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        The 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 best teams.

 

1. 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.

 

2. 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 won.

     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, though in 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.

 

3. 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 diminished.

 

     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.  In 1928, they came close to a third title, winning the second half of the split season.

     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 Brown.

     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.

 

4. 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: slick 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 season.

     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.

 

5. 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 1948
Chicago Leland Giants,
1910
Cleveland Buckeyes,
1945
Detroit Stars,
1930
Hilldale Daisies,
1925
Harrisburg Giants,
1925
Indianapolis ABC's,
1916
Memphis Red Sox,
1938
Newark Eagles,
1937 1946
New York Lincoln Giants,
1913 1930
New York Cubans,
1947
Philadelphia Stars,
1934

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