Baseball trailblazers: Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame

The Kansas City Star

There was a tendency among baseball historians to nickname Negro Leagues players by tacking a simple adjective onto the name of major-league greats. Josh Gibson was the Black Babe Ruth, and Buck Leonard was the Black Lou Gehrig, and so on.

It’s a device used to contextualize the Negro Leaguers’ accomplishments, certainly, though with the study done by the National Baseball Hall of Fame providing accurate statistics of black baseball throughout the 1920s and beyond, perhaps it’s no longer necessary.

Because numbers now clarify what anecdotes and legend had told us: The 18 Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame more than deserved their induction. And with 39 more candidacies in play thanks to a ballot a special committee will consider this weekend and announce Monday, a haul of about a dozen players would even the percent of major-leaguers and Negro Leaguers in the Hall.

Now, the names of these other men will be revealed,” said Monte Irvin, the only living member of the original 18. “There’s still a few men out there who need to be recognized.”

Here’s a look at the 18 who already have been:

Leroy “Satchel” Paige

Pitcher

Nickname: World’s Greatest Pitcher

Primary team: Kansas City Monarchs

Born: July 7, 1906

Died: June 8, 1982

Career highlight: On July 9, 1948, Paige debuted with the Cleveland Indians at 41 years old. After touring for years, selling out stadiums and cashing huge paydays, Paige finally made the big leagues and pitched six effective seasons for the Indians and St. Louis Browns. Still, no matter how successful he was in the big leagues, Paige would always be remembered as the most charismatic Negro League player.

Inducted: 1971

Josh Gibson

Catcher

Nickname: The Black Babe Ruth

Primary team: Homestead Grays

Born: Dec. 21, 1911

Died: Jan. 20, 1947

Career highlight: Maybe Gibson really did hit a 580-foot home run in Yankee Stadium, as legend goes. Even if it’s apocryphal, it’s still indicative of Gibson’s massive power. His Hall of Fame plaque credits him with “almost 800” home runs. And he might have topped 1,000 had he not died at 36 of a stroke.

Inducted: 1972

Walter “Buck” Leonard

First base

Nickname: The Black Lou Gehrig

Primary team: Homestead Grays

Born: Sept. 8, 1907

Died: Nov. 27, 1997

Career highlight: Spent 17 years with one team. After debuting in 1933 with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, Leonard went to the Homestead Grays and stayed there until he retired in 1950. His off-the-field highlight: At 52, Leonard graduated from high school in Rocky Mount, N.C., the town that would not let him get an education years earlier because he was black.

Inducted: 1972

Monte Irvin

Left field

Primary team: Newark Eagles

Born: Feb. 25, 1919

Career highlight: Finishing third in the National League MVP vote in 1951. Jackie Robinson’s MVP award in 1949 overshadows Irvin’s great season for the New York Giants, when he hit .312 with 24 home runs and 121 RBIs. And the best part: Irvin’s still alive to talk about that season, as well as the 10 he spent with the Eagles.

Inducted: 1973

James “Cool Papa” Bell

Center field

Primary team: St. Louis Stars

Born: May 17, 1903

Died: March 7, 1991

Career highlight: How to choose? Whether true or not, it’s fun to hear all of the stories about Bell scoring from second base on a sacrifice fly, zooming from first to third on a bunt, stealing two bases on one pitch and, of course, flicking a switch and being in bed before the lights were off. The moral of the story: Bell could fly, and the stories were simply a vehicle to remind everyone.

Inducted: 1974

William “Judy” Johnson

Third base

Primary team: Hilldale Daisies

Born: Oct. 26, 1899

Died: June 15, 1989

Career highlight: Playing in the first two Negro League World Series. Johnson, whose glove drew comparisons to Pie Traynor, had seven extra-base hits in the 1924 Series loss to the Kansas City Monarchs. The next season, Johnson’s Daisies won the Series. A close second: Johnson, as a coach for the Homestead Grays, summoned Josh Gibson from the stands when his team’s two catchers got hurt.

Inducted: 1975

Oscar Charleston

Center field

Nickname: The Hoosier Comet

Primary team: Pittsburgh Crawfords

Born: Oct. 14, 1896

Died: Oct. 5, 1954

Career highlight: Tough to beat 1921. That season, Charleston, thought by many to be the best all-round player in Negro Leagues history, hit .446 with 14 home runs and 28 stolen bases, according to some records. And with it came the flamboyance Charleston became famous for: the trash-talking that, in one instance later in his career, led to a brawl with some Cuban soldiers.

Inducted: 1976

Martin Dihigo

Pitcher/utility

Nickname: El Maestro (The Master)

Primary team: Cuban Stars

Born: May 25, 1905

Died: May 20, 1971

Career highlight: Versatility defined Dihigo’s career, and no season better showed it than 1938. In the Mexican League, Dihigo went 18-2 with a 0.90 earned-run average as a pitcher and won the batting title with a .387 average. For his career there, he made Mexico’s baseball hall of fame, which, with his induction into Cuba’s, the Dominican Republic’s and the United States’, makes him the sport’s most honored player.

