Baseball’s-best discussions don’t all involve Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, or “Murderers’ Row” versus “The Big Red Machine.”
In fact, one of the longest-running debates in the game’s history stems from the old Negro leagues: Which team was the most powerful, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs or Homestead Grays?
Old-timers from that era aren’t much help in providing answers. With lineups full of future Hall of Famers who routinely attracted crowds that overflowed stadiums, they say all three franchises were special.
“They had some great, great teams,” said Ben Jones, who played with the New York Black Yankees. “Everyone wanted to see Pittsburgh because they had Josh Gibson, the greatest power hitter of all time, and Satchel Paige, the greatest one-game pitcher of all time. ... Buck Leonard’s Grays always won, and, you know, the Monarchs had some great teams.”
Indeed, the Crawfords were black baseball’s “Dream Team” of the early 1930s; the Grays, also from Pittsburgh, were a mainstay for 38 years; and the Monarchs were an institution in the Midwest from 1920 through 1950.
“That’s what made the Negro leagues so great,” said James Tillman, who played for the Grays during the early 1940s. “Every team had Hall of Fame players and we didn’t have a lot of teams in the league, so you played against them often.”
Gibson, Paige, Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Ray Brown, Buck O’Neil and Bullet Rogan were among the stars who wore the uniforms of the Crawfords, Monarchs and Grays, three teams that captured the imagination of baseball fans -- not only African Americans -- from across the nation.
Looking Like Winners
Funded by money owner Gus Greenlee earned as a mobster, the Crawfords not only played well, they looked great doing it.
Greenlee, who bought himself a fancy new Lincoln automobile every year, was considered the George Steinbrenner of his day for his willingness to open his pocketbook for the team.
His players earned top dollar, wore the best uniforms and traveled in style, using state-of-the-art buses. They were also treated as celebrities away from the field, especially at Greenlee’s Crawford Bar and Grille, a famous two-story restaurant and dance hall in Pittsburgh that regularly featured artists such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie and the Mills Brothers.
During their heyday, the Crawfords were black baseball’s marquee franchise. As an independent club in 1932, they won the Negro League World Series, defeating the Monroe Monarchs of the Negro Southern League, 5-1, in a best-of-nine series.
By the next year, when Pittsburgh became a charter member of the second Negro National League, its lineup featured Gibson, Paige, Charleston, Bell and Judy Johnson.
“That’s five Hall of Famers playing together during the prime of their careers,” O’Neil said.
Added Jones: “It was always something to play against the Crawfords. When you played against them, you knew you were playing against the best players in the world, black or white.”
Named after the Crawford Recreation Center in Pittsburgh, the Crawfords played their home games at Greenlee Field, the game’s first entirely black-owned stadium, which their owner financed with $100,000.
Like everything else associated with the team, the stadium was a first-class facility. But the Crawfords were just as much of an attraction on the road, barnstorming against minor league teams typically made up of local white players.
“They would come down and play teams from all over, and it was always a big thing when they played games on the [New] Jersey Shore,” said Alfred Morgan, a former Black College All-American center fielder at North Carolina A&T; who played against the Crawfords during the 1940s.
“Everyone wanted to see Satchel Paige, who could throw a fastball anywhere he wanted. I faced him as a teenager and got a hit off of him that I remember to this day. And Josh Gibson, he once smacked a ball so far in Belmar [N.J.] that it traveled across the street from the field and hit the post office.”
Estimated distance: 600 feet.
Parade of Stars
As glamorous as the Crawfords were in the short term, the Monarchs stood the test of time.
Kansas City won 10 pennants, two Negro World Series championships, and featured a “Who’s Who” roster of legendary players that included Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Turkey Stearnes, Newt Allen, Jesse Williams, Bonnie Serrell, Hilton Smith, Rogan, Bell and Paige.
