John Holway / Negro Leagues
Also Read: Greatest Pitcher? More Numbers Was Satchel the Best? When Ted and Satch Hooked Up How Many Games Did Satchel Win?
HATS OFF TO BILL JAMES' NEGRO LEAGUES 100-BEST LIST
By John B Holway
Hats off to Bill James for recognizing the old Negro League stars in his 100-best list. I hope Bill won't feel I'm ungrateful if I ask for a few more.
Blacks before Jackie Robinson were as good as those who have come after him. And that means they were as good as the whites of their day. In fact, they won 53 out of every 100 games they played each other.
I agree with Bill that Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson are the top two blackball stars. I would switch them around, however, putting Josh at #4 and Oscar at #9.
As an 18-year-old in 1930, Gibson blasted one ball within two feet of going out of Yankee Stadium. In that same series, the Eastern playoff between his Homestead Grays and the NY Lincoln Giants, he drove one over the 457-foot centerfield fence at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, the first man/boy ever to do it. Only Charleston, Mickey Mantle, Dick stuart, and Josh himself in 1946, ever matched that. For his '46 blow, the dying Gibson reportedly smashed it 100 feet beyond the fence. Another drive, in POuerto Rico, was estimated at 525 or 575 feet, against the wind.
I feel confident that if Josh had played in the white majors, both he and his rival, Mule Suttles (#43 on James' list) would have demolished Babe Ruth's 60-homer mark within a decade after Babe set it. If Roger Maris could do, why couldn't they? And don't forget: Josh played in Pittsburgh and Washington, where the leftfield foul lines were 350 and 408 feet respectively, compared to 257 feet and 296 for Babe's targets in New York. Put Josh in Fenway, Ebbetts, or the Polo Grounds, and how many would he have hit? Lifetime, Josh hit 42 homers per 550 at bats, the average for white big league kings. Babe averaged 48, Hank Aaron 30. In addition, Gibson swung at the old Wilson ball, not the tightly wound Spalding ball used in the white leagues. "It's a good thing," winces Double Duty Radcliffe, "or Josh would have killed someone."
One might even argue that if Babe had faced the best black pitchers of his day, such as Satchel Paige, Bullet Joe Rogan (q.v.), Bill Foster et al, he would have hit a lot less than 60 homers. And if Suttles had been in the American League, Ruth might not even have been the league home run leader. In Cuba Mule hit one bomb a measured 598 feet.
And don't dismiss Josh and Mule as just flat-footed sluggers. Josh rarely struck out or walked, and three times he led the league with .400-plus averages. His lifetime .353 is fourth-best among all Negro League stars. Mule batted .335 lifetime with several .400-plus years and was hitting .398 lifetime before he was beaned in 1926.
Suttles was no star in the field. But Josh had a good arm as a catcher; he also called three classic no-hitters by Smoky Joe Williams and Ray Brown (see below).
Where does Gibson rate on the all-time list? Let's put it this way: Willie Mays (#4) averaged 33 homers per 550 and batted .302, about 50 points lower than Josh.
You might want Willie on defense, but he isn't in Josh's league at the bat.
As for Mule, he was at least the equal of Mel Ott, who golfed 511 dinky 257-foot seven-iron shots into the Polo Grounds overhang, which were good enough for #28 on the list. I think Suttles should easily bump him out of his slot. That would put the big Mule next to Jimmie Foxx, the white man in the pantheon whom he most resembles.
Here are Bill's other Negro League choices:
17. Satchel Paige
25. Turkey Stearnes
27. Pop Lloyd
52. Smoky Joe Williams
65. Buck Leonard
67. Cristobal Torriente
76. Cool Papa Bell
86. Willie Wells
95. Martin Dihigo
Stearnes is a solid choice.
Lloyd is a clone of Honus Wagner (#2) and could be ranked closer to him.
I personally would put Torriente and Wells higher and drop Paige, Williams, Leonard, and Bell down a few notches. Dihigo is over-rated and can be dropped from the list altogether.
However, all-in-all, nice going, Bill. But may I nominate some missing names to add?
Satchel Paige was not the best Negro League pitcher. Bullet Joe Rogan was. Satch had the color and got the ink, but there were better pitchers than he was. At 5'6", Joe didn't stand as high as the letters on Babe Ruth's chest and weighed 40 pounds less than the Babe, but he ranks with Ruth as the best double-threat man, hitting and pitching, in North American history.
