By Glen Sparks
Oscar Charleston didn’t back down.
He hit a pitcher’s best stuff and stole bases off cannon-armed catchers. He played a shallow centerfield, almost like a fifth infielder, and dared batters to knock one safely over his head. They rarely did.
Charleston, one of the greatest players in baseball history, toiled in the Negro leagues. He reportedly hit a robust .446 in 1921 and led everyone in batting average, doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases. He retired as a lifetime .348 batter and ranks in the top five among hitters in just about every important category in the Negro league record book.
The Hoosier Comet, born in Indianapolis on Oct. 14, 1896, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on this date in 1976. Noted sabermetrician Bill James has rated Charleston the fourth best player in the game’s history, behind just Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays.
Charleston’s teams often matched up against major-league squads during exhibitions. Opponents came away duly impressed with the Comet. Dizzy Dean, the eccentric and Hall of Fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, said, “Charleston could hit the ball a mile. He didn’t have a weakness. When he came up, we just threw it and hoped he wouldn’t get a hold of one and send it out of the park.”
John McGraw, esteemed manager of the New York Giants, said this to reporters: “If Oscar Charleston isn’t the greatest baseball player in the world, then I’m no judge of baseball talent.”
Charleston, a lefty all the way, grew up barrel-chested and spindly-legged, much like Babe Ruth. He made his Negro league debut in 1915 with the hometown Indianapolis ABCs. Through the years, he also played for the Chicago American Giants, the Harrisburg, Pa., Giants, the Homestead Grays, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and a host of other squads.
And, as mentioned, he never backed down. Charleston had a temper. He brawled with managers, teammates and umpires. He played the game tough. Charles, as many people called him, slid hard.
The fierceness of Oscar Charleston did not simply extend to the baseball field. The Hall of Famer served his country in three conflicts. At 15, he fudged his age to Army recruiters and left for Manilla as part of the Philippines occupation. There, he fought off some insurgents. The insurgents wielded knives. Charleston wielded his fists.
Charleston also served as an Army corporal during World War I and, later in life, helped with logistical troop support in World War II as part of the Pennsylvania Quartermaster’s Department.
Toward the end of his playing career, Charleston got into managing. The tough guy was beloved for his honesty and devotion. He helped develop greats like Satchell Paige and Cool Papa Bell. Charleston also worked for Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey. He did some coaching and scouting for Rickey and even recommended Negro league players Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella for the majors.
Charleston died Oct. 6, 1954, following a heart attack. He was 57 years old and had just led the Indianapolis Clowns to a Negro league championship.
He is not as famous as he should be. Fortunately, his legacy as a great player and competitor remains intact. Paige said, “You had to see him to believe him.”
He once ripped the hood off a Ku Klux Klansman who dared to confront him. Oscar McKinley Charleston, the man who didn’t back down.
“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.” — Buck O’Neil
By Glen Sparks
How good was Josh Gibson?
Well, we’ll never know exactly. Baseball’s unwritten rule against African-American players gets the blame for that.
Gibson played his entire career in the Negro leagues. He died, tragically, at the age of 35 on Jan. 20, 1947. Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers less than three months later.
How good was Josh Gibson?
Baseball writers elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1972. His plaque credits him with hitting “almost 800 home runs” over his career. Some people called him “the black Babe Ruth.” (Or, some say, Ruth was “the white Josh Gibson.”)
Gibson, born Dec. 21, 1911, in little Buena Vista, Ga., moved to Pittsburgh in 1924. His dad, Mark Gibson, found a job up north with the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co.
Young Josh decided early on to pursue a career as an electrician. Nothing wrong with that. But, Josh also played baseball as a teenager on local amateur teams. Scouts took notice. Josh Gibson stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 200 pounds at age 16. He swung a serious bat. Newspapers reported that Gibson regularly belted home runs of 400 feet and even 500 feet.
Gibson’s career in the Negro leagues began July 25, 1930. Supposedly, the catcher for the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays broke his finger during a game. Cumberland Posey, the Grays’ owner, called out to Gibson, who sat in waiting in the stands. “Let’s see if you can play.”
Well, maybe it happened that way. Maybe it didn’t. Either way, Gibson quickly worked his way into the Grays’ starting line-up. A star was born. In late September, he crushed a ball at Yankee Stadium that traveled 430 feet to 460 feet, depending on the report.
The Grays were one of the legendary Negro league teams. (In 1940, they moved part-time to Washington, D.C.) They won Negro league titles in 1931, 1937-45 and 1948. Besides Gibson, great players who wore the Grays’ uniform included “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson and Buck Leonard.
Following two seasons with the club, Gibson left for the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Owners wanted him to catch the team’s new pitcher–Satchell Paige.