The Monarchs, who sent the most players into the major leagues after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, are well represented in Cooperstown, N.Y. The Monarchs already have 11 inductees, which does not include Robinson or Banks, who played for them before moving to the major leagues, or Williard “Home Run” Brown, Andy Cooper and Jose Mendez, who, along with owner J.L. Wilkinson, will be inducted today.
Wilkinson, who was white, turned his attention to black baseball and founded the Monarchs after he had already developed a women’s team and a multiracial “All-Nations” team.
And true to his pioneer roots, Wilkinson made the Monarchs a national showcase, becoming the first owner to have his team travel by bus and, using portable lights, to play night games.
“They were treated like a major league team,” said DeMorris Smith, son of Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith and a batboy for the Monarchs during the 1940s.
“The Monarchs always stayed in all of the best black hotels. It was separate but equal, and the Monarchs were the team everyone wanted to see. Before every home series, they led parades down the streets of Kansas City.”
Said O’Neil, a former Monarchs player/manager: “We were just that good. We had an air about ourselves. ... And, of course, we had the great Satchel Paige. He was always a main attraction.”
The club was a charter member of the original Negro National League, but by the time Paige joined, that circuit had folded and the Monarchs were barnstorming against all comers throughout North America.
In 1937, the Monarchs joined the newly formed Negro American League and won its first title. They won four consecutive league championships from 1939 to 1942, winning their second Negro League World Series in 1942.
But while the Monarchs were at or near the top for more than 20 years, theirs wasn’t the longest run of excellence in black baseball.
Span of Grays
Formed in 1912 by Cumberland Posey, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame today, the Grays were a dynasty that prospered in several leagues over four decades and had a Negro leagues-high 13 inductees to the Hall of Fame.
During the early years, Posey, who played basketball at Penn State, built his team into an independent powerhouse that won behind future Hall of Fame pitcher Smokey Joe Williams, outfielder Vic Harris and infielder Jud Wilson, who also will be inducted today.
Later, Posey, who wrote a regular column in the Pittsburgh Courier and was a close, longtime friend to Steelers owner Art Rooney, helped start the American Negro League, a circuit that held together for one season, 1929.
But even when their league went away, the Grays didn’t. In 1931, they were a legendary team led by Gibson, then a 19-year-old catcher, and future Hall of Famers Johnson, Charleston and storied Cuban pitcher Martin Dihigo.
According to baseball historian Phil Dixon, the Grays finished 136-17 in nonleague games that season.
“The Crawfords had some good teams,” Dixon told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “but they didn’t exceed the  Grays.”
In 1932, the Grays joined the East-West League, which also existed for only one year. The next year, Greenlee’s money lured away Gibson, Johnson and Charleston to the Crawfords.
But Posey’s franchise kept on rolling. Behind Leonard, the Grays jumped to the Negro National League in 1935, and by 1937 they were league champions after Gibson returned. That began a streak of nine league titles that also included three Negro League World Series championships.
“We played to win,” Tillman said of the Grays, who during the late 1930s and early 1940s played their home games at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and Washington’s Griffith Stadium when the major league teams were on the road. “We played before bigger crowds than the white teams and won more often.”
There was overlap between the Crawfords, Monarchs and Grays, but historians have been unable to officially piece together what their records were against each other.
So, who-was-best debates -- like most debates in baseball -- will remain largely unsettled.
What is known for sure is that Gibson and Paige are common links between the teams, Gibson a key contributor to the Crawfords and Grays, Paige a star for the Crawfords and Monarchs.
Legend has it that when the two were teammates for Pittsburgh they often talked about what would happen if they faced each other in a league game.
It happened on Sept. 10, 1942, in the second game of the Negro League World Series at Forbes Field, when Paige pitched for the Monarchs against Gibson and the Grays. Protecting a 2-0 lead with two out in the seventh inning, Paige walked two batters to load the bases for Gibson.
With a sold-out stadium silent in suspense, Paige needed only three pitches to strike out Gibson. And when Paige walked off the mound, even Grays fans cheered.
