Before America’s pastime was desegregated, a series of organizations dating back to the 19th century comprised Negro league baseball. They have a long, rich history—from the Cuban Giants of 1885, regarded as the first black professional baseball club, to the teams of the Negro American League in the 1950s, the twilight era of the Negro leagues.
If not for their skin color, many of the powerful hitters, adept fielders and ace hurlers who competed in these leagues could have taken the field alongside the very best of the Major League ball clubs. These are some of the players whose talents and contributions helped shape not only the leagues in which they excelled but the game of baseball itself.
Imagine Paul Bunyan or even Hercules as a ballplayer. Now picture him not wielding a huge axe or club, but swinging a mighty baseball bat instead. That’s a fair description of Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest power hitter the game has ever seen.
Known at times as the “Black Babe Ruth,” the 6’1” 215-pound catcher who played the majority of his career with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays was a fearsome sight to pitchers around the leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
No precise count of his total lifetime homers exists, though many believe it tops 800 and some of these dingers were literally the stuff of legend. He has been credited with socking a monstrous 580-foot homer in Yankee Stadium, where the ball supposedly landed just two feet beneath the top of the bleacher wall. Though not all baseball historians agree that this actually happened, anyone who played with or against Gibson had little trouble believing the slugger was capable of such a colossal feat.
His former manager with the Crawfords once said if the great Gibson had played in the Majors in his prime, both Ruth and Hank Aaron would be chasing his home run record. Gibson’s immense power and tendency to launch moon shots weren’t all there was to Gibson’s prowess as a player. His natural skills were undeniable, and his powerful arm and quickness made base runners think twice before trying to steal on him.
In 1972 Gibson became only the second Negro league star to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Gibson died at 35 in 1947, only months before Jackie Robinson would bust through the color barrier in the major leagues.
Leroy “Satchel” Paige
A man whom many consider the greatest pitcher in the Negro leagues, Satchel Paige could deliver blazing fastballs and strike out the best hitters in the game, period. Even Yankee great Joe DiMaggio called the fireball hurler from Alabama the best and fastest pitcher he’d ever faced.
He pitched for many teams in the Negro Leagues including the Birmingham Black Barons, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs, and his career was almost superhuman in its longevity. His accomplishments in the Negro leagues were many, featuring a scoreless streak of 64 innings and another equally impressive run of 21 consecutive wins.
His pitching delivery was almost as entertaining to the crowds as his the games themselves. Initially he relied primarily on heaters and the odd curveballs, but after an arm injury before the 1939 season that robbed his fastball of some of its speed, he added some different approaches to his arsenal, including what he called his “hesitation” pitch. His description of the unorthodox delivery:
“The idea came to me in a game, when the guy at bat was all tightened up waiting for my fast ball. I knew he’d swing as soon as I just barely moved. So when I stretched, I paused just a little longer with my arms above my head. Then I threw my left foot forward but I didn’t come around with my arm right away. I put that foot of mine down, stopping for a second, before the ball left my hand. When my foot hit the ground that boy started swinging, so by the time I came around with the whip he was way off stride and couldn’t get anywhere near the ball. I had me a strikeout.”
He punched out many a hitter and delighted the crowds on his way to becoming a five-time all star in the Negro leagues. But his goal was always to make it to the Majors. In 1948, he got his chance. The Cleveland Indians were in the midst of a pennant race and decided to sign Paige, who became the oldest man ever to debut in the Majors at 42. He went on to play for the St. Louis Browns before making his last stop with the Kansas City Athletics, taking the mound for the final time in the Majors on September 25, 1965 at 59 years old. To him, age was merely a number as he famously quipped: “Age is a question of mind over matter. It you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
When Cooperstown finally came calling in 1971, it marked the first time a player was inducted into the sport’s home of revered legends, the Baseball Hall of Fame, based on his merit in the Negro leagues.
Before Lawrence Eugene Doby became the second African-American baseball player to break the color line, he was a first-rate center fielder in the Negro leagues.
Doby signed on with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National league as a teenager in 1942. He remembered a game early in his career against catcher Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays:
“My first time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a fastball.’ I singled. Next time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out if you can hit a curveball.’ I singled. Third time up, Josh said, ‘We’re going to find out how you do after you’re knocked down.’ I popped up the first time after they knocked me down. The second time, I singled.”
Doby starred for the Eagles from 1942 to 1947, with two years interrupted for time in the Navy, serving in the Pacific theater of WW II. He had his best year in 1946 in which he hit a sizzling .360, led the Negro National League in triples and made the All-Star roster. That same year the Eagles made the Negro World Series and behind Doby’s superb .372 average, took the Series in seven games over Satchel Paige and the mighty Kansas City Monarchs.
Talent like Doby’s would soon find a place in the big leagues and on July 5, 1947 when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians, he became the first African American to play in the American League.
John “Buck” O’Neil
Working as celery field laborer in Florida as a young man, Buck O’Neil dreamed of one day playing the game he loved. In 1934 he started playing with semi-professional barnstorming teams until three years later when he got his break, signing with the Memphis Red Sox in the newly formed Negro American League.
The following year he joined the Kansas City Monarchs, with whom he played the rest of his career. Though exact league statistics were spotty at times, his overall prowess at the plate was indisputable. In 1946 he led the league with a .350 average (one of several times he finished a season over .300), following that with a muscular .508 slugging percentage in 1947. The first baseman appeared in four All-Star games and two Negro League Series, with his team winning the championship in 1942. O’Neil became a player-manager of the Monarchs in 1948 and led his team to two pennants.
In his later years, he became a renowned speaker and ambassador for the game, and was instrumental in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. He died at the age of 94 in 2006 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor awarded to civilians—later that same year.
James “Cool Papa” Bell
An eight-time All-Star with a career batting average of .337 in the Negro leagues, “Cool Papa” Bell made his debut with the St. Louis Stars in 1922. He went on to play for a number of teams, including the Detroit Wolves, Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays, even spending time in the Caribbean and Mexican leagues.
Initially a pitcher early in his career, Bell moved to the outfield where his blazing speed served him well. Extremely fleet of foot, Bell was a base stealer extraordinaire. Often a single or a walk would be enough to get him 90 feet from the plate, as he often was able to swipe not only second but also third base. He was even known to score all the way from first base on a routine base hit, and there is a legendary story that the speedy Bell once smacked a ball up the middle of the field and was struck by the ball as he slid into second base.
His teams sometimes faced white teams in exhibition games, and Bell once described the differences in the style of play:
“We played a different kind of baseball than the white teams. We played tricky baseball. We did things they didn’t expect. We’d bunt and run in the first inning. Then when they would come in for a bunt we’d hit away. We always crossed them up. We’d run the bases hard and make the fielders throw too quick and make wild throws.”
Always providing a spark for his teams, Bell led the Stars to league titles in 1928, 1930 and 1931 and when he joined the Grays, they won the championship in 1943 and 1944, Bell’s first two years with that ball club. During his final year as full-time player, the 43 year old hit .396 in 1946, the year before baseball took its first steps of desegregation.