THE NEGRO LEAGUE : Blacks Were Relegated to Their Own Hotels, Own Sides of Town and Played Baseball for Little Money, Recognition
Only the ball was white, the Grays were the dominant team and just about the only green the underpaid players saw was the spotty outfield grass.
But 40 years after the last Negro League World Series, time and fading memories haven’t diminished black baseball’s impact on America.
“Many people today, especially the young people, don’t realize how bad the racism was,” said Monte Irvin, one of the first blacks to cross baseball’s color line in the late 1940s.
“I was all-state in four sports in New Jersey, but sometimes I couldn’t get served at a restaurant two blocks from my high school. There were no job opportunities then ... the only thing a black youth could aspire to be was a bellboy or a pullman or an elevator operator, or, maybe, a teacher. There was a time when all we had was black baseball.”
Young fans who marvel at Ozzie Smith’s wizardy at shortstop or Darryl Strawberry’s power find it hard to believe that not long ago, blacks and dark-skinned Hispanics were relegated to their own leagues, their own hotels, their own sides of town, and, usually, their own fans and own ballfields.
It is inconceivable of Sandy Koufax making the Hall of Fame without facing Willie McCovey, of Johnny Bench never confronting Bob Gibson’s fastball. But some of baseball’s true legends -- Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson -- played their entire major league careers without opposing a black player.
“Many of the greatest black athletes of all time played baseball for no money and no recognition,” said Irvin, now an assistant in the baseball commissioner’s office. “I’m just sorry many major league fans never got to see them play, because many of them were awesome.”
Baseball is now confronting the error of its way and recognizing black ball and its legendary teams and players.
“We must never lose sight of our history, insofar as it is ugly, never to repeat it, and insofar as it is glorious, to cherish it,” said National League president and commissioner-elect A. Bartlett Giamatti.
Eleven former Negro League stars and executives -- Andrew “Rube” Foster, Oscar Charleston, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Josh Gibson, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Martin Dihigo, William “Judy” Johnson, Walter “Buck” Leonard, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Ray “Hooks” Dandridge and Irvin -- have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown since 1971.
The Pittsburgh Pirates honored six living members of the last Negro League champions, the 1948 Homestead Grays, with a pregame ceremony Sept. 10 and by flying a Grays’ pennant atop Three Rivers Stadium for a week.
The former Grays and other former Negro League stars, including Bell and Irvin, attended a 40th anniversary dinner to swap memories and anecdotes of a forgettable time and unforgettable players.
“I’m glad they are finally getting recognized, because 20 years from now most of them will be gone,” Irvin said. “Oh my, there were some players. ... We had 12 teams, each team had 14 to 17 players and I’d say half of them could have made the major leagues. Fifty of them could have been Hall of Famers.
“It’s too bad baseball couldn’t have integrated 15 years sooner (than 1947), because the fans really would have seen the cream of the crop.”
The impact of blacks on major league baseball was immediate and indisputable; nine of the 11 National League Most Valuable Players from 1949-59 were black.
Irvin was one of the lucky ones young enough to break the color line with Jackie Robinson and play big league ball. There were plenty of others -- Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Willie Mays (a 17-year-old center fielder on the ’48 runnerup Birmingham Black Barons) -- who peaked in the majors.
But there were dozens who didn’t, players whose careers were over by the time visionary Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to his historic contract.
Major league fans never saw Bell, perhaps the fastest player in history; Josh Gibson, a power-hitting catcher who hit the longest homers ever at Yankee Stadium and Forbes Field; Martin Dihigo, so talented he won batting and home run titles while winning 256 games as a pitcher; “Smokey” Joe Williams, a half-black, half-Indian power pitcher who was 22-7-1 against white major league teams and was the biggest drawing card of his time.
“If Gibson or Buck Leonard took a team to arbitration today, they’d have to give him part of the team,” Irvin said.
Paige, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, signed with the Cleveland Indians at age 42, but his “beeball” fastball had been diminished by time and 2,000 starts.
“It’s sad that many of these players knew they were good enough to play in the majors ... that’s the one remaining doubt for some of these guys,” Irvin said. “Some, like me, were lucky enough to play in the majors before our careers ended. The others will always wonder how good they could have been.”
“The only thing I ever wanted to do was hit in the major leagues,” said Dandridge, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. “I just wanted to put my left foot in there, to have been there for only one day, even if it was only for a cup of coffee.”
There is no question the Negro National League, based in the East, and the Negro American League, in the Midwest, played quality baseball. John Holway, a black historian, counted 268 black victories in 400 exhibition games against white major league teams and Bell hit .395 in barnstorming tours against white teams.
In an era where a wall of prejudice barred blacks from all professional sports but boxing -- Joe Louis was the most revered American of his time by blacks -- Negro League teams provided self-respect and a source of identity to black communities.
The Grays, who were originally based in Homestead, a nearby steel town, and the Crawfords made Pittsburgh the center of black baseball. The ’35 champion Crawfords’ lineup included five Hall of Famers: Gibson, Charleston, Bell, Johnson and Paige. The Grays won nine consecutive Negro League titles from 1937-45 and a total of 10 from 1929-48; the 1931 Grays were 136-17, the 1926 Grays won 43 games in a row.
A black world series was played as early as 1903, but the first organized Negro National League wasn’t formed until 1920. The Grays’ dominance was challenged by the Pittsburgh Crawfords during the Depression and later by the Kansas City Monarchs, but the black leagues died out shortly after the big leagues integrated.
