Part II – The Golden Era of Negro League Baseball
By Jim Halloran
Rube Foster’s creation of the National Negro League in 1920 opened the door for an exciting brand of baseball that has never been duplicated nor has it received its rightful recognition. The first pennant in 1920 was won by the Kansas City Monarchs who beat out Foster’s American Giants. The National Negro League started as an eight team midwestern league but grew quickly with addition of the Eastern Negro League the following year. The merger of the leagues was delayed a year due to a feud between Foster and Nat Strong who controlled booking arrangements of an eastern circuit of black teams. The same year, 1921, recognition was also given to a southern league as a minor league. The Eastern League generated a lot of attention when for the first time a Negro League team, Hillsdale, played a team of major league team of all stars in a tightly contested series of games. The Major League team was led by a young Babe Ruth.
The enthusiasm for black baseball grew as new stars appeared. The incredible Cool Papa Bell made his debut as a centerfielder with the Saint Louis Stars in 1922. In 1924 the first Negro League World Series was held. The Eastern Negro League champion Hillsdale, led by Judy Johnson and Pop Lloyd, defeated the Kansas City Monarchs of the National Negro League. The Monarchs were led by hard hitting Dobie Moore (.463 batting average). In 1928 “ Cool Papa” led the Stars to the first of three championship.
The Negro Leagues exposure continued to grow by continually playing well in exhibition games against major league all-stars, including the team led by Ruth. By this time the owners of the major league teams were becoming concerned with the emerging growth and popularity of the Negro League. Having witnessed the mounting frequent losses of Major League teams to Negro League teams Major League Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis banned all major league players from playing any games against the Negro League teams. However that ruling did not prevent off season Major League all star teams from playing exhibition games against Negro League all star teams.
The Stars of the Era
Cool Papa Bell is regarded by some as the fastest man ever to play baseball. His speed was legendary and filled with mythological stories. Pitcher Satchel Paige exclaimed, “Cool Papa was so fast that he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room went dark. One time he hit a line drive past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit him as he slid into second”. Bell, a centerfielder, started his 24 year career with the St. Louis Stars and helped lead them to the National Negro League championship in 1928, 1930 and 1931. He was an 8 time All Star with a lifetime batting average of .337. There are no accurate records kept on stolen bases at the time but there is little doubt that he was the all time base stealer in the league. Writer Ken Burns cited a time that he scored a run from first base on a sacrifice bunt. Cool Papa was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
Josh Gibson was a catcher who played for a number of teams in his seventeen year career ( 1930 – 1946). For most of his career he played with the powerful Homestead Greys. The powerful hitting Gibson was often referred to as “the black Babe Ruth” but many reversed that label by citing Babe Ruth as “ the white Josh Gibson”. His power became a source of legends. Accurate statistics of his era are not available but many researchers have claimed he hit over 800 homeruns, batted over .350 and could hit a baseball over 600 feet. In the 1933 season, according to statistics gathered for the Homestead Greys, Gibson batted .467 in 137 games with 55 homeruns. Josh was a native of Georgia having spent his youth in Buena Vista, Georgia. He was the second African American player inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Judy Johnson was considered the best third baseman to play in the Negro League. He was not a power hitter but he was a great control “scientific” hitter. His bat was a magic wand as evidenced by his batting averages .391 in 1923, .364 in 1925 an .392 in 1926. He led the Hillsdale Daises to three consecutive Eastern League championships including victory in the first colored World Series in 1925. In 1932 Judy joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords where he played alongside of Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige. That team is considered the best team that ever played in the history of the Negro League. Judy was inducted into the National Hall of Fame in 1975. Following his retirement Judy was a scout for a number of major league teams including the Atlanta Braves.
Dobie Moore was aptly nick named the “Black Cat”. He was, during his short seven season career, the best shortstop in the Negro Baseball League. An Atlanta, Georgia native he joined the Kansas City Monarchs following a three year stint in the US Army as an infantry soldier. As a Monarch Dobie led the team to three league championships including 1924 when he batted an incredible .394. Casey Stengel and Cumberland Posey proclaimed him as one of the best shortstops to play in any professional league. His career had a tragic end when he was shot in the leg by a girlfriend. The leg was further damaged with a compound fracture when he jumped from the second floor window while trying to escape the shooter. It is presumed that if his career had continued he would have joined the other African American greats in the National Hall of Fame.