Negro Leagues Players Who Have Been Overlooked by the Hall of Fame
When I set out to write my book, Baseball State by State, which features all-time teams by players’ state of birth, I originally did not include Negro Leagues players. I quickly realized the error of my ways, since how can you name an All-Time Georgia team and leave out Josh Gibson or compile an All-Time Indiana team that doesn’t include Oscar Charleston?
Figuring out that Gibson, Charleston, Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Pop Lloyd, Cool Papa Bell and Turkey Stearnes belong on their states’ all-time teams was not too difficult. However, what about the second-tier and third-tier Negro Leagues players like Piper Davis, Bubba Hyde, Roy Welmaker, Jonas Gaines, Barney Serrell and hundreds more like them?
Although dedicated researchers are making some headway to fill in the many gaps regarding the statistics of Negro Leagues players, you are still comparing apples to oranges when considering their careers against the accomplishments of white major leaguers.
As I conducted research for my book, I became intrigued by how many exceptionally talented Negro Leagues players were not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There was also a lot of hyperbole to sort through. For example, I must have come across 30 pitchers from the annals of black baseball who were described by someone as being better than Satchel Paige. Not likely.
Although the Hall largely did a nice job selecting 17 players and executives from the Negro and pre-Negro leagues when it held a special election in 2006, I have been able to come up with a list of 17 additional players who have a strong case for enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Frank Grant is not the greatest second baseman in Negro Leagues history, yet he is the only one represented in Cooperstown. I found four other Negro Leagues second basemen who deserve another look.
I will list all 17 of my overlooked candidates in order by position, just as I do in Baseball State by State, which includes 281 players from the Negro Leagues (about 11 percent of all players listed).
1. Bruce Petway, catcher (Tennessee)—Petway was one of the greatest defensive catchers in Negro Leagues history and probably possessed the strongest throwing arm. Ty Cobb quickly learned not to challenge his arm, as Petway threw him out trying to bunt for a hit and later trying to steal during an exhibition game in Cuba in 1910 (it is often inaccurately reported that he threw out Cobb three straight times). Petway’s arm was so strong he routinely rifled throws down to second without leaving his crouch.
Although he picked up the nickname “Home Run” early in his career, the switch-hitting Petway was not a long-ball hitter, but instead relied on well-placed hits, bunts and steals to help his team win. In fact, he often batted leadoff due to his speed. During a career that lasted from 1906 to 1925, Petway batted .397 for the 1910 Leland Giants (considered one of black baseball’s all-time best teams) and he was a fixture on Rube Foster’s dominant Chicago American Giants teams from 1911-18. Both John McGraw and Connie Mack called Petway the finest backstop in black or white baseball, notes baseball writer Richard Baker.
2. Quincy Trouppe, catcher (Georgia)—A strong case could be made that another Negro Leagues catcher from Georgia, Quincy Trouppe, should join Gibson in the Hall of Fame. Trouppe played for 23 seasons and was an All-Star in 17 of those years in one league or another. A switch-hitter with some power, Trouppe posted a .311 average in Negro Leagues action, appearing in five East-West All-Star games. Nicknamed “Big Train” or “Baby Quincy,” he was a great defensive catcher with a strong arm, and he hung around long enough to make it to the majors, playing six games with the Indians in 1952 at the age of 40.
3. Buck O’Neil, 1B (Florida)—O’Neil was the greatest ambassador of the Negro Leagues, as well as a gentleman of the highest order. He was a pretty good but not great first baseman, a steady and productive player who appeared in four East-West All-Star games and won a batting crown with a .353 average in 1946. He played almost his entire career with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he was a teammate of Satchel Paige. O’Neil spent his last eight years with the Monarchs as player-manager, guiding the team to two league titles. His career average was .300 and he ranks as the sixth-best first baseman in Florida history in Baseball State by State.
After his playing career ended Buck became a scout for the Cubs, signing Lou Brock for the team. In 1952 he made history by becoming the first African-American coach in the major leagues when he joined the Cubs coaching staff. His contributions to baseball were just beginning. After the major leagues integrated it was O’Neil who emerged front and center as an eloquent spokesman to make sure the feats of his Negro Leagues comrades lived on in history. He was an instrumental force in the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, serving as honorary board chairman until his death in 2006. A bronze statue of O’Neil greets each visitor to the museum in Kansas City, just as one does in Cooperstown.
