The Best Baseball Players of a Bygone Era

The Best Baseball Players
of a Bygone Era
| Published February 16, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

The National Association of Base Ball Players passed a resolution barring blacks and any club that might have the temerity to field those of a darker hue. The year was 1867, and the history books mostly talk about blacks being treated poorly in the South. However, there was virulent racism in the North and Midwest, even before the Civil War.

When selective service came to New York City in 1863, working class men rose up and rioted, eventually turning their wrath on blacks. More than 100 black people were eventually killed, with approximately 2000 hurt during the mayhem. The uprising didn't start over race, but you have to understand that many rich white men paid others to fight in their stead. This left poor whites as the only potential war casualties, because blacks were not citizens. Freed blacks were also competing with immigrants from Ireland and Germany for the few available jobs.

This was the backdrop as baseball became hugely popular following the Civil War. The charge to keep blacks out of the major leagues was led primarily by Cap Anson, who became player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings in 1879. No league ever had a written resolution barring blacks, but all owners considered it a gentlemen's agreement.

Despite the rule barring blacks, approximately 50 were allowed to play during the late 1800s. The blacks eventually decided they didn't need the white leagues, so they formed their own teams and leagues. Many of the black players and teams were better than the whites, but history has marginalized their talents because statistics weren't being kept on a regular basis.

And there were incredible players on those great teams. Newark's George Stovey, considered by many the greatest black pitcher of all time; Buck Leonard, a home-run hitting first baseman for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. And there was the hard-hitting Josh Gibson, Homestead's catcher and widely considered one of baseball's all-time greats. Then there's the Kansas City Monarchs, probably the all-time best Negro National league team. They barnstormed the country often playing more than one game a day, and sometimes into the night under the portable lighting system they hauled with them. They also regularly beat white all-star teams.

One of my favorite players was Cool Papa Bell, who could score from first on a sacrifice bunt. They say he could turn out the hotel light and be in bed before the light was gone. Then there were the Chicago American Giants, which were organized by Andrew “Rube” Foster and Ban Johnson in 1911. Their team traveled the country in a custom-made railroad car which was equipped with sleeping quarters, a cook and a porter.

And then there was Pop Lloyd (who was called the Black Honus Wagner) of the Lincoln Giants, which Wagner didn't mind. Lloyd, who was born in Palatka, Florida in 1884, and began playing baseball ion small towns like Macon, Georgia, is widely regarded to be one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history. Babe Ruth often took it one step further, commenting that it was Lloyd—not Ruth—who was the best baseball player who ever lived.

"It's a privilege to have been compared with him," Honus Wagner said.

Wagner also said the Chicago Lelands' (also known for a period as the Leland Giants) Rube Foster was the smartest pitcher he ever saw.

Foster was a natural organizer who eventually created the Negro National League, which became the preeminent baseball organization in the pre-integration era. The Negro National League lasted from 1920 to 1931, and earned Foster the moniker “the father of Black Baseball.” He was posthumously elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

Major league manager Connie Mack said the Pittsburgh Crawfords' William “Judy” Johnson could have named his price if he'd been white. The hard-hitting third baseman played for Hillsdale and Pittsburgh, before retiring to manage Homestead. Unlike Foster, Johnson lived long enough to see his name elected into the Hall of Fame in 1975, and many baseball historians say he may have been one of the greatest third basemen to have ever played the game.

The black teams regularly rode on buses and trains, often stepping straight from the transportation onto a ball field.

Then along came Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in 1946—two men with a vision and a plan.

For more information visit the website for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (the facility is located in Kansas City, Missouri adjacent to the American Jazz Museum);