Inducted: 1977

John Henry “Pop” Lloyd

Shortstop

Nickname: El Cuchara (The Shovel)

Primary team: New York Lincoln Giants

Born: April 25, 1884

Died: March 19, 1965

Career highlight: Babe Ruth called Lloyd the greatest player he ever saw play, and perhaps that was because of 1928. At age 44, Lloyd hit .564 with 11 home runs for the Lincoln Giants over a 37-game season. He’d been used to getting a hit at least once in every two at-bats. Eighteen years earlier, in a 12-game series against the Detroit Tigers in Cuba, Lloyd batted .500.

Inducted: 1977

Andrew “Rube” Foster

Owner-manager

Primary team: Chicago American Giants

Born: Sept. 17, 1879

Died: Dec. 9, 1930

Career highlight: Could say 1902, when Foster won 51 games as a pitcher. But that would be short-sighted, because his best accomplishments were as a pioneer. In 1920, Foster, the owner of the American Giants, expanded his operation and started the first organized league, the Negro National League. Like most things Foster did, it became the primer for his contemporaries.

Inducted: 1981

Ray Dandridge

Third base

Nickname: Hooks

Primary team: Newark Eagles

Born: Aug. 31, 1913

Died: Feb. 12, 1994

Career highlight: Dandridge deserved to play in the major leagues in 1950. After signing with the New York Giants, he was assigned to Class AAA Minneapolis, where he won the American Association MVP. Still, the Giants deemed him too old even for a late-season shot. And Dandridge didn’t complain, didn’t bother asking why. For Negro Leagues players, some questions, sadly, didn’t have answers.

Inducted: 1987

Leon Day

Pitcher

Primary team: Newark Eagles

Born: Oct. 30, 1916

Died: March 13, 1995

Career highlight: Perfection. In 1937, Day went 13-0 for the Eagles, whose Million-Dollar Infield included Hall of Famers Ray Dandridge at third base and Willie Wells at shortstop. With a sidearm motion, Day made a career of fooling hitters. And though he wasn’t perfect in his return from World War II in February 1946, Day did throw a no-hitter in the season opener against Philadelphia.

Inducted: 1995

Bill Foster

Pitcher

Primary team: Chicago American Giants

Born: June 12, 1904

Died: Sept. 16, 1978

Career highlight: Against the best, Bill Foster was at his. The starter for the West in the first East-West All-Star Game in 1933, Foster threw a complete-game victory. The next season, he lost a 1-0 game to Satchel Paige. Whether with the American Giants, Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs - to whom he requested a transfer in 1931- Foster was the left-hander no one wanted to face.

Inducted: 1996

Willie Wells

Shortstop

Nickname: El Diablo (The Devil)

Primary team: St. Louis Stars

Born: Aug. 10, 1906

Died: Jan. 22, 1989

Career highlight: Earning one of baseball’s all-time greatest names. During his four seasons playing in Mexico in the 1940s, Wells quickly became known as El Diablo. Not because he was a bad guy, or he sunburned easily, or he carried a pitchfork. No, Wells was the Devil because he took away so many would-be hits from his opponents.

Inducted: 1997

Wilber “Bullet Joe” Rogan

Pitcher

Primary team: Kansas City Monarchs

Born: July 28, 1889

Died: March 4, 1967

Career highlight: There might not have been a better pitch in the Negro Leagues than Rogan’s legendary fastball, which earned him the nickname “Bullet.” The best part: It came from among the most nondescript players in the Negro Leagues in Rogan, who stood just 5 feet, 7 inches and weighed 160 pounds. Said fellow Hall of Famer Judy Johnson: “Satchel Paige was fast, but Rogan was smart.”

Inducted: 1998

Smokey” Joe Williams

Pitcher

Nickname: Cyclone

Primary team: New York Lincoln Giants

Born: April 6, 1886

Died: Feb. 25, 1951

Career highlight: In one 1930 game, Williams struck out 27. Details are scarce, but it took 12 innings to do. And the lights during the night game were perhaps a bit low, creating a disillusioning haze that the Kansas City Monarchs couldn’t overcome. Strikeouts were Williams’ forte - and the way he earned his nickname.

Inducted: 1999

Norman “Turkey” Stearnes

Center field

Primary team: Detroit Stars

Born: May 8, 1901

Died: Sept. 4, 1979

Career highlight: Stearnes was only 5 feet, 11 inches and 175 pounds. He had a swing so twisted it made a corkscrew look straight. Impediments notwithstanding, Stearnes was one of the best power hitters in the Negro Leagues. He won six home run titles and finished his career with a .350 batting average and 172 home runs in 750 Negro Leagues games.

Inducted: 2000

Hilton Smith

Pitcher

Primary team: Kansas City Monarchs

Born: Feb. 27, 1907

Died: Nov. 18, 1983

Career highlight: In all 12 of his seasons with the Monarchs, Smith won at least 20 games. His most fruitful came in 1941, when Smith went 25-1. Only because Smith allowed Satchel Paige to hog the spotlight did he not get his just recognition. That came five years ago, when he was the last Negro Leaguer elected into the Hall of Fame - until Monday.

Inducted: 2001

The first wave of greats

Other Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame, based on their accomplishments in Major League Baseball and the percentage of votes received from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America:

Jackie Robinson, 1962 (77.5 percent)

Roy Campanella, 1969 (79.41 percent)

Ernie Banks, 1977 (83.81 percent)

Willie Mays, 1979 (94.68 percent)

Hank Aaron, 1982 (97.83 percent)

Larry Doby, 1998 (Veterans Committee)

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