Born to Play Ball - Negro Leagues
Josh Gibson (1930-1946)
The Black Babe Ruth
"There is a catcher that any big league club would love. His name is Gibson ... he can do everything."
- Walter Johnson
Josh Gibson was a star of the Negro Leagues while playing with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, two of the premiere teams of the day. Many of his contemporaries, including those who saw Babe Ruth play, stated that Gibson was a better hitter and the best catcher alive.
Gibson was born in Georgia in 1911, and his father moved the family north to Pittsburgh in the 1920s to provide a better life than they were experiencing in the Deep South. By the time Josh was a teenager, he was playing semi-professional baseball. His talents were noticed by the preeminent Negro League team, the Homestead Grays, and Gibson began his career in 1930 with the Grays.
Gibson's raw talents were a marvel. Playing catcher, Josh fielded the position so effortlessly that the great Walter Johnson once quipped, "He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair."
The legend of the "Black Babe Ruth" began with the immense power that Gibson displayed. He regularly led the Negro Leagues in home runs, and he was known to hit balls farther than the Babe - some were estimated to have traveled 580 feet and one an incredible 700 feet. While many of the statistics from the Negro League players remain lost to history, contemporaries and historians believe he clubbed between 750 and 900 homers during League play and in the various barnstorming games across the country.
Were there not a color barrier unofficially imposed on major league baseball at the time, Josh Gibson would have been a star. Sadly, Gibson died of a stroke in 1947 just months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that denied an entire race from the national pastime.
Leroy Paige (1926-1950)
"Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
- Satchel Paige
Leroy Robert Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama (also the birthplace of Hank Aaron) in 1906, one of eleven children. At age 12, Paige was sent to a reform school where he began to learn how to pitch; five years later, he began playing semi-pro ball.
Paige gained fame when he joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Leagues in the 1930s, forming a battery with the legendary Josh Gibson. He exhibited a lively arm and an assortment of pitches that batters had never seen before.
Paige's popularity grew from his innumerable appearances in barnstorming games across the country. With African-Americans denied the opportunity to play in the majors, the barnstorm or exhibition games could pit the best major league players against the best of the Negro Leagues. He often went head to head against the likes of Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller. Joe DiMaggio, after facing Paige, said he was "the best I've ever faced, and the fastest."
One year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, the Cleveland Indians signed the 42-year-old Paige, making him the oldest rookie in history. Past his prime, Satchel still notched a 6-1 record in front of packed stadiums, helping his team to a World Series. His last appearance in the majors was with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 when he was 59.
In 1966 the great Ted Williams urged the Baseball Hall of Fame to induct several of the great Negro League players. In 1971, Williams got his wish when Satchel Paige became the first to be inducted. To Paige, it was the proudest day of his life.
James Bell (1922-1950)
"If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking."
- Satchel Paige
James Bell was born in a farming community on the outskirts of Starkville, Mississippi, in 1901. At age twenty, he moved to St. Louis, joining his brothers and many other African-Americans looking for a better life than that afforded blacks in the Deep South. It wasn't long before Bell began playing semi-pro ball. In 1922, the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League saw promise in the wiry Bell. He was originally a pitcher but his blazing speed forced a position shift to center field, and Bell's full potential became realized.
Cool Papa played ten years with the Stars before the Negro National League was disbanded. Bell moved on to the greatest Negro League team in history, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, joining the likes of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.
Bell was an excellent hitter, averaging .341 for his career, and a great outfielder, running down fly balls that no one else could get. It was Cool Papa's speed that made him one of the premiere players in Negro League history. And it was that same speed that gave rise to stories that are difficult to fathom. One such tale was that a ground ball he hit up the middle struck him when he slid into second base. Another had him scoring from first base on a sacrifice bunt. Satchel Paige quipped that Bell was so fast he could turn off the lights and get in bed before the room went dark.
Bell would later tutor such future great players like Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, and Elston Howard. In 1974, James "Cool Papa" Bell was inducted into Cooperstown. Were he allowed to play in the majors, he would have entered the Hall of Fame much sooner.
Walter Leonard (1933-1955)
"Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who ever lived. If he had gotten the chance to play in the major leagues, they might call Lou Gehrig 'The White Buck Leonard.'"
- Monte Irvin
Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1907, Walter Fenner Leonard was the oldest of six children born to a railroad fireman. When his father died in the Great Influenza Epidemic in 1919, the twelve year old went to work in a hosiery mill and as a shoeshine boy at the railroad station to help the family. Several years later he played semi-professional ball in his off-time, but when he was laid off from work during the Great Depression, a full-time career in baseball was born.
Buck Leonard's talents soon became known, playing for the Baltimore Stars and Brooklyn Royal Giants before moving on to the Homestead Grays, where Leonard batted fourth, right behind Josh Gibson. Gibson and Leonard led the Grays to nine straight Negro League championships from 1937 to 1945. In all, Leonard played 17 seasons for the Grays, the longest tenure with one team in the history of the Negro Leagues.
Playing first base, Leonard was the model of consistency, never making a mental error. His greatest talent was digging out throws to first and he possessed a strong, accurate arm. The stocky Leonard was powerfully built, reflected in his numerous home runs. He feasted on fast balls so much that pitchers rarely threw him such an offering. Dave Barnhill once said, "You could put a fast ball in a shotgun and you couldn't shoot it by him."
With the arrival of Jackie Robinson in the Major Leagues and the color barrier gone, the Homestead Grays and the Negro League disbanded. Buck Leonard went to Mexico to play ball. In 1952, he was offered a major league contract, but he declined. At age 45, Leonard "didn't want to embarrass anyone or hurt the chances of those [other African-American players] who might follow."
In 1972, Buck Leonard was enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Oscar Charleston (1915-1945)
The Hoosier Comet
"Charleston could hit that ball a mile. He didn't have a weakness. When he came up, we just threw it and hoped like hell he wouldn't get a hold of one and send it out of the park."
- Dizzy Dean
Oscar Charleston was born in Indianapolis in 1896 and began his baseball career in, of all places, the Philippines at the youthful age of 15. Charleston was back in Indiana at the formation of the Negro National League in 1915 as the cornerstone for the new Indianapolis ABCs.
In a career where he played for or managed eleven Negro League teams, including the Homestead Grays, Charleston was a complete all-around player. Primarily a center fielder, there was little the man could not do, exhibiting great defensive skills, aggressive base running, and the ability to hit for power and average. He was the top star in the Negro Leagues until the likes of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige came along.
Charleston was also a fierce competitor on the field, a style akin to that of Ty Cobb. And he had the Cobb temper as well. As John Holway said, "there were three things Oscar Charleston excelled at on the field: hitting, fielding and fighting. He loved all three, and it's a toss up which he was best at." He would run over or through opponents and had more than his fair share of fights with other players, umpires and managers. Legend has it that Charleston once ripped the hood off of a Klansman and dared him to speak. Yet Charleston also protected younger players, much like a big brother, and kids adored him.
Oscar Charleston ended his career with a .357 batting average and was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, 22 years after he passed away.