When you enter my humble home, it isn’t difficult to know who my favorite ballplayer might be. On one wall is an autographed Red Sox jersey signed by Ted Williams surrounded by four autographed Sports Illustrated covers of “The Kid” ranging from 1955 to 1976. Across the way is a small bookcase displaying a collection of his baseball cards including the rookie card from 1939 “Play Ball”.
Having had the opportunity to grow up in New England when Williams was playing in Fenway Park made my decision easy; as I’m sure it did for New York kids of the 50’s with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Discussing the accomplishments of great ballplayers usually involves statistics and fond memories, but today we’ll take another approach and talk about the person behind the uniform.
This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues and it’s important to not lose sight of the how the sport of baseball has grown in it’s understanding of that era. Ted Williams was an integral part of that change, as he took the time in 1966 to tell baseball what they needed to hear. 45 years ago next month, Williams included in his Hall of Fame induction speech a plea to all of baseball when he said, “I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can be added as a symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given the chance”.
That speech was the impetus for things to move forward and in 1969; the Baseball Writers’ Association formed a committee to push for Negro League inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Progress was somewhat slow, but in 1971, Satchel Paige became the first of the great Negro League players to be enshrined in Cooperstown. There are now 35 people from that era in the Hall and Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Museum has said, “The only way you can judge how good you are is playing with and against the best. I don’t think it was out of the ordinary to have a great Major Leaguer to have appreciation for the talent of those great Negro League players. Williams was bold enough to use his Hall of Fame platform to bring it to light.” 25 years later, Williams told Bob Costas that speaking up for Negro League players was one of his proudest moments in baseball.
The 100th anniversary has created another marvelous artifact for baseball fans and that is the project to research the available statistics from the Negro Leagues and include them in baseball’s history. It was certainly a daunting task and the numbers may never be complete due to spotty information and so many “unofficial” games that were part of the barnstorming legacy of the time, but the record book has now been updated. Baseball Reference is the go-to site for statistics and you can read their recent announcement by accessing baseball-reference.com.
So, let’s learn together about the first nine players that were inducted during the 1970’s
- 1971, Leroy “Satchel” Paige – This legendary Pitcher is undoubtedly the most famous player on our list. He began his career in 1927 (at age 20) with the Birmingham Black Barons and in 1928 posted 11 Wins, 4 Saves and a 2.32 ERA. He finally made it to the Majors in 1948 with the Indians (at age 41) and had a 5-year ERA of 3.29. In 1952 with the St. Louis Browns, he had 12 Wins & 10 Saves…at age 45!
- 1972, Josh Gibson – The most powerful hitter in the league’s history, he was also an outstanding Catcher with Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. He led the league in Home Runs 10 times and had a lifetime BA of .374. His final season was 1946 and he passed away at age 35 before ever getting a chance to play in the Majors.
- 1972, Buck Leonard – The Homestead Grays was his only team and he was their 1B from 1935-48. His lifetime BA was .345 and his OBP% was .450. He led the league in HR’s twice and RBI’s three times.
- 1973, Monte Irvin – Talk about a resume, he played four seasons with the Newark Eagles in the late 30’s and early 40’s, leading the league with a .395 BA in 1941. He was in the military during World War II and fought in the “Battle of the Bulge” before returning to baseball. He played four more seasons with the Eagles before joining the New York Giants in 1950. When the Giants won the ’51 pennant, Irvin led the NL with 121 RBI’s.
- 1974, Cool Papa Bell – Possibly the fastest baserunner in the history of the game, he taught Lou Brock the art of stealing bases. His career spanned from 1922-46 and he led the league in SB’s seven times. Primarily a Pitcher during his first three years, he compiled a record of 20-15 before becoming the preeminent Centerfielder of the era.
- 1975, Judy Johnson – Most historians have him as the greatest 3B in the Negro Leagues. Playing primarily for the Hilldale Club, his career was from 1923-36 and he led the league in Hits on two occasions.
- 1976, Oscar Charleston – The first real star of the Negro Leagues, his career began in 1920 and he it over .400 four times in the 1920’s. In the 1930’s, he led the Crawfords to three pennants as their Manager. He had a lifetime BA of .364.
- 1977, Martin Dihigo – A Cuban native, he may have been the league’s most versatile player, as he could handle multiple positions and also pitch. Playing for the Cuban Stars, he led the league in HR’s twice in the 1920’s and posted a lifetime 3.34 ERA as a Pitcher.
- 1977, Pop Lloyd – Long before modern players were called nicknames for their fielding prowess, this Shortstop was know as “The Shovel”. He was already 37 years-old when the league started in 1921 and he played eight seasons with a lifetime BA of .349. In 1928 at age 44, he batted .383 for the New York Lincoln Giants.
Hope you enjoyed the visit and treasure the importance.