Records in the Negro leagues were not exact. According to some reports, though, Gibson mashed 72 homers in 1932. Did he? Maybe he hit even more. The consensus was that few players could hit a ball as far as Josh Gibson.
How good was Josh Gibson?
In 1934, he reportedly belted a baseball completely out of Yankee Stadium. One player, Jack Marshall, swore that Gibson did just that. Did he? Did the ball land outside the stadium or simply settle way back in the bleachers? Does it matter?
Sam “The Jet” Jethroe said, “If someone had told me that Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed him.”
Gibson’s career continued that way. He hit one monstrous home run after another. 600 feet … 700 feet? Just how far could Josh hit a baseball?
The big right-handed batter stayed with the Crawfords from 1932 through 1936. He went back to the Grays from 1937 through ’39 and then left for Azules de Veracruz in Mexico (1940 and 1941). Gibson concluded his career with a third stint on the Grays from 1942 through ’46.
Gibson made 12 All-Star teams. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he batted .359 over his career and won nine home-run titles.
He did all this despite suffering from serious health issues. Terrible headaches plagued him. Doctors told him in 1943 that he had a brain tumor. His behavior became increasingly erratic. He spent time in a mental asylum.
And, he kept hitting tape-measure home runs. In 1946, he cracked a 457-foot homer in Pittsburgh and a 500-foot one at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He knocked one pitch over the roof at Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
Gibson died after collapsing at his home. His body lay in state for three days at the funeral home. A line of people a half-mile long showed up to pay their respects for the great Josh Gibson.
(The Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will be held this weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y. I attended the ceremonies in 1997. This post focuses on the one inductee I knew nothing about at the time.)
By Glen Sparks
I had never heard of Willie Wells.
It was a sunny day, and I was in Cooperstown, N.Y., at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Tommy LaSorda, the colorful former manager of the Dodgers, and Phil Niekro, the knuckleball pitcher from the Braves, had been elected into the Hall’s Class of 1997. The Veterans Committee had voted in Nellie Fox, a slick-fielding second baseman with the White Sox. The Committee also voted in Wells.
Who was Willie Wells? He didn’t enjoy quite the instant name recognition of some other Negro league Hall of Famers. Great players like Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell. People said Bell was so fast, he could turn out the light in his bedroom and be under the covers before it got dark. You didn’t hear that sort of stuff about Wells.
Experts called Gibson, a great Negro league catcher, the “black Babe Ruth” and said he truly was the mightiest home-run hitter of them all. Did Wells hit a lot of home runs?
What do we know about Willie Wells? We know he was born Aug. 10, 1906, in Austin, Texas, and played for a host of teams from 1924-48. Yep, that’s 25 seasons. He broke in with the St. Louis Stars and stayed with them through 1931, helping the team to three league titles. Wells also played for the Chicago American Giants, the Newark Eagles and eight other squads.
Fans knew him for his sure hands at shortstop and accurate arm. He hit for average, winning two batting titles, and, yes, he did provide some pop despite standing just 5-feet-5. He once belted 27 homers in an 88-game season. Wells hit .319 for his career.
We also know that Wells played on the so-called million-dollar infield with the Eagles, along with Ray Dandridge, Dick Seay and Mule Shuttles. (Note here that the million-dollar moniker denoted a respect for the foursome’s talent as well as for the value of a million dollars in bygone America. That was a lot of scratch. No ballplayers were making close to that amount, not in Major League baseball, and especially not in the Negro leagues. Most ballplayers still worried about making the house payment.)
Like many players, Wells spent part of his career south of the border. He suited up for Vera Cruz, Tampico and Mexico City. Fans called Wells “El Diablo,” the Devil himself, for his intensity and because of his red-hot bat. Supposedly, El Diablo taught Jackie Robinson how to turn a double play.
In the 1994 book, Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Leagues by Patricia C. McKissack and Fred C. McKissack Jr., the authors cite Hilton Smith, a top pitcher, who ranked Willie Wells as the best shortstop to ever play in the Negro leagues. It was a league filled with tough, talented players. The authors included this quote from Wells: “You had to be tough. You had to have heart, desire. If you were a coward, they’d throw right here at your ear.”
Following his long baseball career, including a stint as a manager, Willie Wells went to work for a deli in New York City and then returned to Austin. He died there on Jan. 22, 1989, at the age of 83.
The Baseball Hall of Fame has enshrined 35 former Negro league players, plus manager Rube Foster (the “Father of Black Baseball”) and Elfa Manley, the only woman elected to the Hall and the co-owner of the Eagles. The history of the league is fraught with missing stats, accounts of legendary players, stories that could only be tall tales and bittersweet discussions of what-might-have-been. Plus, at least a bit of magic. Baseball fans should take note of Willie Wells and all the other great Negro league players.