“That’s a true story,” said O’Neil, who was playing first base for the Monarchs. “That was Satchel. He was the best and he wanted to go after the best.
“That’s what Negro League baseball was all about.”
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Best of the best
The Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Pittsburgh Crawfords were the three most storied teams in Negro league history. A look at the best teams each franchise put on the field:
The Grays didn’t let the fact that there was no established league in the East keep them from running up one of the most impressive records in the history of black baseball. Owner Cumberland Posey’s team had a 46-19 record against the top Eastern teams, and were 136-17 against other competition. Oscar Charleston managed the team, played first base and hit .341 against the top-flight teams in the East, supported by a lineup that included catcher Josh Gibson (.308), third baseman Jud Wilson (.352), outfielder Ted Page (.344) and second baseman George Scales (.339). The rotation featured a pair of Hall of Famers in “Smokey Joe” Williams and Willie Foster, as well as Lefty Williams -- who pitched 17 no-hitters in 20 years with the Grays -- and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who got his nickname from catching one game of a doubleheader and pitching the second. Homestead met Kansas City in an unofficial championship series, which went to a decisive ninth game. The 46-year-old Joe Williams held the Monarchs to six hits but trailed, 4-2, until Homestead rallied for six runs in the sixth inning for an 8-4 victory.
If the Grays’ Posey was a man of letters and a former college athlete, then Pittsburgh’s Gus Greenlee was the opposite, a flashy, streetwise numbers banker. That didn’t keep Greenlee from wanting what Posey had, however, and after buying a little-known Pittsburgh semi-pro team -- the Crawford Colored Giants -- he proceeded to lure away many of the Homestead stars and within five years had put together what some experts consider to be the finest team in black baseball history. It included future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, who batted .355 in Negro National League play, “Cool Papa” Bell (.320), Oscar Charleston (.294) and Judy Johnson (.263). Satchel Paige is usually listed with that group, but for one thing: after a falling out with Greenlee over his contract, Paige spent the summer of ’35 pitching for an integrated team in Bismarck, N.D., where he posted a 43-2 record. In Paige’s place, Leroy Matlock had a 17-0 league record. The Crawfords won a tight postseason series with the New York Cubans for the league title. Gibson and Charleston homered in the ninth inning of the decisive seventh game.
KANSAS CITY MONARCHS
Choosing between Kansas City’s two Negro League World Series champions is no easy task. The 1924 Monarchs featured the likes of Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan, who led the Negro National League in hitting (.409) and victories (17), and pitcher-manager Jose Mendez clinched the series with a three-hit shutout. But the 1942 team had Satchel Paige, and rolled to the Negro American League title behind the bats of outfielders Willard Brown (.310), Ted Strong (.322) and Newt Allen (.318), and second baseman Bonnie Serrell, who led the league at .406. In the series, the Monarchs mowed down the Homestead Grays in four games. Paige pitched in each game, not all that remarkable in that the series stretched over 21 days. Actually, Paige pitched in five games. The Grays were so desperate after going down, 3-0, that Posey signed four players from other teams for the fourth game, including future Hall of Famer Leon Day, who beat Paige, 4-1. The Monarchs protested Posey’s ringers, and the game was thrown out. Paige, Hilton Smith and Jack Matchett managed to hold Gibson to two hits in 16 at-bats.
Sources: The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, “The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game,” “The Pittsburgh Crawfords”
VAN NIGHTINGALE/Los Angeles Times
Cream of the crop
Among the many franchises in black baseball in the first half of the 20th century, three in particular stand out:
* Operated from 1912 to ’50. The Grays set the standard in the East, appearing in five Negro League World Series.
* Operated from 1931 to ’38. In their short history, the Crawfords featured a lineup with five future Hall of Famers.
KANSAS CITY MONARCHS
* Operated from 1920 to ’50. The team of Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil won 10 pennants in its history.