Until Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color line in 1947, Black Americans' professional baseball opportunities were limited primarily to the Negro Leagues. These leagues showcased impressive talent, from power hitters Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson to pitchers Satchel Paige and Joe "Smokey" Williams. Thirty-five players from the Negro Leagues have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 2020, Major League Baseball recognized records and statistics from 3,400 players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920-1948. The inclusion of these players into the MLB official records was a result of efforts by the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group. The MLB-supported group amassed the most comprehensive statistical database of the Negro Leagues by culling boxscores from 345 different newspapers.
Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, led the NLRAG and continues to audit the stats. “We will never have 100 percent of the Negro League stats,” he says. “But we have a large enough sample size to quantify and justify the greatness of these ballplayers.”
Using research by the NLRAG, below is a starting lineup composed of some of the best players in the history of the Negro Leagues. (Statistics are from Seamheads.com, which is believed to have assembled the most comprehensive stats from the Negro Leagues.) Seven of these players were enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
1. Starting pitcher: Joe "Smokey" Williams
CAREER: 1907-1932 | 156-94 record | 1,571 strikeouts | ERA. 2.45
Satchel Paige may be the best-known Negro Leagues pitcher, but during a career that spanned more than two decades, Williams had a career that rivaled any pitcher of his generation, Black or white.
In a 1-0 victory over the Kansas City Monarchs in 1930, Williams—who spent much of his career with the New York Lincoln Giants—threw a one-hitter and struck out 27. In exhibitions against white major league teams, the righthander beat future Hall of Famers Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rube Marquart and Waite Hoyt. Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players in big-league history, said Williams would have been a “sure 30-game winner” had he played in the majors.
In a 1952 poll by the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading Black newspapers in the United States, Williams was named the greatest pitcher in Negro League history. In 1999, 48 years after his death, Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
2. Catcher: Josh Gibson
CAREER: Batting average .366 | Home runs 239 | RBI 1,046 | Hits 1,208
Gibson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, was known as the “Black Babe Ruth.” He may have hit more than 800 home runs during a career mostly spent with the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.
The stories that Gibson hit home runs that soared out of old Yankee Stadium are difficult to pin down. Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest power hitters of all time, narrowly missed in 1963. But there’s no doubt Gibson had tremendous power.
"Nobody hit the ball as far as Gibson,” said Buck Leonard, his former teammate. “I didn't see the one he is supposed to have hit out of Yankee Stadium. But I saw him hit a ball one night in the Polo Grounds that went between the upper deck and lower deck and out of the stadium. Later the night watchman came in and asked, 'Who hit the damn ball out there?' He said it landed on the El. It must have gone 600 feet."
3. First base: Buck Leonard
CAREER: Batting average .342 | Home runs 103 | RBI 593 | Hits 803
Leonard, a teammate of Gibson’s on the Homestead Grays, joined him in the Hall of Fame in 1972. As teammates, they led the Grays to four consecutive Negro League World Series titles from 1942-45.
“Buck Leonard was the equal of any first baseman who ever lived,” said Monte Irvin, a fellow Negro Leaguer and Hall of Famer. “If he’d gotten the chance to play in the major leagues, they might have called Lou Gehrig ‘The White Buck Leonard.’ ”
In 1948, after batting .395 and leading the Grays to their third Negro World Series title, Leonard flirted with opportunities to play in the big leagues. But by then he was well past his prime. Reflecting on his baseball career, Leonard, who died in 1997 at age 90, told a reporter: “We used to go see major league ballplayers. We waited to see if there was a difference. There wasn’t. Not a major league difference.”
4. Second Base: George “Tubby” Scales
CAREER: Batting average .324 | Home runs 72 | RBI 633 | Hits 928
Scales hit .300 or better 14 times in his 25 seasons, which included stints with the New York Lincoln Giants, Baltimore Elite Giants and Homestead Grays. Nicknamed “Tubby” for a stodgy build, Scales was regarded by peers as a great curveball hitter.
