Every year during MLB’s spring training I re-watch the amazing Ken Burns documentary Baseball. It’s a long tradition, meaning both that I have been doing it for a long time (this is year 7) and that it takes a long time to complete (the whole series is 22-23 hours long). But every year I do it, and every year I experience the same reawakening and rekindling of my love for the game. I get thunderstruck all over again by the beauty of the game, the depth of its history, the import of that history alongside the history of our country, and the fun of it all.
I am also reminded every year of what a huge tragedy it is that some of the greatest players who ever lived were never afforded the opportunity to receive the recognition they deserved. Because of the “gentlemen’s agreement” between white baseball owners from 1883-1947, many people have never heard of some or all of the following greats.
Leroy “Satchel” Paige is arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, bar none. He actively played professional baseball consecutively from probably 1926 (records are a little shaky…) until 1953, making his major league debut in 1948 at the ripe old age of 42. After 1953, he left the professional game until being called back into service in (and I swear I’m not making this up) 1965. It was a publicity stunt, but he pitched three scoreless innings – at age 59.
His official MLB win-loss record is 28-31, mostly as a reliever. He did start his MLB career at 42 years old, mind you. And, even though his official Negro League win-loss record is 103-61, he pitched in probably hundreds of barnstorming games that were never even recorded. We truly will never know the full greatness of Paige, or what a joy it would have been to see him pitch against the Yankees’ “Murderer’s Row” of the late 20s in his prime.
Josh Gibson was a power-hitting catcher who died all too young at the age of 35, the victim of a stroke or brain hemorrhage. He was a very good defensive catcher with a strong, accurate arm, but was best known as a tremendous hitter. Baseball hall of famer Monte Irvin said of him, “I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.”
Legend has it that Josh Gibson hit a home run all the way out of the old Yankee Stadium. That story hasn’t been verified, but there is a documented occurence of him hitting a 480-foot home run – when he was just 18 years old.
Andrew “Rube” Foster was a pitcher, manager, and eventually owner and founder of the Negro National League. He gained his nickname after out-pitching the great Rube Wadell in an exhibition game. Legend has it that Foster was hired by New York Giants manager John McGraw to teach his fadeaway (screwball) pitch to Christy Mathewson, one of the all-time greats in part because of his fadeaway pitch.
Between his on the field exploits, and the impact he had on the game in the form of organizing all-black teams into the Negro Leagues, his contributions to the game cannot be overstated.
James “Cool Papa” Bell was a switch-hitting center fielder from 1922-1946. His calling card was his unbelievable speed. Like, truly unbelievable. Contemporary players joked that he would turn off the light switch at night and be in bed covered up before the room was dark. Satchel Paige said of him, “Once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.” Another Negro League great, Buck O’Neil, when asked how fast Cool Papa Bell was, would always answer, “Faster than that.”
With speed and hitting ability like his, he would certainly have been a 3,000-hit guy in the major leagues. He slapped the ball all over the field like Ichiro. He stole bases like Ricky Henderson. And he played for almost a quarter of a century.
John Henry “Pop” Lloyd played shortstop from 1907-1932. He was undeniably one of the greatest Negro League players in history. He was a slick fielder with great hitting ability and speed, often compared to Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner. Wagner himself said, “It’s an honor to be compared to [Lloyd].”
Babe Ruth, when asked to name the greatest Negro League player of all time, stated that Pop Lloyd was his choice for greatest player of all time – period, without distinction.
His career batting average of .340 is 12 points higher than Wagner’s, and only 2 points below Babe Ruth’s.
And the truth is that there are dozens more Negro League players whose names and baseball exploits we remember even less. The fact that these players were systematically prohibited from testing themselves against the Major League’s greatest players is a shame and a travesty. Because as rich and vibrant and colorful and deep and important as the history of baseball is, it could have been more.