Greatest Negro League Teams
It's easy to have an opinion about the Negro Leagues' greatest teams,
but it's tough to back it up with facts. Most of the teams kept
sporadic and unverifiable records, and my sense is that these leagues
are prone to an exaggerated set of anecdotes. The competition was
also uneven, so it's difficult to compare teams across leagues and eras.
But by looking at who played for the various teams, we can reconstruct a
sort of hierarchy that is at least a fun survey of some great teams.
You can also look at the results of the Negro Leagues World Series,
which were played seven times (1924-1927, 1944-1946), though that method
suffers from a small sample size. But a combination of player
analysis and team analysis gives us a pretty good idea of some of the
Pittsburgh Crawfords - 1932-1936
Formed by numbers king and leading
Black businessman Gus Greenlee, the Pittsburgh Crawfords
turned into the "Yankees of Black
Baseball." (They were named
after Greenlee's Crawford Grill.) This is the team most often identified by baseball
authorities as the greatest black baseball team of all-time - especially
the 1935 edition which featured five
Hall-of-Famers in the lineup: Josh Gibson, manager-firstbaseman Oscar
Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Satchel Paige. Jud Wilson, Rap Dixon and Ted
"Double Duty" Radcliffe joined them as well, and with Bell in
the outfield were Sam Bankhead and Jimmie Crutchfield - giving the
Crawfords one of the fastest outfields ever to play baseball.
Although Paige jumped to a white semi-pro team in Bismarck, North Dakota
during the season, lefty Leroy Matlock assumed the role as ace of the
staff and fashioned an outstanding record. The Crawfords easily
won the first half title with a .785 winning percentage and defeated the
New York Cubans in a seven-game play-off for the Championship.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords were a
powerhouse for these five years behind the pitching of Satchel Paige and
the bat of Josh Gibson.
Controversy dogged them in 1936, following a false accusation of
throwing a game against the Buschwicks. Despite the denial and
subsequent retraction, the damage was done. The next year, Satchel
Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and several other Crawford players
jumped ship to play for Santo Domingo's dictator, Trujillo. This
permanently crippled the franchise, and after two more difficult
seasons, Greenlee sold the team. The franchise moved to Toledo in
1939, and to Indianapolis in 1940. Another Pittsburgh Crawfords
team was formed in the mid-1940s, but it was unrelated to the original.
Homestead Grays - 1931-1945
Clearly the best black team of the war era, it may be that the talent
pool in the Negro Leagues was as depleted as the talent pool in MLB.
Still, after the Negro National
League was restructured as an eastern league in 1937, the Homestead Grays of
Pennsylvania stitched together nine consecutive pennants. The
three straight Negro National League pennants from 1943-1945 were the
last hurrah for three aging greats - Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool
Papa Bell. The pitching staff included Ray Brown, Roy Partlow and
Johnny Wright, who was the second black player signed by the Brooklyn
Dodgers. Other stars for the Grays were Howard Easterling, Sam
Bankhead, Jud Wilson and Jerry Benjamin.
The Homestead Grays were originally formed by workers at U.S. Steel in
Homestead, PA as a weekend recreational team in 1910. Cum Posey,
who would later become team owner, joined as a player in 1912.
Aside from the Kansas City Monarchs, they are the best known team in
Negro Leagues Baseball, and are tied with the Monarchs for most pennants
The 1938 squad was probably the best of the dynasty - slugging firstbaseman Leonard
and catcher Gibson formed a power tandem
called the black Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and were dubbed the "Thunder Twins"
and the "Dynamite Twins" by the press. In '38, the Grays won both halves of the split season,
registering a .813 percentage for the first half. Vic Harris was the
player-manager, and along with big Jim Williams combined with Gibson and Leonard
to form a Murderer's Row of sorts.
Lead-off batter Jerry Benjamin and middle
infielders Lick Carlisle and Jelly Jackson were very fast, and the team's
cocky approach earned them the nickname "The Gashouse Gang"
because their approach to the game was likened to that of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The top pitchers in '38 were Raymond Brown and lefthander Edsall Walker.