“Tubby is an underrated player who is seldom talked about,” Lester says.
In a 1952 poll by the Pittsburgh Courier, Scales was rated the fourth-best second baseman in Negro League history, behind Jackie Robinson, Bingo DeMoss and Bill Monroe. (The last Negro League teams folded in the early 1960s.)
5. Shortstop: Willie “The Devil” Wells
CAREER: Batting average .326 | Home Runs 172 | RBI 1,159 | Hits 1,809
During a 24-year career, Wells was an excellent fielding shortstop who could hit for average and power. He compensated for a weak throwing with great anticipation; and to get rid of a ball quickly, he used a flat glove.
“He made his glove flat by taking out all the padding in the heel,” Negro League star Buck O’Neil told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2003. “And when he got done, it looked like the glove didn’t even fit his hand.”
After he was hit by a pitch and suffered a concussion in 1939, Wells used a coal miner’s helmet as a batting helmet—the first use of that safety device, according to baseball historians. Later, he used a construction worker’s helmet, said his daughter, Stella.
As a Newark Eagle, Wells was part of the so-called “Million Dollar Infield,” which included Ray Dandridge, Dick Seay and Mule Suttles. “Players would often say, ‘Don’t hit the ball to shortstop because the Devil is out there,’ ” says Lester of Wells, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997..
6. Third Base: John Beckwith
CAREER: Batting average .347 | Home Runs 107 | RBI 586 | Hits 796
At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Beckwith was one of the most intimidating sluggers in the game during his 19-year career. Babe Ruth supposedly said that not “only can Beckwith hit harder than any Negro ballplayer, but any man in the world.”
In 30 games in 1931, Beckwith hit .364 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs.
Beckwith was known as a difficult teammate, Lester says, explaining why he moved around so often during his career. But he believes that he was as good a power hitter as any player of his era, including Oscar Charleston, Gibson and Turkey Stearnes.
7. Outfielder: Oscar Charleston
CAREER: Batting average .350 | Home Runs 211 | RBI 1,319 | Hits 2,034
Charleston, who played from 1915 into the late 1940s, was one of the early Negro League stars. “In my opinion, the greatest ballplayer I’ve ever seen was Oscar Charleston,” St. Louis Cardinals scout Bennie Borgmann was quoted in Twenty Years Too Soon: Prelude to Major-League Integrated Baseball. “When I say this, I’m not overlooking [Babe] Ruth, [Ty] Cobb, [Lou] Gehrig and all of them.”
An "early days version of Willie Mays," Lester calls one of the most complete players in the history of the Negro Leagues.
In 2001, Bill James, the noted baseball statistician, ranked Charleston—who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976—as the fourth-best player of all time behind Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays.
8. Outfield: James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell
CAREER: Batting average .331 | Home Runs 74 | RBI 757 | Hits 1,958
A solid all-around player, Bell was best known for his speed. “One time [Bell] hit a line drive right past my ear,” said Paige, considered one of baseball's all-time great storytellers. “I turned around and saw the ball hit him sliding into second.”
Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, a Negro League pitcher and catcher, liked to tell how Bell took second on bunts: “If he bunts and it bounces twice, put it in your back pocket,” he said.
Bell played 24 years, 10 with his hometown team, the St. Louis Stars. His induction into the Hall of Fame came in 1974. “He was a great role model for me and many young Black men,” Lester says.
9. Outfield: Turkey Stearnes
CAREER: Batting average .348 | Home Runs 200 | RBI 1.069 | Hits 1,404
Stearnes, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, batted over .400 three times and led the Negro Leagues in home runs seven times in an 18-year career with several teams.
“He was a Ricky Henderson before there was a Ricky Henderson,” says Lester, referencing MLB's all-time leader in steals.
In 2001, Bill James ranked Stearnes the 25th-best player of all time and the best left-fielder in the Negro Leagues. Stearnes shares the record for most times leading the league in triples with six, tying Sam Crawford of the Detroit Tigers.