The mistake in evaluating history is framing it as only the extreme past. It is something that has happened and ended; and while it should observed, it’s so far gone that it can’t actually be partaken in now. In the game of baseball, no element of its storied history has been subjected to such treatment more than the Negro League era.
Perhaps it’s the lack of statistical records in comparison to Major League Baseball, which has caused it to have a more mythological status by perception. But really, it had no choice. Stories of the exploits of those amazing players had to be kept alive, or be lost to time. Perhaps the only way to keep the flame alive and to accurately describe the greatness of the time was to describe it in a miraculous fashion….that maybe is closer to the truth than we ever know.
The idea of “Separate but Equal” is a driving element in the ever evolving cultural landscape of America. However, in many cases, “Separate, but Superior” has proven to be resoundingly true as well, and if there is a perfect place to put that to the test it’s in evaluating the great black players of both the past and now. Many of the greatest ballplayers of all-time, regardless of color or affiliation, are recognized throughout the halls of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to this day. On their Field of Legends, 10 of the most outstanding talents that ever took the field for the league are on display to this day, where monuments stand that will forever recognize their contribution to the sport, on stage that helped define the cultural landscape, and eventual progress, of blacks in America
While we will never be able to see them first hand to truly marvel at what remarkable talents they are, there are many players that are products of the mold they created over 60 years ago. So, to bring home Black History Month here at CSP, let’s take a look at a bit of just that, history; both established and establishing. Here are is recognition of the players on the Field of Legends at the Kansas City-based Museum, and a player today that is keeping that still providing a chance to get a real, live glimpse of what they brought to the field still today.
First Base – Buck Leonard: He smacked the ball around the field like few others. He was everything, and more on many accounts, for the Homestead Grays that Lou Gehrig was for the Yankees. His recognized career batting average was .320, but featured five seasons of better than a .350 average. However, in most seasons, he either led or finished second in the Negro Leagues in homers, which is something that…
Prince Fielder can identify with today. He’s crushed the most homers in game over the last seven years, including knocking out 50 at only 23 years old. He’s averaged 40 a year since that season and has three All-Star games to his young credit. 9 more and he’ll tie Leonard’s mark.
Second Base – Pop Lloyd: Honus Wagner is generally the consensus greatest shortstop in Major League history. Well, the Flying Dutchman went on record as considering it “an honor to be compared to Lloyd”, and received a co-sign from Babe Ruth on his status as the greatest. The Negro Leagues didn’t fully develop until he was 36, and he still hit .363 in 12 seasons in it. He played with a dashing style of play that stays alive today in the game of…
Brandon Phillips, who plays with equal ease hitting from leadoff to cleanup, and has joined the 30-30 club, while also being a multiple time Gold Glove recipient. Lloyd wasn’t afraid to air out his intentions to those that stopped to listen, and often Phillips’ loud style of play is overshadowed by his even louder mouth. But he’s backing it up, just like Pop.
Third Base- Ray Dandridge: A third baseman, with the range of a shortstop; Dandridge was such an amazing fielder that it’s said he never made more than two errors in one year. His skill with the glove was so great that he taught a young Willie Mays the defensive ropes. His effect at the plate was nearly just as great, as he annually hit over .350. Even in his 40’s he made it all the way to Triple-A MLB ball, and hit .349. His style continues to live on through…
Hanley Ramirez, who will take his first chops at third base this season, but was long regarded the best shortstop in the game. While Dandridge was a smooth fielder, then a steady bat, opposite is the case for Hanley. He lead the National League in runs scored and joined the 30/30 club in 2008 and followed that with a battling title in ’09.
Shortstop – Judy Johnson: Johnson is recognized at shortstop here, but was in actuality one of the great third basemen of all-time, because being a .344 career hitter is legit as it gets. He was the glue that held together the great Pittsburgh Crawfords teams, and did so by being one of the smartest ballplayers the game has even known. He later became the first African-American coach in Major League history in 1954. He the mold for the cerebral, yet highly productive player….
…that Derek Jeter has taken to new heights. Being a step ahead of his opponent has made Jeter a five-time champion, Gold Glove winning, member of the 3,000 Hit Club. He’s become the standard for every shortstop following him simply because he’s always ahead of the game and one the greatest leaders to ever take the field. Sound familiar?
Outfield – Cool Papa Bell: If you’re fast enough to cut off the lights and get in bed before the room gets dark, you’re rolling. stories of Bell’s speed even more legendary than the man himself nearly, but it is nearly agreed upon he stole over 1,000 bases if an accurate count had been kept, including over 170 in multiple years. He wore down the path for a lot of speed demons over the years, and the closest carrier of that flame today is….