The Grays 1931 team is probably a very close second - called
by many the greatest black team of all time, this talented squad forged a 136-17 mark for the
season. That was Josh's first full season,, and the pitching staff-
headed by veteran Smokey Joe Williams, Lefty Williams, Willie Foster and Ted
"Double Duty" Radcliffe - was stellar. Superstar slugger Oscar Charleston batted
lead-off. Other strong players on the team included Jud "Boojum" Wilson, George
Scales, Vic Harris and Ted Page. Gibson is
credited with 75 homeruns that season, playing against all levels of competition,
games against top black teams his numbers are less impressive.
When the Depression hit in the thirties, the Grays suffered severe
recruiting losses to cross-town rivals the Pittsburgh Crawfords, owned
by Gus Greenlee.
Chicago American Giants - 1920-1933
In 1911 Rube Foster changed his team's name to the American Giants, and
they dominated black baseball in the midwest for over a decade.
When Foster formed the first black league, the Negro National League, in
1920, his team extended their dominance from the deadball era's
independent years on into the era of the "lively" ball and
league play by copping the first three league pennants. A former
pitcher himself, Foster emphasized pitching, speed and defense;
outfielders Jelly Gardner, Jimmy Lyons and Christobal Torriente were
fleet of foot, as were infielders Bingo DeMoss, David Malarcher and
Bobby Williams. All could run, hit, steal and bunt. Cuban
superstar Torriente was the only legitimate slugger on the team, while
lefty Dave Brown headed an excellent mound corps.
The Chicago American Giants has the
distinction of being the longest-running continuous franchise in the
history of the Negro Leagues. The club was founded in 1910 by Foster
when he and Frank Leland - manager and owner respectively of the Leland
Giants - separated and formed two different ballclubs. Foster
retained the name of Leland Giants for the first season, but by the next
year the club had become known as the American Giants. In their
first decade of existence, the club won every declared western
championship, with their only defeat being at the hands of the 1916
Indianapolis ABCs. The Giants continue to dominate even after
Foster organized the NNL in 1920, winning the first three pennants.
Following Foster's death and the demise of
the NNL, the franchise again regained prominence as Cole's American
Giants in 1932-34, under new owners Robert Cole and Horace G. Hall.
After dropping out of the NNL in 1936, the American giants found
prosperity again under new owner Dr. J. B. Martin, becoming a charter
member of the NAL in 1937. Although the '40s were difficult for the
ballclub, they remained in the league, even after the league had
Foster's aggressive and opportunistic ballclub, characterized by clutch
performances, won consecutive Championships in 1926-27, under the
direction of David Malarcher, after Foster became incapacitated from a
mental breakdown. Each year, the team won one half of the Negro
National League's split season, defeated the winner of the other half in
a playoff, and defeated the Eastern Colored League Champions in the
World Series. In 1927, they won the first half with a .696
percentage and swept the Birmingham Black Barons in the play-off for the
league title. Then, in a rematch of the previous year's World
Series teams, they defeated the Bacharach Giants 5-3. Playing
manager Malarcher's mound ace was Rube Foster's half-brother, Willie
Foster, considered the best left-hander in the history of black
baseball. The Chicago offense
was furnished by Walter "Steel Arm" Davis and Pythias Russ.
1928, they came close to a third title, winning the second half of the
So good were the Giants that in the inaugural East-West All-Star game
played in 1933, seven players in the starting lineup for the West squad
came from their ranks. They had added noted homerun sluggers and
future Hall of Famers Turkey Stearnes and Mule Suttles, who batted
first and sixth, respectively, in this talent-laden ballclub.
Other All-Stars were superstar shortstop Willie Wells, thirdbaseman Alex
Radcliffe, leftfielder "Steel Arm" Davis and catcher Larry
With no rules limiting him, Willie Foster pitched the entire game to
pick up the victory. Under new owner Robert A. Cole, the team won
the Negro Southern League pennant in 1932 and, when the second Negro
National League was organized in 1933, they won the new league's first
pennant as well. The next season, Cole's American Giants also annexed
the first half title in the league but lost a controversial seven game
play-off for the Championship in an effort to three-peat.
