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Legends On Deck

The Cream of the Crop: Negro Leagues 100 Best Players (20-16)

We are getting towards the number one spot in this order of special ball players and I cannot tell you all what a joy this has been. It was one of the more enjoyable things I have written, and I hope you all are enjoying this as well. I do not claim to be a baseball expert, I think of myself as a fan and when I set out to do this I guess I wanted to write it more from a fan of the sport’s perspective. In my mind the piece may have been a little easier to do and the picks easier to make if there had been more information available. However, the good part about that was that it made me read and research more into the history of the sport.

In my mind, I know that this list does not solve all of the arguments and in fact it may start many more arguments. That is okay though as I guess it makes all of us more aware as to what could have and should have been.

Now it is time to get back to work as we move forward to find out who I think are the best of all-time. As we creep closer and closer to that special number one position, I think it is time to change the format just a little bit. The basic format will stay the same, however, the nearer we get to the top of the list the more information became available as to how really good these greats of the game were. So for positions 20-1 we will talk about the greats, five at a time. I looked back over and the articles were getting lengthy so here is how we will look at the top 20: it will go 20-16, 15-11, 10-6 and 5-1.

So sit back and enjoy and lets continue our journey!!!!!!

20-Leon Day
Born: October 30, 1916, Alexandria, Virginia
Died: March 13, (March 14) 1995, Baltimore, Maryland
Pitcher/Second Base/Outfield
Bats Right/Throws Right
Baltimore Black Sox 1934, Brooklyn Eagles 1935, Newark Eagles 1936-1939,1941-1943, 1946 Baltimore Elite Giants 1949-1950, Mexico City Reds 1940, 1947-1948, Veracruz 1941, Venezuelan League 1940, Minor Leagues 1950-1954

Leon Day had a career in the Negro Leagues from 1934-1950. He began playing baseball in the Mount Winans District of Baltimore Maryland quitting school in the 10th grade to start playing sandlot baseball. His professional career began with the Baltimore Black Sox playing for $60 per month. After Baltimore he joined up with the Brooklyn Eagles where he began to pitch full-time. He spent a good part of his career with Newark including half of the 1938 season when he hurt his arm. Day came back in 1939 and had a record of  16 wins 4 losses during the 1939 season.

Perhaps his best year was 1937 when he finished the year with a record of 16 wins 0 losses in part because of the “Million Dollar Infield”  on Newark that year that had Ray Dandridge, Dick Seay, Willie Wells and Mule Suttles. Between 1935 and 1946 he appeared in seven of the East West All Star games. Day also set a strikeout record in the 1940’s when he struck out 18 Baltimore Elite Giant batters.

Day would miss two of his prime yeas in his career when he was drafted into the service because of World War II. He was in an amphibian unit and was at the Battle of Utah beach during the Allied invasion of France.

During the late 1930’s and 1940’s Day was consistently the most outstanding pitcher in the Negro National League. His best pitch was his fastball but both his curveball and change up were not that best either. He was a strikeout pitcher and is the holder of the strikeout record in the East West All Star game as well as both the Puerto Rican League and the Negro National League.

He was a good all around player, fast on the bases, a great fielder and a consistently good hitter. This talented athlete played every position but catcher. That made him a valuable asset to any team that he was a part of.

Good teams are stocked with good players and in his day, Day would play with some of he Negro League greats. Men like Ray Dandridge, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Cool Papa Bell, Martin Dihigo, Josh Gibson and Monte Irvin were some of the great players that Day played with during his career.

In 1995 Leon Day was selected for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

19-Hilton Lee Smith
Born: February 2, 1912 (February 27, 1907), Giddings, Texas
Died: November 18, 1983 Kansas City, Missouri
Pitcher/Outfield/First Base
Bats Right/Throws Right
Monroe Monarchs 1932-1935, New Orleans Black Creoles 1933, New Orleans Crescent Stars 1933, Kansas City Monarchs 1936-1948, Bismarck North Dakota 1935-1936, Torreon Algonderos 1940-1941, Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes 1940

Hilton Smith pitched in the Negro Leagues from 1932 until 1948. His career began when he played town ball with his father in 1927. He attended Prairieview A & M in Texas for a couple of years and began to play semi pro baseball with the Austin Senators. His professional baseball career began in 1932 with the Monroe Louisiana Monarchs. After playing with lessor quality teams he began a 12 year run with the Kansas City Monarchs. In those 12 years Smith won 20 or more games every year including 1937 when he added a no hitter to his resume. In one six year period Smith had a record of 129 wins and 28 losses. 1939 to 1942 were the best of those years as he went 25-2, 27-3, 25-1 and 22-5 against all opposition. He was a good hitter and often times played either the outfield or first base if he was needed, which added another good bat to the Monarchs lineup.