By Glen Sparks
Baltimore Orioles Manager John McGraw surely wanted to do the decent thing when he tried to pass off his prospect Charles Grant as a Cherokee Indian named “Chief” Tokohama. The fact that the plan didn’t work does not reflect poorly on either man.
Grant was an African-American baseball player from Cincinnati. On this date in 1901, The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper reported that McGraw had signed the hometown second baseman to a contract. Grant, 26 years old, had been playing with the Chicago Columbia Giants, a Negro League team. McGraw, always looking for talent, saw Grant while in Hot Springs, Ark., and figured the young man could make it in the majors. The color line, though, stood in the way.
Now, a little bit of background. Baseball’s color line was a bit fuzzy in the early days. When Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he was breaking the modern-day color line. There were many integrated teams in the early days of baseball. Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the abolitionist, played on an integrated team, for instance, in upstate New York in 1859, according to Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game by John Thorn.
Black players “Bud” Fowler and Moses “Fleet” competed on integrated professional teams in the 1880s, according to Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues, by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack Jr. Walker played for Toledo, Ohio, in the American Association, which did not prohibit black players.
Mostly, though, teams formed either black squads or white squads. Some of the early top African-American teams included the Uniques and the Monitors from Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Excelsiors from Philadelphia.
By Glen Sparks
James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast …
He once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt.
Bell was so fast …
He once ripped a line drive, legend goes, that hit him in the butt as he slid into second base.
Bell was so fast … (Drum roll, please.)
He could get out of bed, walk across the room, turn out the lights and be underneath the covers before the room got dark. (We can thank the great catcher Josh Gibson for that one. Satchel Paige also told the tale.)
James Bell grew up in Starkville, Miss. The family lived by a local park, and young James played ball all day. At age 17, he, along with his family, left Mississippi for St. Louis. Bigger city, better jobs. In 1922, at the age of 19, James joined the St. Louis Stars, a Negro League ballclub, as a center-fielder and a left-handed knuckleball pitcher.
They said he was “Cool” because …
He once struck out Oscar Charleston, maybe the best hitter of that time, in a tight situation to win the game. He didn’t let the pressure get to him. He was cool. (Bell also hit a home run that day.)
They called him “Papa” because …
Bill Gatewood, manager of the Stars, said “Cool” Bell wasn’t enough. His player needed something else, something to give the nickname that proper pizazz. Like “Papa.” Like “Cool Papa.”
Bell played for the Stars from 1922-31. He later enjoyed stints with the Detroit Wolves, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords and several other teams. Players liked to drink, carouse, chase women (Times don’t change.) and smoke cigarettes as a way to relax in the dugout (maybe a little). Not Cool Papa Bell.
Teammate Ted Paige: “In fact, in all of the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smoke, take a drink, or say even one cuss word.”
Well, Bell didn’t make a big deal out of that. What he learned, he learned from home. This is what he said in 1974 for Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society:
“My mother always told me that it didn’t make any difference about the color of my skin, or how much money I had. The only thing that counted was to be an honest, clean livin’ man who cared about other people. I’ve always tried to live up to those words.”
Bell liked to hit high hoppers into the infield and beat out the throw. He scored that run from first on a bunt against the Bob Lemon All-Stars, a team made up of major leaguers. In 1933, Bell stole 175 bases in 200 games.
He was fast all right, but Buck O’Neil noted this: “Baserunning isn’t only about speed. It’s about technique, cutting the corners and keeping your balance. And Cool Papa, he was a master at all of that.”
The great Cool Papa Bell retired with a splendid .341 batting average. He never hit below .300 in any season. Bill Veeck, the long-time baseball executive, said he’d put Bell up there with Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio on his personal list of all-time great center fielders.
After his playing days, Bell did some coaching and later worked as a night watchman at St. Louis City Hall. He lived in a tough neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, and occasionally attended a Cardinals game, largely unrecognized. Unrecognized, but not bitter about not getting to play in the majors.
“Funny, but I don’t have any regrets about not playing in the majors,” he said. “They say that I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.”
Voters elected Bell to the Hall of Fame on this date in 1974. Bell’s Hall of Fame induction plaque reads, in part, “Contemporaries rated him fastest man on the base paths.”
Cool Papa Bell died on March 7, 1991, age 87, only a few weeks after his wife, Clarabelle, passed way. A statue of Bell stands outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Another statue stands outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. He also has a plaque on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Rightly, a marker is in place at the Little League ballpark in Starkville where Bell learned how to play ball. In 1999, The Sporting News rated Bell as the 66th best player of time.
