All that’s left now are the stories. They’re all that remain today as Bullet Joe Rogan goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
He died more than 30 years ago of a heart attack in his Kansas City home on Michigan Avenue. And even then, the people he played ball with in the Negro Leagues, the men he struck out, the pitchers he scarred with his hitting, the people who knew of his greatness, even then, they were dying.
Bullet Joe may have thrown the fastest pitches ever thrown. His curveball, the great Brooklyn Dodgers hitter Babe Herman used to say, moved as if it were alive. He was such a pure hitter that even at age 48, he got three hits in four chances against major-league pitchers, including Hall of Famer Bob Feller. People who caught a glimpse of him, even at the end of his career, swear he was the best fielding pitcher who ever lived.
So today he goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame, one day before what would have been his 109th birthday. Trouble is, nobody will be able to say for sure what Rogan was like as a baseball player. At his induction there will be no film clips, no radio recordings, few reliable statistics, fewer witnesses. He is from another time, with little record. Baseball memorabilia collectors say there are only three known Rogan autographs in the entire world. One is on his passport.
Though there are some who remember him at the end of his career in the Negro Leagues - when he still displayed flashes of his younger self - he played his most brilliant baseball in a lost time, more than 75 years ago, long before a black man could play in the major leagues. His threw his fastest pitches and hit his hardest line drives in the Army and, later, in small towns, in the scorch of Arizona summers, in the Kansas wind, in the Birmingham rain, in the soft Hawaiian air, in some places where children cursed him and hotels locked their doors tight - and in other places, more of those, where he was a legend, where everybody knew Bullet Joe Rogan.
“Were you great?” a reporter asked him barely two months before he died. Rogan didn’t say anything. He opened up a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and let the man figure it out for himself.
‘That bat’s no good’
Wilber Joe Rogan was born in Oklahoma City, grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and was called “Bullet Joe” as far back as anyone can remember. The name was for his fastball, which ripped into catchers’ gloves, making the sound of bullets being shot from guns.
“I saw him pitch, only it was later in his life,” said Buck O’Neil, the former Negro Leagues star, the man most responsible for getting Rogan into the Hall of Fame. “And even then that ball would just zip in there. Pow. It was something to watch ol’ Rogan throw that baseball.”
Always, people will wonder how hard Rogan could throw a baseball in his prime. This was before radar guns, of course, but it was also before baseball was integrated, so comparisons were pure guesswork. Chet Brewer, a longtime baseball scout and former Rogan teammate, said plainly some years ago that of all the pitchers he’d seen - a glorious list of practically every great black and white pitcher since the turn of the century, from Walter Johnson to Satchel Paige to Sandy Koufax - Bullet Joe was the best and the fastest.
“I’d say Rogan and Satchel threw the fastest balls I ever saw,” former Negro Leagues star Frank Duncan told reporters. He caught both of those men as part of the Kansas City Monarchs. Paige is considered by many to have thrown the fastest pitches ever in the Negro Leagues and perhaps ever, period.
“Bullet had a little more steam on the ball,” Duncan decided.
The amazing part, though, is that none of those people saw Rogan in his real prime. Rogan was not discovered until he was 30. It was then that Kansas City’s Casey Stengel, who would make his own name as a Hall of Fame manager for the New York Yankees, happened to see Rogan pitch as part of the black cavalry baseball team in a small town in Arizona. He recommended Rogan to Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson.
Nobody knows how good Rogan was in those Army years. There are stories that he won 52 games one year and struck out 25 men in a single game. There is little but stories.
So by the time Rogan joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1920, he wasn’t a kid anymore. He could still throw those breathtaking fastballs, though, along with three different kinds of curves, one which dived straight to the ground, a palmball that opposing batters said would just walk up there, any number of spitballs. And he did everything with no windup at all. He just threw the ball, suddenly, explosively, sometimes before a batter was even ready.
He was the difference as the Monarchs overwhelmed the crosstown Kansas City Blues, a white minor-league team in 1922. He almost single-handedly won the first Negro League World Series with his pitching and hitting in 1924. He threw one no-hitter and nearly a second one in 1925. He played for the Monarchs on and off for 19 years and won 113 of the 158 recorded Negro Leagues games that he pitched, proving all but unbeatable in important games.
He was a hero in Kansas City - featured on movie screens around town and written up often in the newspapers, particularly the Kansas City Call - and perhaps an even bigger star in the many small towns throughout the Midwest.
