The Greatest Negro League Team of All Time - the 1931 Homestead Grays
Picture from Negro National League Players Association
The history of baseball in Pittsburgh doesn't start and end with the Pirates. For decades, some of the best baseball here was played by the Homestead Grays, legendary barnstormers and Negro League powerhouse.
In 1910, a group of black Homestead steelworkers formed a ball team. Cumberland Posey joined them the next year and by 1912 they had become the Homestead Grays, playing at the now gone Homestead Park until the 1930s. The Grays were the remnants of an old sandlot team from the Germantown area and would become one of the great franchises in baseball history.
Posey played for them, managed a few years later, and as owner would take on all comers, white or black, pro or amateur, on the diamond. He was such a highly regarded GM that he would enter the Hall of Fame in 2006, as adept with finances as he was at raiding other team's rosters for talent. He kept the Grays independent until 1935, with the exception of a couple of one year stints in different leagues, when they entered the Negro National League. The Grays dominated the league, once winning nine consecutive pennants.
The Grays prospered during the late 1930s through the 1940s, playing their games at both Forbes Field and the Washington Senator's Griffith Stadium when the white teams were on the road (They played at Munhall's West Field when they couldn't get the MLB parks.) DC still has a special place in its' baseball heart for the Grays. In fact, the Washington Grays was one of the more popular names recommended for the expansion team that eventually became the Nationals. But Branch Rickey and the inevitable integration of baseball finally ended the Negro League in 1948 and the Grays gave up the ghost in 1950.
MLB.com ran a survey among some experts to pick the best five teams to play Negro League baseball. The Grays had two of the five squads the pundits selected. The 1943 team was one. With HOF members Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard (they were known as the "Thunder Twins"), Cool Papa Bell, Jud Wilson and Ray Brown, it beat the Birmingham Black Barons to win the Black World Series that year.
Gibson, in 26 games, hit more home runs in Griffith Stadium in 1943 than the Senators did. Some people compared that edition of the Grays to the 1927 Yankees. It would have been an dream match up, watching Gehrig and Ruth battle Leonard and Gibson. And they weren't even considered the best Gray's team!
That honor went to the 1931 Grays, selected as the top team to ever take the field in black baseball history. They also featured 5 HOF players - the 19 year old Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Smokey Joe Williams, Willie Foster and Jud "Boojum" Wilson. They were barnstormers that played white teams, black teams, town teams, company teams, major league teams, all-star teams - anyone and anywhere that would give them a field to play on and a cut of the gate.
It was the Depression, and these guys were known for playing hard, day in and day out. It was tough to earn a buck in those times, and if you didn't play to Posey's exacting standards, it was the soup line for you.
And the pay was good. Posey had to compete with numbers writer Gus Greenlee, who bankrolled their bitter crosstown rivals, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. (It was common for players to jump teams for a better offer, just like today.) They rolled up a 163-23 record that season, an .881 winning percentage, and were unanimously declared the "Colored Champions."
In 38 years as the Homestead Grays, the team produced this roster of HOF'ers:
Bell had a .337 lifetime batting average and his speed was the stuff of legends. Satchel Paige joked that once when facing Bell, the outfielder hit a line drive up that middle that went screaming past Paige's ear and hit Bell in the butt as he was sliding into second base. Satch also claimed that Bell was so fast that he could flick off a light switch and be under the covers before the light went out. And swore it actually happened, in a Kansas City hotel room.
Brown compiled a 109-30 record, fifth in the league's all-time win list. The right hander was noted for his nasty curve ball.
Charleston was a tremendous power hitter and one of the finest defensive center fielders of all time. His career batting average was .353 and he regularly finished among the league leaders in both home runs and stolen bases. Charleston had a famously short fuse and enjoyed brawling, resulting in legendary encounters with umpires, opponents, agents raiding his teams, a Ku Klux Klansman, and several Cuban soldiers. He shined in exhibition play against the major league clubs, batting .318 with 11 home runs in 53 games. Contemporary observers compared his play to that of Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth.
A Cuban who both pitched and played the infield (or anywhere else they penciled him in at, for that matter), Dihigo's career line in 12 seasons in the Negro Leagues was a .307 average and .511 slugging percentage, with 431 hits, 64 home runs, 61 doubles, 17 triples, 227 RBIs, and 292 runs scored in 1404 at bats. As a pitcher, he went 26–19 with a 2.92 ERA, with 176 strikeouts in 354 innings.
Although a two-time All-Star in the American Negro Leagues, Dihigo's best season came in the Mexican League in 1938 where he went 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA as a pitcher while winning the batting title with a .387 average. In his Mexican career he was 119-57 with a .317 batting average. In the Cuban League he was 107-56 with a .298 average. He is the only player to be inducted to the American, Cuban and Mexican Baseball Halls of Fame, and is also in the Dominican Republic and Venezuelan Halls of Fame.
A southpaw with a good fastball, a devastating change-up, and pinpoint control, Bill Foster was one of the top pitchers in the Negro National League. On the last day of the 1926 season, he won both ends of a crucial doubleheader to clinch the pennant for the Chicago American Giants. In the ensuing World Series, he posted a 1.27 ERA. Foster was the leading vote-getter and winning pitcher in the inaugural East-West All-Star Game in 1933.
Unfortunately, his stats, like those of many Negro League players, aren't available. But he was in four Negro League World Series, and was known to have won 26 consecutive games in 1933 and had a 32-3 record in 1927. Bill Foster ended his baseball days managing at Alcorn State.
