The Negro Leagues are being celebrated this year, the centennial of their founding. Last week, I discussed the former Negro League players who made it in the Major Leagues. But some of the best players never made it or were past their prime. This week and next, I want to talk about those great players. I’m saving my three favorites for last.
Years played: 1915-41
"Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since. ... He was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one." -- Former Negro Leagues player, major league coach and scout Buck O'Neil
While active, Charleston was compared to Tris Speaker for the way he played a shallow center field and ran everything down. But he was also compared to Babe Ruth for his power. Undoubtedly, like Willie Mays, he was a five-tool player. Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers alike were effusive in praising Charleston's abilities and suggestions that he was the equal of Cobb or Speaker or Ruth—or better. Bill James’ Abstract of Baseball rated him the fourth-greatest player of all time, behind Ruth, Honus Wagner and Mays.
Years played: 1907-32
Comparable major leaguer: Honus Wagner.
"Baseball historians concur that Lloyd was one of the greatest black players ever, but Babe Ruth, in response to a question by announcer Graham McNamee, eliminated the color distinction when he stated that Lloyd was his choice as the greatest baseball player of all time." -- Historian James A. Riley, author of "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues"
Lloyd was often referred to as the Black Honus Wagner, a slick-fielding shortstop with speed and hitting ability from the left side. Connie Mack said you couldn't go wrong with either player. Lloyd's early years came before the Negro Leagues became organized in 1920 with the creation of the Negro National League. He remained one of the league's biggest stars into his 40s. He earned the nickname Pop later in his career, when he became a father figure and mentor to the younger players.
Years played: 1934-48
Comparable major leaguers: Jeff Bagwell, Lou Gehrig.
"I only wish I could have played in the big leagues when I was young enough to show what I could do. When an offer was given to me to join up, I was too old, and I knew it."-- Buck Leonard
Leonard wasn't a big man -- 5-foot-11, 185 pounds -- so while Negro League fans liked to compare him to Lou Gehrig, physically he was probably more similar to a modern guy like Jeff Bagwell and, like Bagwell, was regarded as an excellent fielder. James compared his swing to a left-handed version of Henry Aaron with a quick, easy stroke that generated a lot of power. Paige was the first Negro Leaguer inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, but Leonard was elected the following year, along with Josh Gibson. Leonard died in 1997, at age 90.
Leonard didn't actually join the Negro Leagues until he was 26; he worked as a mill hand, shoeshine boy and then for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in North Carolina. He may not have been quite Gehrig's equal at the plate, but like Gehrig, he was a respected and dignified player. In his SABR bio, Ralph Berger writes, "In the Negro National League, first basemen were often the clowns of the teams. They would make all kinds of contortions and grimaces, anything that would entertain the fans. Not Buck Leonard. He was strictly a baseball player. There was no need for him to act the clown."
Years played: 1920-40
Comparable major leaguer: Carl Yastrzemski.
"Yes, he talked to his bats. Stearnes tended to think of his bats as living things, extensions of his own arms, and he would carry the best of them around in violin cases. He carried around different-size bats for different situations. After games, back at the hotel, teammates would overhear him thanking his bats for delivering big hits or admonishing them for popping up. 'If I had used you,' one teammate recalls him saying to a bigger bat, 'I would have hit a home run.' He was known to threaten a bat that slumped with an ax, and thought to sleep with a bat that had been particularly good that day. It goes without saying that he never let anyone use one of his bats." -- Writer Joe Posnanski
Bill James ranked Stearnes 25th all-time on his list, squeezed between Frank Robinson and Rickey Henderson. Recent research indicates that Stearnes hit the most home runs in Negro Leagues history, not Mule Suttles or Josh Gibson. There are also accounts that he played a great center field and that only Cool Papa Bell may have been faster. James compared his power to Mel Ott and Willie Stargell. So you have a guy with Stargell's power who played center field? Wow. Stearnes himself once said that Yastrzmeski was the guy who reminded him of himself.
As Posnanski wrote in this essay, when the Hall of Fame started inducting Negro Leaguers in 1971, Stearnes believed he'd get the call. Instead, from 1971 to 1977, the Hall of Fame elected nine players: Paige, Leonard, Gibson, Monte Irvin, “Cool Papa” Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, “Pop” Lloyd and Martin Dihigo. Stearnes was passed up. Then from 1978 to 1995, the Hall of Fame elected only two Negro Leaguers (Rube Foster, an early pitcher and founder of the Negro National League, and Ray Dandridge). Stearnes died in 1979 and was finally elected to the Hall in 2000.
That was a disgrace.
Years played: 1923-44
Comparable major leaguer: Jim Thome, except that Suttles hit right-handed.
"In Havana's Tropical Park, the center-field fence is 60 feet high and more than 500 feet from the plate. Teammate Willie Wells recalled a gargantuan drive that carried over the heads of the soldiers on horseback riding crowd control duty behind the fence, a total of about 600 feet. Afterward, a marker was placed at the spot, commemorating the prodigious homer." -- James A. Riley
Big and powerful, he hit for average as well as power and apparently wasn't afraid of striking out. He's credited with a .374 average in exhibitions against white Major Leaguers. Like Stearnes, he was unfairly passed over for the Hall of Fame in the initial years of elections and wasn't voted in until 2006.
Years played: 1933-44
Comparable major leaguer: There really isn't a similar player. Dandridge could hit, he had speed and he was a tremendous third baseman who could have played shortstop except that he was a teammate of Hall of Famer Willie Wells. He was sort of a hybrid of Ozzie Smith and George Brett, although he didn't quite have Brett's power.
"Ozzie's the onliest guy I've seen who's got my style." -- Dandridge
Late in his career, Dandridge signed with the New York Giants. The Giants sent him to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1949, when he was 35 years old. He hit .362/.397/.487. The next year he hit .311/.355/405 with 11 home runs and was named league MVP. In 1951, he hit .324. The next year, he hit .291. The Giants, who played three converted outfielders at third base during this time (Sid Gordon, Hank Thompson, Bobby Thomson), never called him up.
Years played: 1924-48
Comparable major leaguers: Barry Larkin?
"You should have seen Willie Wells play shortstop: as good as Ozzie Smith and a better hitter." – Monte Irvin
Nickname: The Devil. Actually, he received that moniker in Mexico, where he played in the winter, apparently from opposing players who quickly learned to try to avoid hitting the ball in his direction -- thus, El Diablo. His hitting records suggest a guy who hit for average and power. Apparently, his only weakness was his throwing arm. At one point, he was part of the "million-dollar infield" for the Newark Eagles along with Dandridge, Suttles and second baseman Dick Seay.
Sentinel Rural News is the leading source of news for Central Wisconsin. We utilize local writers as our content creators while including contributors of expertise from across the country.