“Can I look at your bat?” Rogan used to say to an opponent before the game, and he would inspect the bat, study it, all the while talking and joking with the man. Then, suddenly, he would just stop.
“No, sir, that bat’s no good,” he would say. “No, sir. Not today. ‘Cause today, Bullet Joe’s pitching.”
He could hit, too
What separated Rogan from other great pitchers was his remarkable hitting. Only Babe Ruth and former the great Cuban star Martin Dihigo have left such legacies as both hitters and pitchers. Rogan batted .343 in his career, 10th all-time among Negro Leagues players, but the numbers are unreliable. So many games went unrecorded.
“He taught me about hitting,” said O’Neil, who led the Negro Leagues in hitting one year himself. “He could hit the ball wherever he wanted, even after he wasn’t himself anymore. He would say, ‘Now, over the third baseman’s head,’ and the ball would go there. He would say, ‘This is how you pull it to right field,’ and he would do that. He was so outstanding.”
Rogan was small. The Negro Leagues record books list him at 5-foot-9, but many who played said he was no bigger than 5-foot-5. Still, he swung a heavy bat - “a tree trunk,” teammates said - and he could place the ball wherever he liked. He especially appreciated low pitches, around the ankles, and he once won a game in the late innings by cracking a base hit right up the middle on one of those low pitches.
“That’s what happens when you come face to face with the greatest figure in baseball,” a newspaperman wrote back then. “Even pitches thrown in the dirt come back at you with anger.”
He hit so well that on days when he didn’t pitch, he’d still be in the cleanup spot in the lineup, where the best hitters hit. He hit .389 in his 16 games against white major-league players. In 1925 he hit .500 in a playoff series to beat the St. Louis Stars, considered one of the great Negro Leagues teams ever.
“He beat us out of the championship,” Hall of Famer Willie Wells said, as quoted by Negro League historian John B. Holway. “You know, on the way back to St. Louis, I really cried. Rogan could pitch, he could hit, he could run.”
Over the years he played all nine positions; he was a fine defensive center fielder, and when he was 40 he led the Negro Leagues in stolen bases. As his son, Wilbur, said after the Hall of Fame announcement: “He hit home runs; he played outfield and was truly the all-around player. People make a big deal about players doing so many things now, but he was doing it before it was in fashion.”
Or, as Paige once said: “He was the onliest pitcher I ever knew, I ever heard of in my life, who was pitching and hitting in the clean-up place at the same time.”
‘Number one pitcher’
Rogan stopped pitching regularly in 1931, when he was 42. In his last game as a pitcher against white all-stars, he struck out Hall of Famer Al Simmons three times and won the game 10-3. He managed the Monarchs for seven more years, still batted in games from time to time and led the Monarchs on a tour of the Orient.
In 1937, when he was 47, he got 11 hits in 22 at-bats. He opened up a pool hall in Kansas City. He became an umpire for a while. He then worked full time at the Kansas City Post Office. He died when he was 78.
Rogan wasn’t known well. Some say he was a tough, cocky, quiet man. Others call him a great gentleman who always had time to teach some baseball. There were many people who thought he deserved recognition. Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean said many years ago that Rogan belonged in the Hall of Fame. Stengel argued that he was as great a pitcher as ever lived. Paige, the first player inducted into the Hall of Fame for Negro Leagues achievements, admitted that he was too young to have seen Rogan in his prime, but: “He was a number one pitcher, wasn’t any maybe so.”
And then there was Herman, who faced Rogan and could never get the image of that blazing fastball and those slicing curves from his mind.
“The guys they put in the Hall of Fame are a joke,” Herman said. “Rogan’s the guy ought to go in.”
He did not go into the Hall of Fame for 60 years after his playing days. By the end, who was there to testify for him? That was the problem for all the Negro Leagues players. Buck O’Neil, who is on the Hall of Fame veterans’ committee and has been fighting for decades to get more Negro Leagues players recognized, believes there should be a dozen more inducted, but there is so little evidence to show on their behalf, so few living members to bear witness.
At least, O’Neil says, they finally brought in Rogan - who, if you believe the stories, might have been the greatest baseball player who ever lived. “I don’t know of a player who could do so many things,” O’Neil said. “That Bullet Rogan could do everything. He should be remembered. He should be remembered forever.”