Baseball historians consider Gibson to be among the elite catchers and sluggers in the history of baseball, including the major leagues. The powerful 6-1, 210 pound Gibson was known as the "Black Babe Ruth." He won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. In two seasons in the late 1930s, he not only hit over .400, but his slugging percentage was above 1.000.
The Sporting News of June 3, 1967 credits Gibson with blasting a home run at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall above the center field bleachers, about 580' from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. He was said to have hit over 800 home runs against all competition, from major league exhibitions to cow town barnstorming tours. Barry Bonds even referred to that number in his current quest to become baseball's alpha slugger.
Sadly, there is no published season-by-season breakdown of Gibson's home run totals for all the games he played in various leagues and exhibitions to prove that number, so....
But here's a bit of lore often told about Gibson and his legendary power. In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hit one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappeared from sight, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams were playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams positioned themselves on the field, a ball came falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabbed it. The umpire yelled to Gibson, "Yer out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!"
In 1930 Johnson (William Julius was his given moniker) was a player-coach for the Homestead Grays and was credited with discovering Josh Gibson. From 1935 through his last season in 1938, Johnson was the captain of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He was a contact hitter who batted .416 in 1929 with a career .344 average, but his greatest asset was his glove. Along with Ray Dandridge and Ghost Marcelle, Johnson was one of the top fielding third basemen in the Negro Leagues.
Johnson retired nine years before the integration of the major leagues, but became the first African American to coach in Major League Baseball in 1954 for the Philadelphia A's. He also was one of the more respected talent scouts in baseball, signing Bill Bruton and Dick Allen among others. He was noted for his exemplary character on and off the field.
Leonard batted clean up in the Gray's lineup behind Josh Gibson. Since Gibson was known as the "Black Babe Ruth" and Leonard was a first baseman, he was called the "Black Lou Gehrig", a fair comparison in terms of their hitting numbers (although some consider Leonard superior to Gehrig as a fielder.) Leonard led the Negro League in batting in 1948 with a mark of .395, (his lifetime average was .341) and usually either led the league in home runs or was runner up to teammate Gibson.
In 1952, Leonard was offered a major league contract but believed that at age 45 he was too old and might embarrass himself and the cause. He passed on the opportunity.
Posey, born in Homestead, was a player, manager and team owner of the Grays. He played with them in 1911, was manager by 1916, and became its' owner in the early 1920s. In a quarter-century of running the team, he built it into one of the powerhouse franchises of black baseball.
Posey, an aggressive talent hunter, at one time or another had a dozen Negro League Hall of Famers playing for him. He was often accused of raiding other clubs' rosters, enticing their best players to join his team. He reaped what he had sown in the early 1930s, when he lost several stars to the deep pocketed Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith once wrote of Posey: "Some may say he crushed the weak as well as the strong on the way to the top of the ladder. But no matter what his critics say, they cannot deny that he was the smartest man in Negro baseball."
Nicknamed El Diablo for his extraordinary intensity, Wells was a superb all-around player. He was a speedy baserunner who hit for both power and average. But Wells was at his best with his glove, playing the field flawlessly with the speed and range to run down anything hit his way. He is widely thought of as the best black shortstop of his day, and is credited with teaching Jackie Robinson the art of the double play. Wells' career stats were a .328 batting average with 126 home runs in 945 games played.
Tall, hard-throwing righthander Smokey Joe (also known as "Cyclone Joe") Williams dominated early 20th century black baseball. He is said to have pitched dozens of no-hitters. Many were against amateur teams, but others were against the likes of the New York Giants. On August 7, 1930, at age 44, he struck out 27 Kansas City Monarchs in a 1-0, 12-inning victory.
Heated debate still exists over whether Williams or Paige was the best Negro League pitcher. Most modern sources lean toward Paige, but in 1952, a poll taken by the Pittsburgh Courier named Williams the greatest pitcher in Negro League history. The easy going Williams is known to have rung up a 115-31 record in his first 5 years at San Antonio, but his stats are sketchy after that.
"Boojum" was a third baseman, first baseman and manager in Negro league baseball. He played mostly for the Baltimore Black Sox, Homestead Grays and Philadelphia Stars. One of the Negro Leagues' more powerful hitters, Wilson compiled a career batting average of .351. He also enjoyed great years in the Cuban Winter League in the 1920s.
Wilson got his nickname "Boojum" because that was supposedly the sound his line drives made when they smacked off of the outfield walls. Pitcher Satchel Paige claimed that Wilson and Chino Smith were the two toughest outs he ever faced. Josh Gibson believed that Wilson was a better hitter than he was.
The Sporting News picked who it considered the 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 2000. The highest-ranking of five players to have played all or most of their careers in the Negro Leagues was Josh Gibson. Three of the other four were Grays - Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston. Satchel Paige was the only member of the team not to play wearing the Homestead Gray flannels.
The Homestead Grays have been honored by the local MLB teams that donned their uniforms for a game. The Pirates did it twice and the Nationals twice more. They even had a bridge named after them, when in 2002 the Homestead Hi-Level Bridge became the Homestead Gray's Bridge. Pittsburgh's been blessed with a lot of great players over the years. Sometimes we forget that not all of them wore Pirate jerseys.
The 1943 Homestead Grays - As Good As the 1927 Yankees?
Picture from Carnegie Library Collection