In celebration of Black History Month, ZUNews will be creating an All-Time Team for the illustrious Negro Leagues of baseball.
The Negro Leagues in all of its historical relevance helped grow a game that was at the time considered the most popular in the United States and is still regarded as the country’s national pastime. Those teams provided young Black kids a reason to celebrate heroes of the game that looked like them, but theystill experienced massive hardships off the field.
Although a large part of the country rejected the Negro Leagues during the New Era and beyond, players of the Negro Leagues held similar statures and skillsets to the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson — and many would argue those foreign heroes were even more talented than their white counterparts.
Continuing on with our Negro Leagues: An All-Time Team series, we will conclude the list in this piece with our selections for the outfield and pitching rotation.
Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil once stated Charleston “was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” The reason he made this observation was his completeness as a ballplayer.
Not only was Charleston a well-known power hitter, but he was also a smart batter and would bunt when the situation presented itself — a lost craft in today’s version of the game. He was also remembered for his defensive positioning. Charleston played very shallow in center field, so much so that he would be positioned right behind the second baseline. He did this because his speed and instinctual baseball ability allowed him to outrun nearly every pop-up to center, no matter where the ball was hit.
Like most Negro League greats, his stats are not definitive. However, he is often regarded for his 1925 season in Pittsburgh, when he hit a .451 average along with 20 home runs — a total that was incredibly rare for anyone not named Babe Ruth. As both a manager and player, Charleston reached Cooperstown in 1976.
No one in the history of the Negro Leagues was better on the basepaths than James Thomas Bell. In fact, if the anecdotes of his speed are true, he may be the fastest man to ever play baseball.
The most famous story is Satchel Paige’s recollection of staying in a hotel room with Bell. Once ready for bed, Bell flipped the light switch and made it to his bed before the light turned off. While it certainly sounds exaggerated, there appears to be merit in Paige’s story because one of the rooms they shared ended up having a short circuit. Nevertheless, that story continues to be used to visualize the speed of Cool Papa.
A switch hitter with excellent bat control, Bell was known for his bunting which would more times than not lead to extra bases. He is also remembered for being a vital part of some of the greatest Negro League teams of all time such as the St. Louis Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Kansas City Monarchs.
He played outside the country as well, playing over 20 seasons of winter ball in Cuba and Mexico — establishing himself as one of the most well-known minority baseball players in the Americas. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Monte Irvin is one of the Negro League players who played in the major leagues for an extended period of time after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, but never played in the MLB during his prime years.
In his eight years with the Giants and Cubs, Irvin held a .858 OPS along with 443 RBI’s. He made an All-Star team and even finished third in MVP voting in 1951. Those career numbers represented a solid professional baseball player. Yet, Irvin was much more than that.
Irvin’s power mimicked the likes of some of the major sluggers in the Negro Leagues such as Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Turkey Stearns and others. He won two league batting titles and a Triple Crown during his time in the Mexican Leagues in the mid-1940s.
What really made Irvin such a favored player in the Negro Leagues was his leadership. He was such an amazing teammate and mentor that when Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, and the rest of the league’s ownership was asked who they would pick to break baseball’s color barrier, they chose Monte Irvin.
Irvin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
Satchel Paige is well-known for his rise through the Negro Leagues to his eventual ascension to Major League Baseball. Not only is he considered one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game, but he pitched for longer than anyone ever has or will. Beginning in the Negro Leagues at the young age of 21 in 1927 with the Birmingham Barons, Paige quickly gained a reputation for his “buggy-whipping” fastball.
As his image grew, Paige enjoyed the attention of making special appearances around the country jumping from team-to-team, even occasionally appearing on all-white semi-professional clubs.
Similar to Irvin, Paige got his opportunity to compete in the big leagues at age 42 after Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues. He became the first African-American to pitch in the World Series that season for the Cleveland Indians, throwing two-thirds of an inning in Game 5. He finished the season with a 2.98 ERA and a 6-1 overall record.
He pitched for another four seasons in the big leagues and was selected to two All-Star teams before he returned to the minor leagues for another 20 years. He would eventually pitch his final game for the Athletics back in the majors at the age of 59 before finally finishing.
Of course, Paige received praise from players in the Negro Leagues, such as Buck Leonard who admitted years later said, “All the years I played, I never got a hit off of him.” However, his talent transcended color, and some of the greatest hitters in white-run baseball agreed with Leonard, including Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio who called Paige the greatest pitcher in all of baseball.
Paige proved throughout his illustrious career that his most famous quote was true: “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971 as the first electee of the Committee on Negro Leagues Baseball.
Known for his rocket of a right-arm, Williams was the most feared Negro Leagues pitcher in the first half of the 20th century. The tall righty from Texas had smooth motion and good control, which led to his dominance for more than two decades in the Negro Leagues.
One of the most popular players the Negro Leagues ever had, Williams threw so hard that multiple catchers were used in the games he pitched due to the swelling of the catcher’s hands.
“If I was going to pick a man to throw hard, I’d have to pick Joe Williams,” former Negro Leaguer Sam Streeter said. “I’d pick him over all of them. They talk about Satchel (Paige) and them throwing hard, but I think Joe threw harder.”
In a dazzling performance against the Kansas City Monarchs in 1930, Williams struck out 27 batters in a one-hit shutout victory. The record in the MLB for strikeouts in a game is held by Roger Clemons (who did it twice), Max Scherzer and Kerry Wood with 20 strikeouts in a game.
Mentioned in MLB circles, Ty Cobb once called the caliber of Williams as, “a sure-30 game-winner in the Major Leagues.” Williams never got the opportunity to compete in the big leagues, as he retired in 1932.
However, before his death in 1952, he showed no bitterness toward his injustice saying, “The important thing is that the long fight against the ban has been lifted. I praise the Lord I’ve lived to see the day.” Williams was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Day was a mild-tempered and soft-spoken right-hander with a hard-breaking curveball and a deceptive short motion. He used to catch batters off guard with no wind-up and on top of that, he hid the ball well from opposing batters. Not only was he known for his pitching style, but his athleticism allowed him to play other positions and hit when he was resting his arm.
Day appeared in a record seven All-Star games and pitched in the World Series for the Homestead Grays in 1942, outdueling Satchel Paige with 12 strikeouts in a win.
“He was as good or better than Bob Gibson. He was a better fielder, a better hitter, could run like a deer. One of the best complete athletes I’ve ever seen,” Monte Irvin once said.
After being sidelined for a short period of time in the mid-1940s due to his service in World War II and arm injuries, one of Day’s most incredible performances happened during his comeback on Opening Day in 1946. He threw a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars, the only one of his career. Day passed away in 1995 just six days after finding out he was to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the Class of ‘95.