Michael Bourn. The Atlanta speedster is so fast that he rarely ever has to dive for many balls hit anywhere in the outfield. He also hasn’t finished with fewer than 50 stolen bases in the last three years, leading the National League each year. Now let’s see if we can get a clock on him from light switch to sleep sometime soon.
Outfield – Oscar Charleston: Mays & Griffey before Mays & Griffey, there was nothing Charleston couldn’t do. Baseball historian Bill James ranked him as the fourth best player of all-time. He carried a .353 career average, in addition to being prodigious power hitter and defender that could reach everything. He also managed one of the greatest collections of talent ever in the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords….and still managed to hit .363 as well. With this massive amount of skills, the closest comparison in today’s game resembles….
….LA Dodger’s Triple Crown threat Matt Kemp. There’s nothing that the centerfielder can’t do, as his 39 homer, 40 steal, 195 hit, 126 RBI season showed. He also added his second Gold Glove to his growing resume. He’s on the way to becoming yet another in a long line of do it all stars, that all have done great Charleston impressions.
Outfielder – Martin Dihigo: Tying DiHigo to a position is tough, because he mastered nearly of them. In one season in the Mexican League, he won the league’s batting title hitting .387, while winning 18 games as a pitcher with a 0.90 ERA. The ultimate utility man, he hit .307 over his Negro League career with 64 doubles, 61 home runs and 227 RBI, along with 29 wins and a 2.92 ERA as a pitcher. A uniquely total package that resembles…
…Carl Crawford in today’s game. Crawford is the most constant overall threat in the game in the number of ways he can beat you. He’s had five seasons of 10 triples or better, as well as topping .300 six times at the plate. Speed is what sets him apart the most, and he has passed 50 stolen bases five times & 40 in two other seasons. Top all of this off with his Gold Glove defense, and like Dihigo, there’s nowhere that Crawford isn’t a threat.
Catcher/Hitter – Josh Gibson: The legendary greatest power hitter of all-time, regardless of league. His credits include over 800 home runs and a .351 average. He was so powerful that he hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium, something Ruth or Mantle never did. No slouch in the field either, Gibson had a strong arm from behind the plate and only the best dared to run against him. He hit the ball over the fence at such a rate and style that…
…. Only Ryan Howard could compare to his feats today. He has chased down home run records at a blazing pace, needing the fewest games to reach 100, 150, 200 & 250 long balls. He is one of four players to ever hit at least 45 homers and 135 RBI in four consecutive years. A Home Run Derby between him and Gibson is exactly why Field of Dreams has to be real one day.
Pitcher: Satchel Paige: The ageless wonder was nearly unanimously declared as the greatest pitcher of his time, which stretched for over 25 years. His uncanny combination of power, precision and longevity allowed him to dominate both the Negro, Mexican, Cuban, barnstorming & finally, Major Leagues, which he was a two time All-Star in despite not making his debut until after his 50th birthday. After it all, he became the first player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in the Negro Leagues. All of which gives way two arms that both display the best parts of Satch today…
CC Sabathia & David Price: It takes two to meet what Satchel meant to the game, because Satch might as well have played two careers. CC’s pitching for the highest profile team in game in the New York Yankees, just like Satchel did for the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays. Also, CC just keeps on winning; he hasn’t dipped below 17 wins in the last five years and is an innings eating warrior.
Price, on the other hand, is a rocket tossing strikeout artist that combines elements of both early and late Paige. On one end, his 97 mph fastball is among the best in the game, and on the other end he made a quick impact in pushing the Rays to the World Series as a rookie reliever in 2008; exactly what Satch did 60 years earlier for the Cleveland Indians.
Pitcher – Leon Day: He stands in right field at the Museum; it’s on the pitcher’s mound where Day made his incredible impact. He pitched a perfect season and was a dominant strikeout artist. But he’s not in right for no reason: he also hit .320 for his career and played the field on days when he didn’t pitch. He was one of the most versatile players ever, in way that…
….Curtis Granderson has continued on. While he doesn’t pitch, there isn’t much he doesn’t do. He has a 40 homer year, a season with 23 triples and has stolen over 20 bases three times. He led the American League in RBI’s a year ago and just added another notch to a full field impact Day would be proud to see.
Before I wrap, I would be doing a great injustice in attempting to showcase the progress of the game without mentioning the great Buck O’Neil, who was both an outstanding player & patriot of Black baseball. He played with the great Negro Leaguers and observed many of the players above that extended their style of play into today. He was a giant of PR in bringing the Negro Leagues into a brand new era, and his contributions will live on as long as the game does, if not longer.
Also, thanks to the President of the NLBM, Bob Kendrick for his efforts in maintaining the history of the game in the present and being very generous in his time to share the exploits of the league.