Sadly, Hall of Fame voters never figured out how to properly evaluate Buck’s candidacy and he fell short again in 2006, when the Hall elected a special class of 17 Negro Leagues players and executives. O’Neil’s playing accomplishments may not have been good enough to earn him entry into Cooperstown, but his overall contributions to the game made him a true legend. It’s not hard to figure out that O’Neil should have been placed in a special pioneer category as he was one of the biggest trailblazers in baseball history. Ironically, O’Neil spent nearly two decades as a member of the Hall’s Veterans Committee, helping ensure six Negro Leagues players gained induction.
That final voting slight undoubtedly broke O’Neil’s heart, but he expressed no bitterness over it. He passed away a few months after appearing in Cooperstown to watch the special class of 2006 get inducted without him. The great storyteller had finally run out of stories to tell. He was a true American original. The Hall of Fame named a Lifetime Achievement Award after Buck in 2008, a weak response to a missed opportunity to give a legendary baseball figure his due. Tom Yawkey, Effa Manley and Fred Lindstrom are Hall of Famers, but Buck O’Neil is deemed unworthy? Nonsense.
4. Bingo DeMoss, 2B (Kansas)—DeMoss is widely considered the greatest second basemen in black baseball during his prime (his playing career lasted from 1910-30), and he is an easy choice as the all-time best second baseman from Kansas. He combined spectacular fielding ability with blazing speed and excellent bat control. DeMoss was probably the best bunter in black baseball, writes John Holway in Blackball Stars. DeMoss’ aggressive playing style helped C.I. Taylor’s Indianapolis ABCs win the 1916 championship and Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants capture three straight Negro National League pennants.
5. Newt Allen, 2B (Texas)—Not to be overlooked at second base is Allen, who was the best second baseman in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and early ’30s. He is not in the same league as his fellow Texan Hall of Fame second basemen, Joe Morgan and Rogers Hornsby, but Allen was without peer as a defensive player. He spent most of his 23-year career with the Kansas City Monarchs and made four East-West All-Star appearances. Allen was blessed with great quickness, sure hands and a powerful arm, and was adept at making the pivot and ranging to either side. He was skilled with the bat, able to bunt and get on base, where his speed was a weapon. Allen’s career average was .287 with 1,017 hits and 126 stolen bases in official Negro League games.
6. George Scales, 2B (Alabama)—In Baseball State by State I list Scales as the all-time best second baseman in Alabama history. He was a powerful line-drive hitter who was stocky (hence the nickname “Tubby”) and a little ornery. He typically hit in the middle of the order during a 25-year career that lasted from 1921-46. He played a number of years with the New York Lincoln Giants, then found himself hitting behind Josh Gibson on the Homestead Grays’ powerhouse 1931 team. The next season he assumed the role of player-manager for the New York Black Yankees, and he would manage off and on the rest of his career. He finished among the top 10 in homers, which is no small feat for a second baseman. The Seamheads.com Negro Leagues Database powered by The Baseball Gauge credits Scales with a .407 OBP between 1921 and 1933 and a .394 average in 1923. He won six pennants managing in the Puerto Rican winter league.
7. Sammy Hughes, 2B (Kentucky)—Hughes, my selection as all-time best second baseman from Kentucky, was another glaring omission when the Hall of Fame held the special election in 2006. Bill James ranks Hughes as the fourth-best second baseman in Negro Leagues history and compares him to Barry Larkin and Ryne Sandberg. Hughes was arguably the best second baseman in the Negro National League during the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in six East-West All-Star games. He was a well-rounded player but especially excelled on defense. He started his career with his hometown Louisville White Caps in 1930 and later shined in the California Winter League, batting .384 with 17 home runs over seven seasons. Hughes is credited with a .297 lifetime average and a .353 mark against major leaguers.
