dihigo.

Dihigo was blessed with a strong-arm, fantastic range, great speed on the bases and pretty good power at the plate. In 1926 he led the Eastern Colored League in home runs while batting .421 for the season. Next year, 1927, he tied for the lead in home runs and hit .370 for the year. For the 1929 season with the Hilldale Daisies he hit 18 home runs with a .386 batting average. He was with the Cuban Stars in 1930 and hit .393 for the year and then he went back to Hilldale for the 1931 season and as a pitcher won six games and lost just one time.

In the winter Dihigo travelled to his homeland of Cuba where he hit .300 o more nine times including two seasons where he hit .413 and .415 for those seasons. He was an everyday player until the 1935-1936 winter season when he played with Santa Clara in the Cuban League. In four seasons on the mound Dihigo had the following records on the mound: 11-2, 14-10, 11-5 and 14-2.

The early part of his career (1923-1936) was spent in the Negro Leagues and he spent time after that playing baseball in Latin America or Mexico. In 1937 he showed how versatile he was when he finished second to Satchel Paige in wins and second to Josh Gibson in batting average.

Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Mize called Dihigo the best player he ever saw when the two were teammates in the Dominican Republic. He was a hero in his homeland of Cuba and at one time served as Minister of Sports under Fidel Castro. He was already a member of the Cuban and Mexican Baseball Halls of Fame when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1977.

He played with a number of the greats of the game like John Beckwith, Smokey Joe Williams Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day and Josh Gibson.

Kevin Larkin

Kevin Larkin has been going to all kinds of baseball amateur and professional since 1969. When asked he says he is a baseball fan who likes the Yankees. He was a police officer for 24 years in his home town of Barrington Massachusetts and helped on investigating most major crimes including murder, plane crashes and automobile crashes. He was certified as an expert witness in accident reconstruction and investigated almost 90 fatal automobile accidents. After retiring from the police force he renewed a love for baseball and as of now has authored three books on the subject: Baseball in the Bay State, Gehrig:Game by Game and Baseball in the Berkshires. He has authored articles for SABR and helps out there with research whenever possible. He has a coloection of almost 700 baseball books and enjoys pre 1900 and post 1900 baseball as well as the Black Sox Scandal and learning about the Negro Leagues. He also writes a column for CNY Baseball and loves giving back to the sport which has given him so much.