“We were supposed to play the Pirates in an exhibition (in 1948), but some of their players came to watch us against the New York Black Yankees,” said second baseman Clarence Bruce.
“Buck Leonard hit a home run over the roof in right field, Luke Easter hit one off the facade in right and Bob Thurman hit one over the 447-foot mark. We heard after that the Pirates didn’t want to play us.”
Life in the black major leagues was never easy. Some teams had two home cities; for years, the Grays played half their games in Washington’s Griffith Stadium and often outdrew the Senators. The pay was bad -- most players averaged $150 a month, although a star like Gibson commanded $1,000 -- and the travel was brutal.
Teams played as many as three games a day and seven or eight in a weekend, sometimes in different cities. Their rickety buses were often overloaded and players sometimes stood while riding.
“We didn’t care ... to us, it was the big leagues,” Bruce said. “They say good things come to those who wait. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited. ... Now, the good times are coming. We haven’t been forgotten.”
SOME OF THE BEST
Biographies of some of the Negro League top players, compiled from historical files and by Rob Ruck, a Pittsburgh-based black baseball historian:
James (Cool Papa) Bell (1903- ): Bell, who lives on Cool Papa Bell Street in St. Louis, may have been the fastest player of all time. A lifetime .343 hitter, he had a .395 average in barnstorming tours against white major leaguers. The outfielder batted .437 in Mexico in 1940 while leading the league in home runs and RBI. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
Oscar Charleston (1896-1954): Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, he was often called “the black Ty Cobb” and may have been the best black center fielder ever. He had a lifetime average of .351, including five .400-plus seasons, and had a .361 career average in the Cuban League. A left-handed power hitter, he played so shallow in center field that opponents accused him of being a fifth infielder.
Ray (Hooks) Dandridge (1913 - ): The Negro leagues’ premier third baseman during a 16-year career, mostly with the Newark Eagles. A star in Mexico and Cuba, he played in the minor leagues in 1949 at age 36, passing himself off as a 29-year-old. He was a double-A rookie of the year that season and a most valuable player the next, but never played in the majors. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
Martin Dihigo (1905-1971): ihigo was the Negro leagues’ answer to Babe Ruth, a pitcher-outfielder who could shut a team out one day, then beat them the next with a tape-measure home run. A lifetime .304 hitter, he had a 256-133 won-lost record and won batting, home run, victory, strikeout and earned run average honors in the Negro, Cuban and Mexican leagues. He led several leagues in both pitching and batting. He often played 12 months a year and is the only player in the baseball hall of fames of Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and the United States. His bust at Latin American Stadium in Havana reads only: “The Immortal.” Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
Josh Gibson (1911-1947): A fine defensive catcher for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays who was black baseball’s most feared slugger. He hit an estimated 1,000 career home runs in the Negro leagues and the Caribbean and had a .379 career average. His home runs at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Yankee Stadium are believed to be the longest at each; one of his drives was estimated at 700 feet, 134 feet longer than Mickey Mantle’s longest shot. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Monte Irvin (1919- ): He played Negro League ball for 10 years until being signed by the New York Giants in 1949 as a 30-year-old rookie. A winner of 16 varsity sports letters in high school, he was a two-time Negro League batting champion. He hit .329 with 21 homers and 72 RBIfor the Giants in 1953.
William (Judy) Johnson (1899- ): A third baseman with a rifle throwing arm, Connie Mack once said of Johnson, “If he were white, hecould write his own price.” He was the player-manager of the 1930 Homestead Garys before moving across Pittsburgh to join the then-dominant Crawfords. He was considered one of the top black managers and later scouted for the Athletics, Braves and Phillies. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.
Walter (Buck) Leonard (1907- ): He didn’t play pro ball until he was 25, but then played until he was 48. He and Gibson were the foundation of the Homestead Grays, who won nine consecutive Negro League titles from 1937-45, and were black baseball’s most feared right-lefty combination. A 12-time all-star, he had a .336 career average and led the Nego Leagues in homers and batting in 1939. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
John Henry (Pop) Lloyd (1884-1965): Considered the top black shortstop of his era, he led the Negro League in batting, home runs and stolen bases in 1928 -- at age 44. He had a .342 career batting average that was overshadowed by his superb defensive play. He retired from the Negro League in 1932, at 48, only to play 10 more seasons of sandlot ball in Atlantic City. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
Leroy (Satchel) Paige (1906-82): Perhaps the greatest pitcher of any era. He began his professional career in 1924 and ended it in 1967, playing before 10 million fans and winning an estimated 2,000 games in the Negro and Caribbean leagues, on barnstorming tours and exhibitions. He threw 55 no-hitters, sometimes after calling his outfielders off the field. The 6-foot-3 Paige’s legendary “bee ball” fastball and hesitation pitches are part of baseball’s lore. He didn’t make it to the major leagues until 1948, when he was 42, but he pitched a shutout in his first start and his 6-1 record helped the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. His first six starts drew more than 200,000 fans. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s in a 1965 start -- at age 59. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.
Smokey Joe Williams (1886-1946): Considered the hardest-throwing pitcher of his era, the 6-foot-5 Williams -- half-black and half-Indian -- had amazing control. He didn’t join the Homestead Grays until he was 39, but lost only five games in six seasons. He was 22-7-1 in 30 games against white all-star teams and was 8-2-1 against pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame. He was black baseball’s top draw until the emergence of Paige.