Cumberland Posey, the only person in the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame, was not only an excellent athlete. He also was one of the shrewdest businessmen and talent evaluators in the Negro Leagues, a fierce advocate for Black baseball and a sports pioneer.
Early in the 20th century, the Pittsburgh-area native became the first African American to play sports at Penn State and then at Duquesne, where he used an alias. Later, Posey became owner of the Homestead Grays, considered one of the greatest teams in the history of Negro League baseball.
“He is one of the three most important owners in Negro League baseball,” says Jim Overmyer, author of Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays. Overmyer includes Posey among the most influential Negro Leagues figures with fellow Hall of Famers Rube Foster, a team executive, and James L. Wilkinson, the Kansas City Monarchs' owner.
Posey’s business acumen allowed him to take “a long view,” Overmyer says, which led to financial and competitive success for the Grays as they barnstormed and played in the Negro Leagues. He also was a revered figure in Pittsburgh.
“Some may say he crushed the weak as well as the strong on the way to the top of the ladder,” wrote Wendall Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally prominent Black newspaper. “But no matter what his critics say, they cannot deny that he was the smartest man in Negro League baseball and certainly the most successful.”
Cumberland Posey: A Descendant of Freed Slaves
The grandson of freed slaves, Posey was born June 20, 1890, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a borough seven miles southeast of Pittsburgh. His father, Cumberland “Cap” Willis Posey Sr., became what is believed to be the country's first Black licensed riverboat engineer. The elder Posey built riverboats and founded and owned the Diamond Coke and Coal Company.
Posey’s mother, Anna Stevens Posey, the first Black graduate of her high school in Athens, Ohio, called for equal recognition of African American women’s civic groups. She once fired warning shots with a pistol to scare off two men who tried to rob her husband.
Posey grew up in a posh, brick home on East 13th Street in Homestead, near the Carnegie Steel Works on the south bank of the Monongahela River. In 1911, Posey, an excellent athlete, played center field for the Murdock Grays, a professional team. (The team later was renamed the Homestead Grays to reflect its home base.)
In 1920, with the help of his father, Posey bought the Grays with businessman Charlie Walker. From 1918-21, Posey—a 5-foot-9, 140-pounder—played outfield for the team.
The Grays originally played only locally, traveling to games aboard streetcars or commuter trains. But Posey saw financial opportunity in barnstorming because of the team's popularity. So, the Grays added games against semi-pro white teams in Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
“[H]e did not want to join a league because he could make more money doing what he did,” Overmyer says. “Plus, he could raid league rosters with impunity."
In 1929, with the country heading into the Great Depression, Posey realized the time was right to join the Negro League.
Cumberland Posey: Homestead Grays Player, Manager, Owner
In addition to playing for and managing the Grays, Posey built the team into a powerhouse that won nine Negro National League championships from 1937-48 and three Negro League World Series. He managed the 1931 team that, including barnstorming, finished with a 163-23 record and is considered one of baseball’s all-time best teams.
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Besides Posey, the Grays had four other future Hall of Famers: catcher Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of Negro League baseball; outfielder Oscar Charleston, considered one of the most complete players in baseball history; first baseman Buck Leonard and pitcher Ray Brown. Gibson, Leonard and Brown were the backbone of the 1937 Grays team that went 45-18-1 in Negro League play.
A pugnacious competitor, Posey wouldn't hesitate to pull the Grays from the field when they were victimized by a bad call. “An umpire baiter first-class,” Overmyer says. “Giants crumbled and quit before the fragile-looking Posey,” W. Rollo Wilson wrote in the Courier. “The word ‘quit’ has never been translated for him.”
An adept fighter, Posey carried a blackjack and once broke the arm of an inmate, who reached through cell bars at him during a jail visit, Overmyer says.
Because of his strong relationship with Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, the Grays played at Forbes Field, the Major League Baseball team's home stadium. Posey also had a strong relationship with the Griffith family, who owned the Washington Senators in Major League Baseball's American League. In the 1940s, the Grays played some games in the nation's capital.
In addition to the Grays' on-field success, the team was profitable. "I read in the papers that the Cincinnati Reds lost $30,000 last year," Posey told the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph in the 1940s. "Any time the Grays made less than $30,000 a year we considered it a poor season. That gives you some idea of the big business Negro baseball has become."
Overmyer believes Posey, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, would have excelled as a MLB executive. "The only question I have is whether he would have abided working for someone else," he says.
Cumberland Posey Also Excels in Basketball
In the 1920s, Posey was considered one of the country's best Black basketball players. His emphasis on outside shooting was unique for the time. “Easily the grandfather of Stephen Curry,” Claude Johnson told The Undefeated, referencing the Golden State Warriors' star. Johnson is founder of the Black Fives Foundation, which researches and promotes the history of pre-NBA Black basketball.
In 1909, Posey became the first person of color to compete in sports at Penn State. He stayed two years, then in 1915 played basketball for the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost, which became Duquesne.
Playing as Charles Cumbert, Posey led the team in scoring for three years, but he never enrolled at the university. Many Pittsburghers knew Posey was making money in baseball, making him ineligible for college sports.
In 1988, Posey was enshrined in Duquesne's Sports Hall of Fame under his real name, and 25 years later, the university created a $1 million endowment in his name to benefit minority students. In 2016, Posey was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
One of Posey’s admirers and friends in the Pittsburgh sports community was Art Rooney, the longtime Steelers owner known as "The Chief." Although Rooney talked little about it, he helped Posey financially.
On March 27, 1946, the day before Posey died of cancer at age 55, the grievously ill trailblazer took one more ride through his beloved Homestead. Days later, "The Chief" served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, and Homestead schools closed for the day.