Ranking the Greatest Negro League Players Who Never Played in MLB
Major League Baseball does a great job of honoring its past, even those who, unfortunately, weren't allowed to be part of it.
The annual April celebration of Jackie Robinson Day serves as a two-fold remembrance of a great player and civic hero. It is also a stark reminder of the African-American players who came before Robinson and were too old to compete when baseball's color barrier was broken in 1947.
Friday, the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros will play in the 2014 Civil Rights Game at Minute Maid Park. This event sheds a yearly light on the past, present and future of civil rights in America and professional sports. In the wake of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's removal from the NBA, professional sports can use a night like this to express the positive.
When tuning in to the Houston-Baltimore tilt, don't just focus on Robinson, the Civil Rights movement or the great, dynamic African-American players of today. Instead, take a few minutes to remember the history of the Negro Leagues and the great players who took the field long before Robinson was a household name in America.
The following highlights the best stars who never had the opportunity to compete in Major League Baseball, ranked using a combination of long-term impact, anecdotes and statistics.
All statistics courtesy of MLB.com or Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.
8. Andrew "Rube" Foster
Rube Foster's inclusion on this list isn't solely about talent. While the former pitcher was once credited with 51 victories in a single season, a long, distinguished life in baseball is what landed Foster the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
According to the Negro League online museum, Foster was considered the father of the Negro Leagues. His career exemplified what it meant to be part of the baseball community for African-Americans long before the inclusion of minorities into Major League Baseball was possible.
As a pitcher, manager, executive, owner, founder and officer, the best modern-day comparison to Foster's baseball life would be names like Tony La Russa or Joe Torre. For baseball fans in 2014, that's a very high compliment.
7. Walter "Buck" Leonard
Finding reliable statistics for Negro League contests played over 70 years ago can be an exercise in futility for a writer or fan. When it comes to breaking down the reasoning behind Leonard's inclusion on this list, trust the highly respected Cumberland Posey, Leonard's former manager on the Homestead Grays.
When it came time to vote for the all-time All-American Team for a national magazine, Posey voted Leonard as the starting first baseman, per the Negro League online museum. Considering all of the talented stars that passed through the Negro Leagues, Leonard's inclusion as the best first baseman ever was telling.
In light of that distinction, it's not surprising that Leonard was known by some as the "black Lou Gehrig," in homage to the late, great New York Yankees first baseman.
6. John Henry "Pop" Lloyd
John Henry "Pop" Lloyd was a turn-of-the-century star hitter, slick fielder, and, for some inexplicable reason, one of the lesser-known star baseball players in the history of America. According to a wonderful, thorough piece by Bill Ladson of MLB.com, Lloyd was the greatest hitter in the dead-ball era.
Ironically, he was often compared to another star of the same time, Major League Baseball's Honus Wagner. Perhaps it was because both were infielders and hit for very high averages—Lloyd hit .417 in 1910, Wagner hit .381 in 1900.
According to Ladson's research, Wagner confirmed the comparison after watching Lloyd play in an exhibition game by telling The Sporting News' Daguerreotypes that the similarities were an honor to him.
"After I saw him, I felt honored that they should name such a great ballplayer after me," said Wagner.
5. Norman "Turkey" Stearnes
Six home run titles, 140-plus home runs, multiple .300-or-better batting averages and one of the best nicknames—Turkey—in sports history lands Stearnes on this list of the greatest Negro League stars without big league service time.
For Stearnes, the lack of major league at-bats was about timing, not talent. His best years occurred in the 1920s, leaving him decades behind the trail blazed by Robinson into the majors. According to Ladson, the left-handed hitter was a great leadoff man for the Detroit Stars and hit with an open stance, reminiscent of former MLB third baseman Tony Batista, who played for seven organizations from 1996 to 2007.
4. Smokey Joe Williams
According to a poll conducted in 1952 by the Pittsburgh Courier, Smokey Joe Williams was voted the best pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, per the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. His inclusion as the fourth-best player on this list isn't a slight or disagreement with that assessment, but rather a testament to how much talent was surrounding Williams over the years.
If that support isn't enough, consider the following career achievements by the former right-handed star and current member of the Hall of Fame: 27 strikeouts in a 12-inning game, anecdotes of dozens of no-hitters, and a victory over all-time great righty Walter Johnson during a head-to-head exhibition.
3. James "Cool Papa" Bell
Baseball players are graded using the five-tool scale. When scouts look for the next rising star among high school and collegiate players, the ability to hit, hit for power, run, field and throw are highlighted and dissected among front office members.
Although sophisticated scouting and player development wasn't around when James "Cool Papa" Bell played in the Negro Leagues, it's obvious that his speed attribute would have dazzled talent evaluators and created a buzz.
"Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could get out of bed, turn out the lights across the room and be back in bed under the covers before the lights went out," said former Negro League star Josh Gibson, per Baseball Almanac.
Gibson's infamous quote about Bell's speed may have been a bit apocryphal, but a .337 career average and 1974 Hall of Fame induction are far from fiction for the former speedster.
2. Oscar Charleston
From 1932 to 1936, Dizzy Dean averaged 24 wins, 306 innings pitched and 194 strikeouts per season. The Hall of Fame starter owned a 130 ERA+ during that five-year span, a mark slightly better than what Seattle Mariners star Felix Hernandez has posted (128 ERA+) during his illustrious career.
Clearly, Dean could pitch and undoubtedly pick out the best, most productive hitters among his contemporaries. Although Dean never had the opportunity to share the majors with Negro League star Oscar Charleston, the star pitcher heaped great praise on one of the best hitters to ever live, per Baseball-Reference.
"Charleston could hit that ball a mile. He didn't have a weakness," Dean said.
With a .354 career batting average and .578 slugging mark, Charleston certainly didn't display a weakness for opposing pitchers to exploit during a 26-year career.
1. Josh Gibson
Josh Gibson's death at the age of 35 in 1947 was tragic for two distinct reasons: the loss of a life at a young age and the fact that it came three months before the integration of Major League Baseball.
Gibson wasn't just a great Negro League slugger; he was one of the greatest hitters of all time.
Known as a prolific slugger, Gibson owned records that looked like the work of a fiction writer: a .354 average and 962 homers over the course of a 17-season career with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, per Tom Singer of MLB.com.
Despite never having the opportunity to play big league ball, Gibson excelled against big league pitchers during barnstorming tours that featured Negro League vs. Major League battles. In those games, Gibson hit a staggering .412, solidifying his standing as a special hitter, regardless of league.
According to Monte Irvin—a veteran of both Negro League and Major League Baseball—Gibson was the best of the best, per Singer's article.
"I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron," Irvin said. "They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson. You saw him hit, and you took your hat off."
Which Negro Leagues star would have had the best major league career?
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