Negro Leagues To The Major Leagues: The Central

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com
In honor of Black History Month, BaseballDigest.com is celebrating the history of the Negro Leagues and the intertwining pathway of Negro League ballplayers to the Major Leagues. This week the focus is on the teams that might have populated the American League Central and the National League Central were they playing today. Last week featured the teams of The East.

One of the teams featured in last week’s article was the Baltimore Black Sox, a team which the legendary Satchel Paige played with in his earliest years. In the case of the Black Sox, Paige played with them at the height of their success. For a great number of teams, Paige was a huge draw and helped win championships throughout his career. One such team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, benefited and suffered from the height of Paige’s popularity. During the mid 1930’s Paige, along with Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell, the Crawfords won back to back titles. In 1937, the premier players of the team bolted for the Dominican Republic to play for Rafael Trujillo’s team. Within two years the Crawfords were disbanded as the key players went on to play elsewhere and the fanbase dwindled.

By 1939, Paige suffered an arm injury and was believed to have reached his full potential. However, a move to what we might consider the central area of the Negro Leagues changed the direction of his career. Paige’s career led him to the longest running, and arguable the most famous negro league baseball team of all time played in Kansas City, Missouri, which fielded teams from 1920-1965 and shuttled more players to the major leagues than any other team.

In this February 1999 issue of Baseball Digest, John N Holway asks where Josh Gibson would rank among big league sluggers. Click here to read the article!

At the time Paige joined the Monarchs, they were in the midst of their most successful run in franchise history. In addition to Paige, Hall of Fame outfielder Willard Brown and long time player and eventual team manager Buck O’Neil helped to the success of the team. Though Paige, O’Neil and others missed time while serving in the United States Army during World War II, the team thrived. Between 1937 and 1946 the Monarchs won six league titles and their last Negro World Series title in 1942.

The Paige era of the Monarchs was their second period of great success, as the team won four league titles during the 1920’s, including the Negro World Series in 1924. During this earlier period, Hall of Famer Bullet Rogan showed off his amazing ability on the pitching rubber as well as in the line up. For a career that began while playing with an all-black regiment of thr 24th Infantry in the United States Army, Rogan played ball for 18 years and earned more wins than any Negro League pitcher in history. On top of that, his career batting average ranked fourth highest all time. Unsurprisingly, he continued as a manager and an umpire after his playing days were over.

In this March 1980 issue of Baseball Digest, Earl Gustkey featured an interview with Satchel Paige. Click here to read it!

Bullet Rogan’s Monarchs won their league titles during the 1920’s and their toughest competition was located in nearby St. Louis, home of the Stars. The team, which first played in 1922, struggled during its first few years of play. However, by 1925 they were battling Rogan and the Monarchs in the playoffs. Candy Jim Taylor, a manager who won championship titles with three different teams, led the Stars in 1928. With the support of Hall of Famers “Cool Papa” Bell and all-time Negro League home run leader “Mule” Suttles, the Stars dominated between 1928-1931, winning four pennants.

The final league title by the Stars was awarded as a technicality, as the league(and subsequently the team) folded before the season finished. One of the key members of the Stars, Hall of Famer Willie Wells, bounced around with a few teams immediately following the team folding. Wells went north and joined the Chicago Giants for several seasons. The Giants, like many teams, faced multiple changes in leagues, playing in four leagues during the four decades as a franchise. Unlike the Stars, the Giants adapted to the changes that sometimes occurred between just a few seasons. Between 1931 and 1937, the team changed leagues three times and had a one year stint as an independent league team during this time.

Much like the teams in New England and Florida, several major cities that are home to major league teams were also home to often forgotten Negro League era teams. The rivalry between the Minneapolis Keystones and the St. Paul Gophers are such an example. Unlike these teams, others existed for just a year or for five or six before disbanding, moving, or joining new leagues. The Cincinnati Tigers, for example, was a founding member of the Negro American League in 1937 and featured many top league stars of that time. After just one season the team disbanded and the players went in various directions.

Another major city that was home to Negro League team was Houston. When Major League Baseball began integrating the game, the Newark Bears moved the team south in hopes of reviving interest in the team. The team stayed in Houston just two seasons before moving again to New Orleans and disbanding a few years after then.

In this September 1966 issue of Baseball Digest, Al Hirshberg of the Boston Traveler writes about the American League suffering by delaying in signing Negro League ballplayers. Click here to read the full article!

As the Negro Leagues began evolving following the integration of major league baseball, some teams turned to barnstorming comic acts after years as legitimately talented teams. The Indianapolis Clowns, for example, are best remember for selling Hank Aaron’s contract to the Boston Braves after his 1952 season as a member of the Clowns. The team continued its barnstorming performances up until 1988. The Detroit Stars, another key member of the Negro Leagues, became a comedic barnstorming team by the late 1950’s. Long before the change, the Stars had Hall of Fame center fielder Turkey Stearnes roaming their outfield.

“Prince” Joe Henry, a player with both the Clowns and the Stars, represents a great example of the depth and far reaching implications of the Negro Leagues and their players. Henry may be best remembered for his battle to gain pensions for Negro League players from Major League Baseball. He also played with the Memphis Red Sox, a team that boasted a roster over the years that also included both Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil. As the the teams of the east have blended rosters with the teams of the central, there is no doubt the rosters of the teams featured in next week’s installment of the Negro League teams of the west will have further connections to the east, the central, and to major league baseball.

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