Smith pitched in six of the East West All Star games in a row (1937-1942) and was the winning pitcher in the 1938 game. Coincidence or not in those six dominating years by Smith the Monarchs won five of the six league pennants. As a teammate of Satchel Paige on those Monarch teams Smith became known as the pitcher who came on after Paige had pitched the first three innings of the ballgame. Smith came on after Paige and it was as if no one could tell the difference between the two greats. Smith never got the publicity that Paige got because Smith was not as flamboyant as Paige. It was said Smith had the best curveball in the Negro Leagues and many of those of that era thought Smith was an even better pitcher than Paige. Smith was not just a curveball pitcher either, he had a high hard fastball as well as a change of pace, a slider and a sinker. He threw any of the pitches either sidearm or overhand. Whichever way he did throw he had great control.

After he finished with the Monarchs he played for two years in Fulda New Mexico with a semi pro team. He then taught and coached besides working for Armco Steel retiring from that company in 1978.

Smith was a member of many great teams and as such played with some great players like, Bullet Joe Rogan, Martin Dihigo, Satchel Paige, Newt Allen and Connie Johnson.

Smith joined some of these greats when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

18-Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes
Born: May 8, 1901, Nashville, Tennessee
Died: September 4, 1979, Detroit, Michigan
Center Field/Left Field/First Base
Bats Left/Throws Left
Nashville Elite Giants 1920, Montgomery Grey Sox 1921, Memphis Red Sox 1922, Detroit Stars 1922-1931,1933, 1937 New York Lincoln Giants 1930, Kansas City Monarchs 1931, 1934, 1938-1941, Cole’s American Giants 1932-1935, Philadelphia Stars 1936, Chicago American Giants 1938, Detroit Black Sox 1942, Toledo Cubs 1945

The man known as “Turkey” Stearnes starred in black baseball and the Negro Leagues from 1923 to 1942. He was a pitcher for Pearl High School in Nashville but left school when he was 15 years old to help his family out after his father passed away. He played ball with the Nashville Elite Giants and the Montgomery Grey Sox before he was discovered by Detroit Stars manager Bruce Petway who signed him to play baseball for Detroit in 1923. Stearnes played with he Detroit Stars on and off from 1923 until 1934, putting up some pretty good offensive numbers. In his first three years he led the league in home runs with 17, 10 and 18 respectively and then in 88 games in 1928 he hit a league leading 24 home runs, many of those being of the tape measure variety. Stearnes was not just a home run hitter though as for nine years he put up the following batting average numbers: .365-1923, .358-1924, .369-1925, .375-1926, .346-1927, .326-1928, .378-1929, .340-1930 and finally .350 in 1931.

The Stars had many issues in 1931 and Stearnes ended up leaving the team, signing with the Chicago American Giants. He helped the Giants to two league pennants in his first three years with the team. The Chicago team won the Negro Southern League pennant in 1932 and in 1933 with Stearnes hitting .387 for the year.
He was the leading vote getter for the outfield in the first ever East West All Star game, and he ended up playing in the All Star game in 1934, 1935 and 1937 as well. For the 1935 season Stearnes led the league with a .430 batting average before bouncing around and ending up with the Kansas City Monarchs. Stearnes turned out to be an integral part of the Monarchs lineup, helping them to the 1940 and 1941 pennants.

He also played in California and Cuba and by the time he had finished his playing career he had won seven-league home run titles with a .359 batting average. His hitting ability carried over into the exhibition games played against major league teams and in those games he had a .351 batting average.

In his debut in 1923 Stearnes hit 35 home runs, following that up with 50 home runs in 1924 against all competition. He was not just a power hitter either. He was by all accounts a great outfielder with good speed and good hands too. He could also run, leading the league in triples and home runs in the same season for at least one season. He slid hard into a base, not having any problem whatsoever with upsetting the infielder trying to tag him out.

His unusual nickname of “Turkey” was given to him for the way he would run and flap his arms around. But that was not the only unusual thing about this diamond great. As a lefthanded batter he had a rather unique stance. His right foot  was turned downward with the toe of his spike pointed straight up.

Stearnes had a career that coincided with some of the greats and he was on team with some pretty good players like Andy Cooper, Bruce Petway, Bingo DeMoss, Cristobal Torriente, Bill Foster, Dave Malarcher, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Willard Brown, Hilton Smith and Satchel Paige.

Stearnes joined the likes of Gibson and Paige when in 2000 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

17-William Hendrick “Willie” Foster
Born: June 12, 1904, Calvert, Texas
Died: September 17 (16), 1978, Lorman, Mississippi
Pitcher/Bats Both/Throws Left
Memphis Red Sox 1923-1924, 1938 Chicago American Giants 1923-1930, 1932-1935, 1937 Birmingham Black Barons 1925, Homestead Grays 1931, Kansas City Monarchs 1931, Cole’s American Giants 1932-1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords 1936

