Legends On Deck

The Cream of the Crop: Negro Leagues 100 Best Players (#5-2)

Well the time has come, we are at the five best players in black baseball/Negro Leagues in my opinion. It sure has been an adventurous journey filled with many twists and turns. Before going any further I would be remiss if I did not thank a few people who helped make this possible.

First my children Ashley and Steven. All parents think they have the best kids but I can tell you I really do. They are both kind and considerate and understand how important that my writing is to me. I cannot thank them both enough for all of the understanding they have given as well as the computer help they have given to me if a problem arose. (HAHA).

Next is a man who has fast become my best friend in the world, Dr Adrian Elliot. Doctor Elliott has been kind enough to listen to some of my hair brained ideas and has always supported me and offered advice to me or to point me in the right direction if I veer off course in this journey.

Next I would like to thank Ted Knorr, a man I met through this project. He and I have differed a bit on my choices which is fine but his constructive criticism has helped me complete this exhaustive project and I hope he knows how much his advice meant to me.

Last is the man who gave me the forum to write this, David Conde. Again I met David through this project and he has been kind enough to give me a forum to express my views for which I am forever grateful. David, your friendship is important to me and I look forward to many more projects and journeys with you in the future.

Okay that is all set. I know I have forgotten some people but let it be known every single friend I have had played a very important part in allowing me to fulfill this dream of mine to give back something to the sport of baseball which has given to me and meant so much to me over the years. God Bless You all and best wishes in the coming weeks, months and years.

So here we go and I hope this list takes you back in time when baseball was played for the love of the game. If you had not taken the time to read this, it would not have turned out as it has.

5-Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard
Born: September 8, 1907 Rocky Mount, North Carolina,
Died: November 27, 1997 Rocky Mount, North Carolina
First Base/Outfield
Bats Left/Throws Left
Brooklyn Royal Giants 1933, Homestead Grays 1934-1950, Indios de Mayaguez 1940-1941, Algondineos de Torren 1951-1953, minor leagues 1953, Domingo 1955

Walter “Buck Leonard played first base and the outfield in the Negro Leagues from 1933 to 1950 and also spent time in the Mexican Leagues (1951 and 1955) as well as the minor leagues (1953). His parents had nicknamed him “Buddy”, but his younger brother called him Buck because he could not say “Buddy” and it was “Buck” that stuck with him through the years. Leonard attended Lincoln Elementary School through the eighth grade. He quit school and got a job putting brake cylinders on boxcars for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Shop which greatly helped his family out financially.

He became interested in baseball watching the white minor leagues around his hometown of Rocky Mount North Carolina. Leonard began playing ball with the black semi-pro teams and then in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933, the work at the boxcar shop was cut back and Leonard lost his job and was forced to find other employment which he did in baseball. He played for the Portsmouth Fire Fighters, the Baltimore Stars and the Brooklyn Royal Giants as he began to seek out fame and fortune on the baseball diamond. In 1934, Negro League superstar Smokey Joe Williams got the young slugger to sign with the Homestead Grays where he ended up playing for most of the rest of his career.

Leonard became a feared left-handed slugger in the Grays lineup as he teamed up with Josh Gibson to form a fearsome power duo. Together these two great sluggers teamed up to lead the Grays to nine Negro National League titles in a row. The two made a good pair and complimented each other as Gibson hit his tape measure home runs while Leonard would hit laser like line drives both off and over the wall. The two were the definitive power twins and soon Gibson was known as “the black Babe Ruth and Leonard was known as “the black Lou Gehrig. Leonard became such a feared power hitter one pitcher said “ I would have a better chance of sneaking sunrise past a rooster than trying to sneak a fastball by Buck Leonard”.

Buck Leonard would bat fourth in the Grays lineup and between 1939 and 1945 he hit: .363-1939, .372-1940, .275-1941, .265-1942, .327-1943, .290-1944 and .375-1945. Leonard averaged 34 home runs for eight years and in 1945, Cum Posey selected Leonard for his All Time All American team saying that Leonard was in a class all by himself as a fielder.