8. Ollie Marcelle, 3B (Louisiana)—Marcelle edges out another noteworthy Negro Leagues player, Dave Malarcher, to earn the spot as the all-time best third baseman from Louisiana. Nicknamed “Ghost,” Marcelle was a marvelous defensive player at the hot corner. Think Brooks Robinson with significantly more quickness and a slightly stronger arm. “He made some of the greatest stops you’ve ever seen,” said Scrip Lee, who played with Marcelle on three championship teams. In a poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1952 Marcelle was voted the first-team third baseman on the All-Time Negro Leagues All-Star Team, ahead of Hall of Famer Judy Johnson. In fact, when the two played together in Cuba Johnson always switched to second base to make way for the superior defender. Known as a fiery competitor, Marcelle once hit Oscar Charleston on the head with a bat during a game, and he had frequent run-ins with opponents, umpires and teammates. He was a Cuban League batting champion and was credited with a .293 Negro Leagues average by a Hall of Fame study.
9. John Beckwith, 3B (Kentucky)—Beckwith could slug with anyone, although it was as likely to be a teammate he was slugging as the ball. Nicknamed “The Black Bomber,” he was as much a terror off the field as on, and his immoral lifestyle coupled with a severe drinking problem greatly curtailed his ability to maximize his on-field performance. He didn’t make much of an effort at fielding, and he had a tendency to get in fistfights with teammates at the slightest affront. Then there was the time he got arrested for viciously beating up an umpire.
Strictly a pull hitter who was unfazed by the defensive shifts implemented to defeat him, Beckwith hit for average and power better than any third baseman who ever played in the Negro Leagues. He was the first player to hit a ball out of Redland Field in Cincinnati and he posted a lifetime average of .349. He batted .371 in 1921 and .358 in 1922. The special Hall committee was undoubtedly swayed by character issues when it excluded Beckwith, but at least he holds down a spot on the All-Time Kentucky team.
10. Dick Lundy, SS (Florida)—Along with Pop Lloyd, Lundy was considered the premiere Negro Leagues shortstop in the 1920s. He was a deceptively powerful switch hitter with excellent speed and base-running instincts. He was an even better fielder than Lloyd and finished with a .330 average in Negro Leagues action during a career that lasted from 1916 to 1939. Peers such as Chance Cummings, Ted Page and Yank Deas all expressed the opinion that Lundy was the greatest shortstop in black baseball history. Nicknamed “King Richard” for his stellar play, Lundy had seasons with averages of .484, .409, .363 and .347. No less an authority than John McGraw thought Lundy was the greatest shortstop ever after Honus Wagner.
11. Grant “Home Run” Johnson, SS (Ohio)—Johnson was one of the top sluggers in the Negro Leagues during the Deadball Era, playing for a succession of teams that often emerged as champions including the Cuban X-Giants and Philadelphia Giants. He became the first American to win a batting title in the Cuban Winter League and posted averages of .397, .374, .413 and .371 from 1910-1913. He played with Pop Lloyd, Cannonball Redding, Spot Poles and Louis Santop on the New York Lincoln Giants teams that won three straight eastern championships. Johnson, who also played some second base in tandem with Lloyd, occasionally filled in as a pitcher and ended up playing professional baseball until he was in his late 50s.
12. ”Wild Bill” Wright, OF (Tennessee)—Burnis “Wild Bill” Wright was one of the most feared sluggers in the Negro Leagues. His nickname actually referred to his lack of control as a pitcher early on in his career. The switch-hitting Wright, who played his entire career with the Elite Giants franchise in Columbus, Washington and Baltimore, had power from both sides of the plate and was nearly as fast as Cool Papa Bell despite being six-foot-four and 225 pounds. Named to seven East-West All-Star Games, Wright led the Negro National League with a .488 average in 1939 and batted .326 lifetime. He also starred in Mexico, winning the Triple Crown in 1943.
13. Spot Poles, OF (Virginia)—An oft overlooked outfielder who was highly regarded by his peers, Spottswood Poles was often called the “Black Ty Cobb.” The lightning-fast lefty batted leadoff and played center field, using his speed to terrorize opponents. Some say he was even faster than Cool Papa Bell. Poles, who holds down one of my outfield spots for the all-time Virginia team, is credited with a lifetime average of .323 but reportedly batted close to .500 in exhibitions against white players.