Bell was so right …
“They used to say, ‘If we could find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”
By Glen Sparks
He was El Immortal, The Immortal. Other fans called him “the Maestro.” He is one of baseball’s greatest, and most overlooked, stars. Unfortunately, he toiled at a time when skin color was a big deal; his was dark brown. He played for nearly 30 years, but he never belted a home run or struck out a batter in the major leagues.
Instead, Martin Dihigo ripped line drives and hurled fastballs from inside steamy ballparks in Latin America and in loud bandboxes in the Negro Leagues. The Cuban-born phenom competed against “Cool Papa” Bell and “Satchell” Paige. He could play every position on the diamond.
Bill James, in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract, rated Dihigo the No. 1 right-fielder in Negro league history. He was “fast, graceful, blessed with a powerful arm,” James wrote. On this date in 1977, a special committee voted Dihigo into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Former players talked about Dihigo slamming 500-foot home runs and crushing line drives that nearly decapitated wary infielders. Some experts insisted that Dihigo possessed a stronger arm in the outfield than even the great Roberto Clemente. Buck Leonard, also a Hall of Fame player from the Negro Leagues, once said, “You could take your Ruths, Cobbs and DiMaggios.” Leonard would take Dihigo.
Dihigo, born in 1906, began his career in 1922 in the Cuban Winter League. The 16-year-old batted just .179 for the Cuban Reds. Pitchers baffled him with sharp breaking stuff. The word got out. What would become of the teenage prodigy? Could Dihigo conquer the curveball?
He certainly could. Dihigo soon started crushing curveballs, fastballs, everything. In the United States, he hit at least .300 six times, including .325 in 1926 with a league-leading 11 home runs in just 40 games for the Cuban Stars (East). In 1935, Dihigo led the league with nine home runs in 42 games for the New York Cubans.
Dihigo was more of a dual threat in Lain America. He batted .317 in 10 seasons in Mexican and compiled a 119-57 won-loss record as a pitcher. In 1938, he went .387 with the bat and 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA on the mound. Dihigo enjoyed another big year as a pitcher in 1942. He finished 22-7 with a 2.53 ERA.
The ballplayer’s time in Cuba is a bit more mysterious. We know that he batted over .300 nine times and that he compiled a 93-48 won-loss record from 1935-46. Unfortunately, we don’t have records for every season of Dihigo’s career in his home country. We do know that he competed not just in the United States, Cuba and Mexico, but also in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Despite only playing half his career in the Negro leagues, he ranks 12th in career home runs. He ended up 255-139 as a pitcher. During one famous game, under the brutal Mexican sun, Dihigo hooked up in a pitching duel against Satchel Paige. The two battled one another for inning after hot inning. The score was 0-0 after six. Finally, Paige gave up a run. Dihigo also gave up a run. In the ninth, Dihigo ripped a home run to win the game.
Buck Leonard, a first baseman in the Negro Leagues and another Hall of Famer, said, “Dihigo was the best all-around baseball player I’ve ever seen.”
By Glen Sparks
Supposedly, Norman Stearnes sported a potbelly as a kid. The family thought he looked like a little turkey. Another story is that he ran around the bases kind of funny, flapping his arms.
Either way, we know Norman Thomas Stearnes as “Turkey” Stearnes.
Bill James rated him the 25th best player of all time in his Historical Abstract. Which is great. And kind of a shame.
James rated Frank Robinson the 24th best player and Rickey Henderson the 26th best player. We know a lot about those guys. They’re both African-American, but they competed in the era after integration.
Playing in the Negro Leagues, like Stearnes did, probably didn’t get you onto Page 1 of the sports section in too many mainstream newspapers.
Stearns was born May 8, 1901, in Nashville, Tenn. If baseball had been doing the right thing all along, he would have played alongside immortals like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.
As it was, Stearnes got a lot less attention and far less money to play with and compete against great players from the Negro Leagues such as Josh Gibson, “Satchell” Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell. He traveled on rickety buses from 1920 to 1940 for teams such as the Detroit Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Philadelphia Stars and the Chicago American Giants.
Do you remember Mark Fydrich? He put together a couple of big years for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-’70s before tearing up his shoulder. People loved him because he had a big smile and a mop of curly hair that made him look a bit like Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. Fydrich also had a habit of talking to the baseball.
Well, Stearnes did something like that. He liked talking to his bats. He would sit in the dugout or his hotel room and give a pep talk to his 35-ounce Louisville Slugger. Apparently, the bat responded.
This is what we know of Stearnes’ career stats in the Negro Leagues: .344 batting average, 176 home runs and a .621 slugging percentage. He played in 750 games. Stearnes was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2000, 21 years after his death.
Like many players from the Negro Leagues, Stearnes’ story gets a little foggy at times. We don’t know that much about him. How many books do we have about Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio? Maybe it’s time for someone to tackle a far tougher project—The Life Story of Turkey Stearnes.