Buck was just as smooth in the field as he was at the plate. He was sure handed and possessed a very strong and very accurate throwing arm. He was an intelligent player and always seemed to make the right play. Leonard was a steadying presence on the championship Grays teams and he was also one of the best players in the Negro Leagues. In a 17 year career in the league Leonard had a .341 batting average in league play and a .382 batting average against major league players in exhibition games. Certainly together Leonard and Gibson formed a feared duo of power which certainly mirrored their major league counterparts Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In fact the Grays lineup was thought to be like the New York Yankees famed “Murderer’s Row lineup in 1927.

During the prime of his career, Leonard and his friend Gibson were called into the office of  Clark Griffith the owner of the Washington Senators to see of the pair were interested in playing ball in the major leagues. Both men eagerly replied yes however nothing came of the talk and it would be a few more years before the colored barrier was finally broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947. Leonard retired from baseball and worked in Rocky Mount as a truant officer and he also became vice-president of the Rocky Mount Leafs, a minor league club affiliated with the Detroit Tigers.

Leonard was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 along with his Grays teammate Josh Gibson. Part of his acceptance speech follows and it shows the pride and passion Leonard and others felt about the great sport of baseball.

“We in the Negro Leagues felt we were contributing something to baseball as well when we were playing. We played with a round ball and we played with a round bat. We loved the game. If we did not we would not have played because there was no money in the sport for us”.

Leonard was also inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (1974) and in 1994 at the Major League All Star game in Pittsburgh Leonard was named an honorary captain and appeared in the uniform of the Homestead Grays. He really was a great player and Leon Day a great pitcher himself in the Negro Leagues said he would rather pitch to Josh Gibson than pitch to Buck Leonard. Both Dave Barnhill and Roy Campanella said of Leonard, “You could put a baseball in a shotgun and fire it and Buck Leonard could still hit it farther”.

There were two more honors accorded to Leonard, first he was named to the 100 Greatest Players in baseball list for the Sporting News appearing in the  47th spot, one of only five players selected based just on their career in the Negro Leagues. Leonard was also a finalist on the All Century team as well.

4-James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell
Born: May 17, 1903 Starkville, Mississippi
Died: March 7, 1991 St Louis, Missouri
Center Field/Left Field/First Base
Bats Both/Throws Left
St Louis Stars 1922-1931, Detroit Wolves 1932, Chicago American Giants 1929, 1942 Kansas City Monarchs 1932-1934, Homestead Grays 1932, 1943-1946, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1933-1938, Memphis Red Sox 1942, Santa Domingo 1937, Mexican League 1938-1941 (Tampico Alijadores 1938-1940), Vercruz Azules 1940, Monterrey Industriales 1941

James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell had a career in black baseball and the Negro Leagues as well as the Mexican Leagues that began in 1922 and ended in 1946. Bell started in baseball around the Starkville Mississippi  area and then around 1920 when there was no high school or jobs in the area he moved to the St Louis area to live with his older brother while he went to high school. After a couple of years of working in a packing plant and playing for the Compton Hill Cubs, Bell was signed by the St Louis Stars for the sum of $90 per month. At the time Bell was a pitcher with a number of different motions for his knuckleball, screwball and curveball. In fact it was as a pitcher that Bell earned his nickname of “Cool Papa”. There was a critical situation in a game that Bell was on the mound with Oscar Charleston stepping into the batter’s box. Bell’s manager Bill Gatewood observed the 19-year-old faced the black baseball legend. Bell ended up striking out the legendary Charleston and Gatewood was impressed by how cool and calm the youngster was. Gatewood began calling him “Cool” and soon added “Papa” to it and a legend was born. Bell’s career on the mound ended when he broke the arm of a batter and no one would hit against him. He made the move to the outfield and used a quick release after catching the ball to make accurate throws which helped to make up for his lack of arm strength. Bell also became a switch hitter which greatly helped him early on in his career.

Bell played with three of the greatest teams in the history of black baseball. The St Louis Stars who won championships in 1928,1930 and 1931 thanks in part to Bell and his play. During his time in S Louis he hit .354-1925, .362-1926, .319-1927, .332-1928, .312-1929, .332-1930, and finally .331 in 1931.

He also played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1933 to 1938 when they were thought to be one of the best teams of all-time black or white.  With the Crawfords between 1933 and 1936 Bell hit .362-1933, .317-1934, .341-1935 and .329-1936.