Kansas City Monarchs - 1924-1946
The Kansas City Monarchs captured three Negro League pennants from 1923-25, registering a .714 winning percentage in
1924, and won the inaugural Negro World Series. They were headed
by Bullet Joe Rogan, and over the years they were the best-run, most
consistent team in black baseball.
Rogan was the staff's ace, played center field and bat leadoff - he was
their only future HOFer, but the complementary talent was pretty good:
fielding second-sacker Newt Allen and slugging shortstop Dobie Moore formed a good
doubleplay combination for manager Jose Mendez' team. Mendez, a star hurler from the
deadball era, could also take the mound in key situations for the Monarchs, as he did in
the final game of the inaugural Negro World Series in 1924. He shut out the Eastern
Colored League pennant-winning Hilldale team, which was itself a terrific
squad led by third baseman Judy Johnson, to give the Monarchs a hard-fought
Championship, 5-4. The two teams met again in 1925, with the Monarchs
romping to a 5-1 Series win.
The Monarchs put together another dynasty with great, deep pitching
staff, which began with the formation of the Negro American League in
1937. The Monarchs won five of the first six pennants, culminating
in 1942 with a victory over the Negro National League's Homestead Grays
in the first Negro World Series between the two leagues. Monarch
pitchers were headed by the legendary Satchel Paige, and included Hilton
Smith, Jack Matchett, Lefty LaMarque, Booker McDaniels and Connie
Johnson. That gave manager Frank Duncan an impressive mound corps.
In 1942, Willard Brown led an offensive attack that included
rightfielder Ted Strong, catcher Joe Greene, and first baseman Buck
O'Neil. Bonnie Serrell and Jesse Williams provided a good
middle-infield combination, and lead-off batter Willie Sims furnished
additional speed as the Monarchs captured both halves of the split
In 1946, the Monarchs were back for one last success story. Again,
the pitching was excellent - their hurlers were Satchel Paige, Hilton
Smith, Ford Smith and Connie Johnson. Brown led the attack again,
with support from Hank Thompson (who was signed by the St. Louis Browns
the following season, as was Brown), Ted Strong and league batting
champion Buck O'Neil. They
captured the first post-war Negro American League pennant, but lost to
the Newark Eagles in a hard-fought seven game series after Paige and
Strong jumped the team with two games remaining in the Series.
St. Louis Stars - 1928-1930
With a splendid 66-26 run in 1928 and a 65-22 record in 1930, the St.
Louis Stars rivalled the Kansas city Monarchs as the great black team in
the late 1920s, before the first Negro National League came apart in
1931. Led by future Hall of Famers like Cool Papa Bell, the
super-fleet outfielder, shortstop Willie Wells and Mule Suttles - who
probably trails only Josh Gibson as the premier slugger of the Negro
Leagues - they pounded out
impressive offensive totals, while playing in the confines of Dick
Kent's ballyard with the enticing car barn in leftfield, much like the
Green Monster in Fenway Park.
Their pitching was weak, consisting mostly of Ted
"Double Duty" Radcliffe - indeed, he performed yeoman service,
beginning the season primarily as a catcher but becoming the team's top
hurler during their stretch drive in 1930 after injuries thinned their
ranks. Finishing the 1930 season with a composite .741 percentage,
they won the first-half title and defeated the Detroit Stars in the
league play-off for the Championship.
Other moundsmen were Eggie Hensley, Leroy Matlock and Ted Trent. The
next season the Stars repeated as Champions, the last in the league's
history. They completed the three-year run with a 190-81 record, a
.701 winning percentage.
For other teams from the
Negro Leagues, click on the following links:
Atlanta Black Crackers, 1938
Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, 1926
Baltimore Black Sox , 1929
Baltimore Elite Giants, 1942
Birmingham Black Barons, 1943
Chicago Leland Giants,
Cleveland Buckeyes, 1945
Detroit Stars, 1930
Hilldale Daisies, 1925
Harrisburg Giants, 1925
Memphis Red Sox,
New York Lincoln Giants,
New York Cubans, 1947
Philadelphia Stars, 1934