After starting his professional career with the Philadelphia Giants in 1909, Poles’ career took off after he joined the New York Lincoln Giants in 1911. He averaged .440, .398, .414 and .487 with the New York Lincoln Giants from 1911-14 if all manner of games is included, according to James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Bill James ranks him as the best Negro Leagues player from 1914 to 1916. He won five battle stars and a purple heart while serving as an army infantry sergeant in France during World War I and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
14. ”Cannonball Dick” Redding, P (Georgia)—The feats of “Cannonball Dick” Redding in black baseball lore have become more legendary as the years pass. He combined with Smokey Joe Williams to make the Lincoln Giants virtually unbeatable from 1912-1914. In 1911 he won 17 straight games as a 20-year-old rookie, which he would later top by winning 20 straight games for the Lincoln Stars in 1915. The Atlanta native is credited with a 14-3 mark and 0.70 ERA in 1917. Relying on a sneaky no-windup delivery to go with a baffling “hesitation pitch,” Redding threw somewhere between 12 and 30 no-hitters during his career, depending on whether you count barnstorming exhibitions. He regularly pitched both games of a doubleheader, and sometimes two or three days in a row. Teammate Frank Forbes compared Redding to Walter Johnson with the way he blew the ball by batters. His career lasted from 1911-38, with many years spent with the Brooklyn Royal Giants.
15. John Donaldson, P (Missouri)—Donaldson may have been the greatest left-handed pitcher in Negro Leagues history. Possessing excellent control and a sharp-breaking curveball, Donaldson dominated batters throughout his career, which lasted from 1913-34. His stats are often discounted because he spent much of his time barnstorming the country and playing inferior competition, but he demonstrated his ability against top players and teams, too. John Henry Lloyd called him the toughest pitcher he ever faced, while John McGraw said he was the greatest pitcher he ever saw.
Pitching for the All Nations traveling all-star team from 1913-17, Donaldson averaged nearly 20 strikeouts a game and once recorded 240 strikeouts over a 12-game period. He pitched three straight no-hitters while getting noticed for his top-notch batting and speedy base-running. Donaldson batted over .300 over his career, often playing in the outfield when not pitching. Researchers to date have been able to document 235 wins (and possibly as many as 360), 11 no-hitters and a perfect game for Donaldson. In 1949 he became the first African-American scout in the majors when he started working for the White Sox. Donaldson ranks as the second-best lefty in Missouri history after Carl Hubbell.
16. William Bell Sr., P (Texas)—Texas has produced four Hall of Fame pitchers from the
Negro Leagues—Bill Foster, Smokey Joe Williams, Hilton Smith and Andy Cooper—but two more deserve strong consideration in my opinion. The right-handed Bell posted a career record of 164-122 with a 3.20 ERA. Bell, who possessed excellent control, went 11-2 and 10-4 to help the Kansas City Monarchs win pennants in 1924 and 1925.
17. Rube Foster, P (Texas)—Foster is already in the Hall of Fame as a manager as is his
half-brother, southpaw hurler and fellow Texan Bill Foster. Rube reportedly won 44 straight games pitching for the Cuban Giants in 1902—that feat alone should make him a worthy Hall of Fame candidate as a pitcher. Foster, who got his nickname by outpitching Rube Waddell in a 1902 exhibition, helped the Cuban X-Giants capture black baseball’s first World Series in 1903 by winning four games against the Philadelphia Giants.
The Indianapolis Freeman wrote that Foster “has all the speed of a Rusie, the tricks of a Radbourne, and the heady coolness and deliberation of a Cy Young. What does that make of him? Why, the greatest baseball pitcher in the country,” as reported in Robert Charles Cottrell’s The Best Pitcher in Baseball: The Life of Rube Foster, Negro League Giant. Rube was the first great pitcher in black baseball history, and he should be recognized for that achievement with a second plaque in Cooperstown.
Perhaps not all 17 of these Negro Leagues players truly belong in the Hall of Fame. However, after spending their careers being overlooked and overshadowed by their counterparts in white baseball, it’s unfortunate that they won’t receive additional consideration for Cooperstown unless the rules are changed.
Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, NY, is the author of Baseball State by State, Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites. You can reach him on Twitter at @yankfan81.