William “Willie” Foster was the half-brother of the great Rube Foster and like his older half-brother although Willie threw from the left side of the mound. Willie Foster played in black baseball and the Negro Leagues from 1923 until 1938. He was a switched hitter and pitched left-handed while his half-brother both hit and batted right-handed. Bill Foster’s mother died when he was just four years old and his maternal grandparents raised him in Mississippi. As he got older he first tried to sign with his half-brother after he had gone to Alcorn College and this caused a problem between the two that lasted until Rube passed away. Eventually Willie signed with the Chicago American Giants and starred for the team for over 10 years. His control was near perfect and all the pitches he threw were from the same motion. If the team needed to win a baseball game, inevitably the pitcher they chose for that game was Willie Foster. He got the most out of his pitches which included a blazing fastball, a slider, a quick breaking drop, a curve ball which he threw with a sidearm motion and a great change of pace that kept the hitters off-balance. Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlan said of Willie Foster he was a lot like the great Yankee pitcher, Herb Pennock, only faster with better control. Conlan also said Willie Foster was something to watch while on the mound.

While in Chicago he was on the pennant winning 1926, 1927 and 1933 teams and that period was highlighted by 20 wins in a row against all competition. In the playoffs during the 1926 season, the Giants had to win both games of a doubleheader to clinch the pennant. In those games Willie Foster beat the great Bullet Joe Rogan who was one of the best pitchers of all-time and Foster’s team ended up a pennant winner. In the World Series Foster threw two complete games, relieved in another game and got two wins  in the process(with one of the wins a shutout). He had a 1.27 ERA for the World Series. In 1927 Foster had an overall record of 32 wins and just 3 losses, with a 21 win 3 loss record in league play. Then in the 1927 World Series he added two more wins and a 3.00 ERA.

He played winter ball in Cuba in 1926 and in California after the 1927 where he finished with a record of 14 wins and 1 loss. Fast forwarding to the 1933 East West All Star game, he pitched a complete game and got the win over a Hall of Fame type lineup that included Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Biz Mackey, Jud Wilson, Dick Lundy and Vic Harris.

He always conducted himself as a gentleman and had the respect of everyone. After retiring from baseball he became head coach and the dean of men students at Alcorn State College. He was selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1996 after a career that saw him play with and against the likes of John Beckwith, Bingo DeMoss, Jelly Gardner, Cristobal Torriente, Webster McDonald, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, Judy Johnson and the great Satchel Paige.

16-Andrew “Rube” or “Jock” Foster
Born: September 17, 1879, Calvert, Texas
Died: December 9, 1930, Kankakee, Illinois
Pitcher/First Base
Bats Right/Throws Right
Chicago Union Giants 1902, Cuban X Giants 1903, Philadelphia Giants 1904-1906, Leland Giants 1907-1910, Chicago American Giants 1911-1926

Andrew “Rube” Foster was one of the early stars in black baseball and a catalyst in the startup of the Negro Leagues. Foster knew that organization was the key to black baseball and that is what he worked so hard to accomplish, with the ultimate goal the hope that black and white players could play together on the same playing fields in major league baseball.

Foster completed the eighth grade in Calvert Texas and then began his baseball career with a team called the Waco Yellow Jackets. In 1902 he travelled north and hooked up with Frank Leland and the Chicago Union Giants. In his first three months playing with Leland’s team he suffered just won loss on the mound. He was regarded as a smart pitcher and he supplemented his wide variety of pitches with a very effective screwball. If Rube Foster was on a baseball team, that team was usually in contention for the championship.

In 1902 Foster was credited with an amazing 51 wins in the season that included a victory over future Hall of Famer Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1903 he was with the Cuban X Giants where he compiled a record of 54 wins and 1 loss during the regular season. Foster became playing manager of the Leland Giants and while he was a stern taskmaster, he was considered very fair and very tolerant of his players. Soon after Foster took over the team, that team became one of black baseball’s best.

After a split with Frank Leland, Foster formed his own team and in 1910 that club finished with a record of 128 wins and just a total of six losses. Foster would consider the 1910 team one of the best ever as it included Pop Lloyd, Pete Hill, Bruce Petway, “Home Run” Johnson, Frank Wickware and Pat Dougherty.

In 1911 Foster ended up in an agreement with John Schorling who was the son-in-law of Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. The two men agreed that Foster’s team could use the old White Sox Park as the home ballfield for Foster’s club. That team was called the Chicago American Giants and dominated the sport of black baseball until Foster left the sport.

With Foster in charge of the Chicago American Giants that team played as the mirror image of their leader with good pitching good defense and an offense which was based on the running game. It was also as if Foster could be called the “Connie Mack” of black baseball. Foster was instrumental in the first league in black baseball, the Negro National League and he was becoming one of the trailblazers in the sport.

Unfortunately, Rube Foster suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the last years of his life confined to a mental hospital in Kanalee Illinois where he eventually passed away in December of 1930. Foster was one of the greatest pitchers in black baseball and a moving force in the organization of black baseball as it morphed into the Negro Leagues.

Although major league baseball did not get integrated until 1947, if not for the vision of Rube Foster and many of the other stars who knows what would have happened to the sport. All of baseball owes a debt of gratitude to Foster and these great men for what they had done for the sport.

 

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.