Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, February 27, 2006

Long Time Coming

Following an exhaustive five-year process, the Baseball Hall of Fame today announced the election of 16 men and one woman from the days when the sport was not integrated. This careful analysis and selection process, and the result from it, help baseball acknowledge the great legacy of the Negro Leagues and the black baseball that preceded it.

I've criticized the Hall of Fame selection process for being too rigorous in the past -- by trying too hard to find the greatest players in baseball history, they've ignored some who can claim legitimacy to that distinction. Those include the likes of Goose Gossage, Dick Allen, Ron Santo, Bert Blyleven and Tony Oliva, in my opinion.

So it's refreshing to see the committee generously choose 17 of 39 candidates. A surprising omission might be Buck O'Neil, the joyous ambassador and raconteur who has carried the mantle of the Negro Leagues as one of its last living participants. The committee didn't give specific reasons for selection or omission, though it's probable that O'Neil -- a steady but unspectacular hitter and a consistent fielder -- didn't have the stats that other candidates did. (This is the same kind of "logic" other Hall committees have used to justify ignoring the folks listed above.)

Here's a quick rundown of the 17 people elected. Comments are from The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues by James A. Riley or from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James.

Effa Manley -- The first woman inducted into the Hall. Co-owner of the Newark Eagles with her husband Abe from 1936-1946 and then sole owner for two more years, Manley was "a woman ahead of her time," according to Davis. "When Branch Rickey and other owners began signing her players, she fought for just compensation, and Bill Veeck paid her when he signed Larry Doby."

Alex Pompez -- A Cuban, he owned the New York Cubans for 15 years, and helped organize the first Negro World Series in 1924. In 1948, his team became a farm team for the New York Giants, and says Davis, "In this capacity he was responsible for many black players being signed by the major leagues."

Cum Posey -- He was associated with the most famous Negro Leagues franchise of all, the Homestead Grays, for 35 years. Posey was player, manager, booking agent, business manager and eventually the owner of the Grays. He signed the likes of Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson and Buck Leonard. Davis cites his creativity: "Posey was an innovative owner, initiating night ball years before the major leagues explored the possibility of playing night games."

J.L. Wilkinson -- Owner of another powerhouse team, the Kansas City Monarchs, Wilkinson's franchise sent 27 players to the major leagues after integration, more than any other team. Jackie Robinson played for the Monarchs, as did Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks and Elston Howard. He also stumped for night baseball, according to Davis, "installing a portable lighting system on the beds of trucks in 1930." More admirably, Wilkinson (a white man), "traveled with the team and looked after the best interests of his players providing the best travel accommodations available and compensating the players generously."

Sol White -- A player and manager in two different centuries, White played minor league baseball with white teams then organized the Philadelphia Giants in 1902. The team won four consecutive eastern championships as a manager and the team's shortstop. Davis describes him as: "An intense player when in action on the diamond, he otherwise demonstrated a calm disposition that served him well as a manager." He later became a newspaper columnist.

Ray Brown -- Due to the barnstorming nature of black baseball, it's difficult to compare players' stats to those of today, or even their peers' numbers. But Brown is considered one of the Negro Leagues' greatest pitchers. He helped the Grays win nine straight Negro National League titles from 1937-1945. Davis describes his repertoire of pitches as a sinker, a slider and a fine fastball, "but his curveball was his best pitch. So confident was Ray in all of his pitches that he would throw a curve with a 3-0 count on the batter."

Willard Brown -- Nicknamed "Home Run," Brown holds several home run records in Puerto Rican winter ball in addition to his performance in the Negro Leagues. He hit between .336 and .371 during five seasons from 1937 to 1942 (he skipped 1940 to play in Mexico), and the Monarchs won the Negro American League pennant each year. James compares him to the likes of Frank Robinson and Andre Dawson.

Andy Cooper -- A left-handed pitcher with the Detroit Stars and then the Monarchs, Cooper was "a smart pitcher who was a master at mixing pitches and changing speeds," says Davis. He was 113-46 over nine seasons from 1922 to 1930. He later became a manager and led the Monarchs to four Negro American League pennants.

Biz Mackey -- The finest defensive catcher in the Negro Leagues, according to James, Mackey struck fear in opponents with his arm and his bat. Davis says, "He could snap a throw to second from a squatting position ... and his pegs to the keystone sack were frozen ropes passing the mound belt high and arriving on the bag feather soft." He hit .423 in 1923 for the Hilldale Daisies, and then hit no worse than .315 over the eight succeeding years.