The third iconic team Bell played with was the Homestead Grays between 1943 and 1946. Bell hit .356-1943, .373-1944, .302-1945 and .329-1946. There were also period that Bell played with teams like the Detroit Wolves/Kansas City Monarchs when he hit .384 and then in 1942 with the Chicago American Giants where he hit .370 for the year.

“Cool Papa” was not an egotistical player and the fans were able to see this as he was voted into the East West All Star game beginning in the first year of the game 1933 until 1944 except for the years he was in Latin America (1937-1941).

As for his career outside the United States he along with Satchel Paige travelled to Santa Domingo in 1937 to help that club win the title as he hit .318 for the year. Then starting off in 1938 when Bell played for the Tampico club he hit .358-1938, .354-1939, .437-1940, and finally .314 in 1941. His best year was probably 1940 as when he split time between Veracruz and Torreon. He had a Triple Crown winning year as he led the league in batting (.437), home runs (12),  and RBIs (79). That year he also led the league in  runs scored (119) and triples (15). He had 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases and both of them tied him for third place, capping off a very good year indeed.

This biography of Bell would not be complete and not show how good a ballplayer he was if his legendary speed was not talked about. Simply put Bell was thought to be the fastest man to ever play the game of baseball. His feats on the diamond are things that legends are made of. Some of the stories are fact and some are fiction, with the only thing to say is the stories are entertaining. Fiction would be the stories of Bell hitting a line drive up the middle and being struck by the ball as he slid into second base. There is also the story of Bell being so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room was dark. Now there is a bit of truth to that story as one time Bell and Satchel Paige were rooming together. Bell found out that when he switched the light off and there were a couple of seconds delay before the room got dark. Bell was in the room and practiced turning out the light and getting in bed before the room was dark. When Paige got back to the room the two struck up a conversation and Bell then said it was time to get to bed. Bell then bet Paige that he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room was dark as Paige had always said he could. Paige took the bet which was five or ten dollars and waited. Bell turned off the light and was in bed before the room got dark. Paige laughed, paid off the bet and then told and retold the story many times.

It has also been said Bell could go from first base to third base on a bunt or could score from second base on a sacrifice fly. One season Bell stole 175 bases in just under 200 games. He played a very shallow center field and still caught up to the balls hit over his head. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe said that if Bell hit a ground ball in the infield and he ball bounced twice Bell would beat out the throw and the fielder should just hold onto the ball to prevent any further embarrassment.

Bell retired and in 1974 was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When the Sporting News put out its list of the 100 Greatest Players in baseball Bell was ranked 66th on the list ahead of such greats as Harmon Killebrew(69th), Cal Ripken Jr(78th), Ken Griffey Jr(93rd) and Wade Boggs(95th). In fact Bell was also ranked ahead of Oscar Charleston who finished just behind Bell in 67th place.

Bell also played with some of the greats of the game of black baseball like Dizzy Dismukes, Mule Suttles, Jud Wilson, Smokey Joe Williams, Willie Wells, Oscar Charleston, Willie Foster, Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.

Most certainly Bell deserves a spot amongst the game’s greats and it sure would have been something to see men like Bell play.

3-Robert Leroy “Satchel” Paige
Born: July 7, 1906 Mobile, Alabama
Died: June 8, 1982 Kansas City, Missouri
Bats Right/Throws Right
Chattanooga Black Lookouts 1926-1927, Birmingham Black Barons 1927-1930, Baltimore Black Sox 1930, Cleveland Cubs 1931, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1931-1937, Kansas City Monarchs 1935-1936, 1939-1948, 1950, 1955 Newark Eagles 1938, Satchel Paige All Stars 1939, New York Black Yankees 1943, Memphis Red Sox 1943, Philadelphia Stars 1946,1950 Chicago American Giants 1951, Indianapolis Clowns 1967, Santa Domingo 1937, Santa Domingo All Stars 1937, Agrario de Mexico 1938, Bismarck North Dakota 1933, 1935, House of David 1934, Major Leagues 1948-1949, 1951-1953, 1965 Minor Leagues 1956-1958, 1961, 1965-1966

Along with Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige is one of the best known and legendary figures in the history of black baseball and the Negro Leagues. The Mobile Alabama native had a career in baseball playing in the Negro Leagues, Latin America, the minor leagues and the major leagues that spanned from 1926 until 1967. Paige did not attend school very much and certainly got into his share of mischief and trouble. He got caught stealing some costume jewelry as a young boy and was sent to a place called the Mount Meigs Reform School where he took a keen interest in baseball. Before his Negro League career began in 1926 with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Southern League, Paige pitched for a number of semi-pro teams in the area including the Mobile Tigers.

