Baltimore had the Elite Giants and their feature player was Charles Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan, most famous for playing and managing the Kansas City Monarchs from 1920 to 1936. Being a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I was no fan of the Baltimore team. But, all of that changed in 1998 when Joe Rogan was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame, along with my dad. His son accepted for him, and he emphasized the fact that other players and fans would often shout, “Touch ’em all, Joe… touch ’em all!” when he stepped into the batter’s box. Joe was a pitcher, but along with his murderous fastball, he was known for hitting the long ball.
Joe got his feet wet in the Army after being drafted in 1914. Baseball was a great distraction for the troops and Joe played every position except catcher. He was best known for his pitching. Satchel Paige once said, “Joe could throw as hard as ‘Smokey’ Joe Williams.” The tongue-in-cheek reference to Williams’ speed came in the quip, “He could throw so hard that blind people would come out to the park just to listen to him pitch.”
Joe enjoyed a career in baseball for 18 years. He finished his career with a stint as manager and later umpire for NLB games.
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell (Photo Courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell made a splash in Negro League Baseball as an eight-time All-Star while playing for seven different teams over a 20-year career. He was a member of the Washington Homestead Grays from 1943 through 1946. Bell was reputed to be the fastest man in baseball. He played center field, and it was said that he could go after a fly ball quicker than a hound dog after a jackrabbit. Satchel Paige said that Bell could hit the light switch in his hotel room and be in bed before the room got dark. Satchel also made a tongue-in-cheek comment about Bell, saying he had thrown Bell a waist-high fast ball which Bell hit up the middle. When Paige turned to look, Bell was hit by the ball sliding into second base.
Along with Bell, the Grays also had the “Thunder Twins,” Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson.
Buck Leonard (Photo/wikimedia commons, sojurce: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, author unknown)
Leonard was a 13-time All-Star and three-time NL champion that played in Washington from 1934-1950, and Gibson played was a 12-time All-Star and two-time champion that played two years in D.C.
Leonard played first base for the Grays, and he was known as the colored Lou Gehrig. He was so powerful, he could hit line drives out of the park. Gehrig shaded him a bit at the plate, but Leonard was a master with a glove at first base.
Josh Gibson (Photo Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)
His skills were demonstrated late in life. He didn’t come to baseball until he was 26 years old. He was forced to leave school at age 14 because there was no high school for colored kids. He worked as a mill hand, shoeshine boy and a shop worker for the Atlantic Coastline Rail Road. Leonard played baseball on the side and after one game he was offered $15 a week to play for the Portsmouth Negro League team. This was the start of it all for Buck. He soon joined the Homestead Grays and was able to support his mom and siblings as well as the wife he had married along the way. Buck passed in 1997 at age 90.
Gibson was known as the colored Babe Ruth. He would hit towering home runs. One such hit garnered the comment: “That ball is high enough to send back weather signals.” As Ruth and Gehrig batted third and fourth for the Yankees, so did Gibson and Leonard bat third and fourth for the Grays.
Gibson was often viewed as being a little flaky. He would be seen on roof tops naked, and would often be arrested for walking in the streets unclothed. Fortunately, these escapades wouldn’t be enough to land him in jail, but he often spent a few nights on the funny farm. As it turned out, Gibson had a brain tumor that took his life at age 36.