Whenever there is an argument among my friends concerning sports I seem to be designated as the resident guru. Some questions I can handle, or go to my resources for an answer. A few days ago the question came up regarding Branch Rickey being the father of Colored players in Major League Baseball. That is a loaded question.
Branch Rickey broke the color line with Jackie Robinson in April, 1947, 11 weeks before Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby to a contract with Cleveland. As far as White America was concerned at that time, baseball had gone to hell in a hand basket. When these arguments surface I notice the old stories of the athletic prowess of the Negro League stars enter the conversation. The most popular is the story of Satchel Paige, who was said to have so much control of the ball he could throw a strike over a matchbook.
“Cool Papa” Bell enters the conversation as the fastest man to ever set foot on a baseball diamond. It is said that Bell was so fast he could hit a line drive up the middle and get hit by the ball sliding into second base. He supposedly entered his hotel room, turned off the lights and was in bed before the room got dark.
Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard were the Ruth and Gehrig of the Negro Leagues, leading the Homestead Grays to nine championships in a row. Josh was the Black Babe Ruth and Buck the Black Lou Gehrig. Josh was so powerful he was once tricked by a changeup pitch, and hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium with one hand (a true story). Josh was the consensus number one pick for the Major Leagues, but unfortunately Josh died in his prime at the age of 36. His death came a heartbeat before Jackie crossed the color line.
Among the other usual suspects were “Smokey” Joe Williams, a fireball pitcher who was said to have lured blind people to the park just to listen to him pitch. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd had a batting average and stolen base percentage that would keep a modern day scorekeeper sharpening his pencil. Oscar Charleston joins Bell as the greatest center fielders of the time. As a matter of fact, Charleston was the best of the best, period (according to Sam Lacy).
Among the missing are Bud Fowler, who played with a Lynn, Mass. club starting in 1878. Bud got a chance to play with a White team before Jim Crow reared his ugly head. Colored players weren’t banned at the time, but their lives were just a half step above slavery. Bud was spiked by opposing players’ cleats so many times, he invented safety equipment for his ankles and legs (an idea still used today).
“Bullet” Joe Rogan was a pitcher who played 18 years from 1920 -1938. While Bullet played with Satchel Page on the Kansas City Monarchs club, he was nevertheless most noted for his life as an umpire. Bullet carried a knife and had a temper, and nobody argued balls and strikes with him. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliff (1928-1950 with the Detroit Stars) was a catcher/pitcher who lived to 103 years old. I would see him at functions and he always had a young lady on his arm, despite being more than 100 years old at the time. My favorite, however, was Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett. Pepper (1934-1954 with the Birmingham Black Barons). Pepper would catch a game in a rocking chair. To show this was more than grandstanding, he was a seven-time Negro League All-Star.
To revisit the Branch Rickey argument, I must introduce Rube Foster, known as the true father of Black Baseball. Rube was a player in the Negro League when the teams were a rag-tag band of players barnstorming around the country who would play a game in your back yard if you had a team. In those days, managers were also players. Rube taught his players bunting and speed. On a single hit, a player may go from first to third. Rube had his players dress in suits for travel, rented a Pullman Car for his team and had it attached to the back of the trains. This gave the Negro League style and class. And in those ballparks, the chant “Hey Rube” had a different meaning from the carnival call for help.