He came to Chattanooga as a wiry lean and tall boy who was said to have legendary speed but had trouble getting the ball over the plate, something he would later do with alarming frequency later in his career. In the early 1930’s  Paige peaked for a time as a pitcher in both ability and popularity with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. In 1932 he had a record of 32 wins and seven losses and then 31 wins and 4 losses in 1933. In 1934 at Yankee Stadium he had a matchup with Slim Jones that has from time to time been referred to as one of the greatest games in the history of the Negro Leagues. In short the game ended because of a lack of lighting after 10 innings of play with the score knotted at 1-1. Paige had a number of salary disputes with the Crawfords and their owner Gus Greenlee and he ended up pitching with the Bismarck North Dakota team winning 134 out of the 150 games he pitched in. He returned to Greenlee and the Crawfords in 1936 ending the year with a record of 24 wins and 3 losses.

In the spring of 1937 Paige jumped his contract and found himself pitching with the Ciadad Trujillo team in the Dominican Republic, where in a 31 game season he ended up with a record of 8 wins and 2 losses. He got himself banned from the Mexican League and formed his own team that he barnstormed and travelled with. While in Mexico he experienced  a multitude of arm issues and a lot of people thought his career may be over with. Paige signed with the Kansas City Monarchs travelling team as a way to sell tickets. Somehow, some way Paige’s arm returned to normal and he was back with a vengeance. He added a jump ball,  trouble ball along with a bee ball to his array of pitches. (Paige himself would name these pitches)

By 1946 the Monarchs roster was like a lot of teams that were returning to normalcy after the end of World War II. Monarchs players returned and the team was back to winning.

No one had a real idea of how old Paige was but in 1948 Bill Veeck the owner of the Cleveland Indians took a chance and signed the venerable old(?) warrior to a contract to play in the majors with the Cleveland franchise. He was the oldest rookie ever to begin a career in the major leagues and he responded with a 6 win 1 loss record and a 2.98 ERA which helped the Indians to the 1948 World Series title.

Paige pitched in the Negro Leagues, the Minor Leagues and the Major Leagues until finally hanging up his spikes in 1966. Like James “Cool Papa” Bell there are a lot of stories about Paige and his escapades on the mound. For instance there is the often told story how Paige would call his outfielders in from their positions and have the sit around the pitcher’s mound as Paige proceeded to get the side out on his own via strikeout. There was also the time in a game when men were on second and third base and he walked the next batter so he could face Josh Gibson with the bases loaded and the outcome of the game still in question. Paige struck out Gibson, who never took the bat off of his shoulders including the last pitch which Paige told Gibson would be a “pea at the knee”.

Often times in exhibition games it was advertised that Paige would strike out the first nine men he faced and Paige, forever the showman would do just that. Another story told is that when Paige warmed up in the bullpen he put a matchbook or a gum wrapper on the ground and continuously throw strikes over that particular object. Batters  said hat when the ball came out of Paige’s right hand it looked like a pumpkin, but by the time it got to home plate it looked like a pea. Perhaps the best description of a Paige fastball was by Biz Mackey who said of Paige’s fastball, “He threw it so hard that it disappeared before it reached the catcher’s mitt.

Paige estimated that he appeared as a pitcher in over 2,500 games in his career winning approximately 2000 of them. He was also said to have pitched 55 no hitters in his career. He was a two-time All Star in the Major Leagues (1952-1953), a five time Negro League All Star (1934,1936,1941-1943). He was a member of the 1942 Negro League World Series champion Kansas City Monarchs as well as being a member of the major league World Series winning Cleveland Indians in 1948. Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Hack Wilson and Dizzy Dean, all future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, all said he was flat out the best pitcher black or white they had ever seen. He was ranked 19 in the Sporting News 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all-time ahead of such greats as Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. In 2006 there was a statue of Paige unveiled in Cooper Park in Cooperstown New York to commemorate Paige’s contribution to the Negro Leagues.

After all of the things that he accomplished in his career, Paige said his greatest moment in baseball was in 1971 when he became the first player elected to Cooperstown based solely on his accomplishments in black baseball and the Negro Leagues.

