In celebration of Black History Month, ZUNews will be creating an All-Time Team for the illustrious Negro Leagues of baseball.
This past December Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred finally declared the Negro Leagues — which were founded in the 1920s — as a part of their history. This means all 3,400 Negro League players were elevated to MLB status. It was a massive decision because it was finally turning the history of Black baseball into just the history of baseball.
What people continue to get wrong about the Negro Leagues is that it was more than just a sad story. Of course, it’s sad that we were unable to see the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson compete in an exclusively white-played MLB. But, without the Negro Leagues, there would be no Jackie Robinson. No Willie Mays. No Hank Aaron.
Some fans don’t realize that the Negro Leagues had just as much talent, if not more, than that of the MLB. While many acknowledge that the Leagues had spotty record-keeping and were inconsistent, if you listen to the stories and research about the history of Black baseball, its importance to the game and our nation is immense.
As we continue to celebrate Black History Month here at ZU News, we have chosen a All-Time Team for the Negro Leagues to highlight where we decipher between the best of the best among the infield. Next week, we will take a look at the outfield and pitching.
Gibson was best known for his bat. Not only would his career average of .365 be good enough for second on the all-time MLB list, but his rumored 800 career home runs would be a mark that could still be standing as the greatest amount of home runs of all time. However, since his statistics were not documented concisely throughout his 17-year playing career, Barry Bonds still holds the record with 762.
People talk about Gibson like he was the best player to ever play the game. Of course fans from that era would agree, but the best source would come directly from opponents’ and teammates’ mouths — including some of Gibson’s white counterparts.
“Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I’ve ever seen,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson. “Anything he touched was hit hard. He could power outside pitches to right field. Shortstops would move to left field when Josh came to the plate.”
When you dive more and more into the mythicism of Gibson, his greatness becomes more and more apparent. Before facing off against Babe Ruth in the 1930s during a winter game, Gibson was already known as “The Black Babe Ruth.” Legend has it that after the two squared off with one another in an exhibition, Ruth was named, “The White Josh Gibson.” Gibson essentially broke the racial bias of the game with his talent, and he was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1972 despite never playing in the MLB.
Buck Leonard followed Gibson in the Grays’ order, batting clean-up. So, it’s only fitting that he follows Gibson once again here.
Like Gibson, Leonard was given a nickname comparing him to another New York Yankee great, Lou Gehrig. “The Black Lou Gehrig” had a fine career in the Negro Leagues. By the time he received an offer to play in the MLB, Leonard was too old and wasn’t the same player he used to be.
Leonard’s career started a little bit late. At 26-years old, Leonard traded in his shoe-shining job to play professional baseball for the Grays. His numbers were impressive throughout, despite jumping into the league at his older age.
Leonard was a career .320 hitter who was known for hitting line drives off and over the wall, evident from his .519 slugging percentage. He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame with Gibson in 1972, becoming the third Negro Leagues player inducted.
Dihigo played in the Negro Leagues and many Cuban Leagues throughout his 15-plus year career. He was a “jack-of-all-trades” utility player that made some appearances on the mound. His primary position; however, was second base.
A career .307 hitter, Dihigo gets lost behind the likes of Gibson, Paige and Leonard, but he was arguably the best player of his time. AskLeonard himself.
“He was the best ballplayer of all time, black or white,” Leonard proclaimed.
He didn’t just have a single nickname either. He was called “The Immortal,” or “El Inmortal” in Spanish. His most famous nickname was “El Maestro” for the way he played the game — with knowledge and confidence.
His signature moment came in 1938 against Paige in the Mexican League, when he hit a walk-off home run in the league’s final playoff game. He’s one of two players to be inducted into the American, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican Republic and Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fames, with Willie Wells being the other.
Dandridge, although not as well known as others on this All-Time Team, was another young player that just missed playing in the MLB by a few years. At the age of 20, Dandridge hit over .400 for the Eagles and would go on to have a career average of over .300, while maintaining his prowess as one of the best defensive third basemen in the Negro Leagues.
Dandridge was actually signed by MLB’s New York Giants and sent to the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers at 35-years old, something he was able to do by lying about his actual age. He hit .311 and won the league’s MVP in his second season. Despite achieving that feat in Triple-A, Dandridge was never called up to the big league club. He would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
Pop Lloyd not only was one of the best players to play in the Negro Leagues, but he played for 25 years and consistently had a batting average over .300. In fact, Lloyd hit .379 in 1929 at the age of 45. He replicated that the following season, proving those hitting statistics weren’t a fluke and accumulating a .369 average.
Similar to Honus Wagner — a Hall of Fame shortstop for the Pirates and considered to be the best player in baseball during his time — Lloyd’s trademark away from the plate became his defensive approach of scooping up dirt with every ground ball shot his way. This, and both players’ ability to make contact at the plate, led to several comparisons.
“Can’t go wrong with either player,” legendary Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack said when asked who he’d rather have between Wagner and Lloyd.
Babe Ruth apparently held the same level of praise for Lloyd. When asked by radio host Graham McNamee who Ruth thought was the best player of all time, he responded with “I’d pick John Henry Llyod.” Ruth’s favorite player was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1977.