Mule Suttles -- One of the Negro Leagues' great power hitters, he swung a 50-ounce bat, says Davis. And it produced massive home runs, as well as a .329 batting average over his career, primarily with the St. Louis Stars and Newark Eagles. His best year was 1926, when he hit 26 homers and batted .432 with a 1.000 slugging percentage. His greatest shot? Well, it's all second-hand information, but teammates recalled a shot in Havana that cleared a 60-foot wall located more than 500 feet from home plate -- with plenty to spare.

Cristobal Torriente -- A left-handed hitting Cuban center fielder with a strong arm, James says Torriente was good enough to force all-time great Oscar Charleston to shift to left field when they were teammates briefly. He hit as high as .412 in the Negro Leagues as "a notorious bad ball hitter; any pitch that left the pitcher's hand was likely to end up against the outfield wall," says Davis. In a Cuban exhibition series, he outhit and outhomered Babe Ruth, who was barnstorming with the New York Giants.

Jud Wilson -- James compares Wilson to Hack Wilson or Kirby Puckett -- "Short but powerful. Huge, huge shoulders, arms like a gorilla, big, bear-trap hands, but a small waist, short but powerful lower body." Satchel Paige considered him one of the two best hitters ever in black baseball. From 1923 to 1937, he hit no worse than .315 and as high as .395. Wilson played from 1922 to 1945, known for a competitive streak that occasionally turned into a fierce temper. Primarily a third baseman, Wilson adopted a fielding style in which he would play the ball off his chest before recovering and throwing to first.

Frank Grant -- Born in the year the Civil War ended, Grant was given the name Ulysses but called Frank from an early age. Most of his career came in the 19th century, where he was called "the black Dunlap," as a favorable comparison to Fred Dunlap, a great second baseman in white baseball. Grant played for a barnstorming team called the Big Gorhams of New York in 1891, leading them to an incredible 100-4 record. Davis says Grant suffered extreme racial prejudice, at one point wearing wooden shinguards for protection from runners seeking to spike him, and "on occasion he was moved to the outfield for his own protection."

Pete Hill -- A contemporary of Ty Cobb, while Cobb was hitting .420 for the Detroit Tigers in 1911, Hill hit safely in 115 of 116 games that year for the Chicago American Giants. He was a left-handed hitter who rarely struck out and used the whole field, a la Wade Boggs. Hill was also a great center fielder and the most disruptive baserunner of his time, says Davis: "He was a nervy base runner who upset pitchers and infielders like Jackie Robinson was to do a quarter decade later."

Jose Mendez -- A right-handed pitcher from Cuba, Mendez began playing organized baseball at age 16. His greatest work came with the Cuban Stars, going 44-2 in 1909 and 18-2 the next year. Davis says, "Mendez had long arms and exceptionally long fingers, enabling him to get more spin on a ball. ... the graceful hurler threw with a deceptively easy motion that created havoc with batters' timing." (Think Mariano Rivera with more velocity.) At age 33, he became manager of the Monarchs, played shortstop and pitched occasionally, compiling a 20-4 record over seven seasons.

Louis Santop -- James ranks Santop as the second-best catcher in Negro Leagues history after Josh Gibson (Mackey is third). His 240-pound build made him one of the best at blocking the plate, and he had a great arm (Davis says he could stand at home plate and throw the ball over the center field fence.) He batted over .400 for four consecutive seasons from 1911 to 1914 and was considered the first great power hitter in the Negro Leagues.

Ben Taylor -- Taylor was a double-threat, a first baseman and pitcher who excelled at both as well as at the plate. He hit .334 lifetime, had a 30-1 record against all competition in 1911, and as a lefty, displayed the smooth fielding at first base that would bring Keith Hernandez or Mark Grace to mind. Davis says, "He was good on ground balls and could make all the plays at first, making the other infielders look good by digging out low throws and making difficult plays with such ease that they appeard routine."

For more information on these deserving players and executives, as well as those who were on the ballot but failed to gain election, check out the profiles on the Hall of Fame site.



Blogger Dave Jackson said...

Interesting weigh-ins from around the country on the voting:





12:47 PM  

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