2-Joshua Gibson
Born: December 21, 1911 Buena Vista, Georgia
Died: January 20, 1947 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Catcher/Center Field/Third Base/First Base
Bats Right/Throws Right
Homestead Grays 1929-1931, 1937-1940, 1942-1946, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932-1936, Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo 1937, Azulles de Veracruz 1940-1941

In all of black baseball and the Negro Leagues there may have been only one players as well-known and popular as Satchel Paige and that player is the number two player on this list, Josh Gibson. Gibson was the oldest of three children and he went to elementary school for five years before moving up north to the city of Pittsburgh where his father had gotten a job with Carnegie Illinois Steel. Young Josh enrolled in the Allegheny Pre-Vocational School to study how to become an electrician. However, he dropped out of school after the ninth grade to work in an air brake factory as an apprentice. Starting in 1927 he played baseball with a sandlot team, the Pleasant Valley Red Sox before joining (at the time) the semi pro Pittsburgh Crawfords in the later part of 1927. While with the semipro Crawfords Josh would attract the attention of the Homestead Grays with whom he eventually signed. In his first season with the Grays he had a .441 batting average following that up with a 75 home run and a .375 batting average against some of the greatest talent in baseball black or white.

Gibson left Homestead for the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords of Gus Greenlee in 1932 and in his first season for Greenlee had a 34 home run, .380 batting average. The next four years of his career were in a word, awesome. The numbers he put up, .464-1933, .384-1934, .440-1935 and finally .457-1936 were the types of numbers that legends are made of. In addition to his .384 batting average in 1934 he also hit 69 home runs. Gibson along with several players including Satchel Paige jumped from their own clubs in 1937 to the Mexican League to play with the Trujillo All-Stars where Gibson hit more than 100 points better than the second place finisher in the batting race. Gibson hit .453 for the year and led the league in batting average as well as RBIs.

Gibson came back to the United States and formed one of the most feared power tandems in a ll of baseball with first baseman Buck Leonard unrivaled except maybe by the Yankees duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The duo helped the Grays in 1937 to the first of nine consecutive pennants establishing Homestead as a dynasty in the Negro Leagues. In 1938 Gibson had a .443 batting average and then came right back in 1939 to hit .440 for the year.

But then Gibson allowed the allure of the dollar or peso to influence him and he spent the next two years in Latin America splitting his time between Venezuela and Mexico where he hit .467 despite only playing in about a quarter of the games. Next year he played a full season and hit .374 and led the league in home runs and RBIs which in turn helped his team to the Mexican League pennant.

He came back to the United States in 1942 and helped the Grays to four league pennants in a row in the Negro National League batting .344-1942, .474-1943, .345-1944 and .398-1945. Gibson was frequently called the “Black Babe Ruth” for his hitting prowess and he certainly live up to the billing.

When he stood in the batter’s box with his massive arms bulging out of his uniform sleeves, eyes riveted on the pitcher he displayed an air of confidence. His stance was a bit crowded and his swing flat-footed and very compact which in turn produced some tremendous blasts, usually of the tape measure variety. The youth of black America  looked up to Gibson and his tremendous blasts have taken a place in baseball lore.

During the course of his career he was credited with hitting 962 home runs which figures out to an average of 57 a year for 17 years. He was not just a power hitter and usually hit for a high average as well. In the Negro Leagues his career average was .354 and .373 for his time in Latin America and Cuba. In exhibition games against the major leaguers Gibson had a .412 batting average.

Behind the plate Gibson had a rifle of an arm and because of lots of practice made himself into one of the game’s best catchers with the only problem being catching foul pop ups. Walter Johnson and Carl Hubbell two of major league baseball’s premier pitchers thought Gibson would be worth upwards of $200,000 to a major league club had he been afforded the opportunity to play.

He suffered a fatal stroke a month after his 35th birthday and passed away January 20, 1947 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He had suffered a nervous breakdown and the consequences of some personal issues as well as excessive drinking. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 just after Satchel Paige and ranked 18th in the Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Ballplayers of all-time ahead of such greats as Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie and Hank Greenberg.

So now the only thing left to do is find out who in my mind was thought to be the greatest black baseball Negro League player of all-time. This great of the game deserves his own separate column so that is what will happen. See you next time!!

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