Joe played centerfield and second base when he wasn't on the mound and could win 20 games (in a 100-game season), hit over .400, and swat homers at a 40-plus pace for 550 at bats. His lifetime average, .343, is fifth-best in blackball annals.
And on the mound, his 153 league victories are only three less than Paige, but Rogan lost a lot less:
And Joe didn't join the league until 1920, when he was 28, compared to Satchel's 23, and Joe's career was cut short after 1930 by the Great Depression while Satch pitched into his 40s. Debuting in July 1920, the rookie Rogan won 12 games; had he started in May, he would certainly have won at least five more games to surpass Satch as number 1.
So in my book, Bullet Joe deserves to be in the top ten. Mantle (#6) and Stan Musial (#10) were great. But neither were great enough to knock Bullet Joe out of any lineup.
The top white catchers on James' list are Yogi Berra (#41) and Johnny Bench (#44). Neither one of them could take a job away from Biz Mackey, the best defensive receiver and perhaps the best all-round catcher of all time. His protege, Roy Campanella, #53, ("You saw Campy catch, you saw Mackey") calls Biz better than his fellow Philadelphian and contemporary, Mickey Cochrane. Pitchers lucky enough to pitch to Mackey rhapsodized about him in language that woman usually reserve for their lovers.
Biz could hit too. A switch-hitter with occasional power, he once led the league with a .424 and ended with .320 for a career. Neither Berra nor Bench came close to that, and Berra's power numbers were inflated by the short porch in New York. Yogi and Johnny were good, but not in a class with Biz.
Even Joe DiMaggio (#13), is just another good player without his phoney "hitting streak," which was the gift of NY official scorers. Without it, he's a clone of Hank Greenberg (#68). If I had to pick either Joe or Biz on my team, I'd take Biz. Any Dream Team pitching staff would win more games with Mackey behind the plate than with DiMag in centerfield.
The best hitter for average in the Negro Leagues was Jud "Boojum" Wilson. A gruff, burly, basso-voiced scrapper, he looked more like a rassler than one of the best hitters in history. His lifetime .366 compares with .367 by Ty Cobb (#5), the best of the whites. A left-hander, Jud sliced long drives to leftfield -- that's why they called him "Boojum," from the ring of his hits banging off the walls.
Wilson played all four infield positions, mostly third base. Fancy-dan third baseman Ray Dandridge treasured Jud's advice: "Kid, always charge the ball." Jud himself, however, had a different technique. He let the ball hit his chest, then picked it up and nailed his man at first. After a game his chest was covered with bruise marks.
Like Cobb, Jud loved to swing a bat and swing his fists with equal zest. His favorite target was umpires.
If Ty is rated #5, can Jud be far behind?
Close behind Bullet Joe Rogan is Ray Brown. With Josh Gibson, he made up probably the best battery in baseball history. His league won-lost was
Brown 148- 50 .747 .
Whitey Ford leads all whites with .690.
Ray's hometown papers, the Washington Post and Afro-American, did not cover the Grays' home games for two years; if they had, Ray would have picked up about 20 additional victories. He won 23 in a row, not counting some losses in the post-season, and in Mexico once completed all 25 games he started,including a double-header when he gave up one run in 18 innings.
Brown was as temperamental as Lefty Grove (#19) and hit with the power of Wes Ferrell.
Where should he rate on the 100-best list? Wherever Satchel is finally put, Ray should rank ahead of him.
So, Bill, you did an excellent job of including Negro Leaguers on your list. Please don't think I'm ungrateful if I make a case for four guys who so far are vastly under-rated.
May I also say a few words about some deserving white men?
Ted Williams ranks #7, behind Mickey Mantle. Ted hit circles around Mickey in 1957, when Ted was 38 and Mick was 25, an age when Ted ws setting records on the gunnery range at Pensacola Naval Air Base . One must always remember that, in comparing Teddy Ballgame to anyone else, we are comparing them at their primes to Ted before and after his prime. Those five big years in the Service, which ended with crash-landing a burning jet in Korea, took a huge bite out of Williams' career. Subtract those same ages from Mantle, Ruth, and anyone else to get an idea of the cost Ted paid. Lou Gehrig, for instance, would finish with 295 homers. One or two more .400 seasons for Ted are not unlikely (Cobb batted .420, .410, and .390 in Ted's first three missing ages). Ted had already hit more homers than any other 23 year-old when he left for the Navy. In the next three ages, Jimmie Foxx, Mantle, Mays, and Maris all suddenly hit 50-plus. What would Ted have done?
If Bill wants to move Ted up to third or second or even first, he won't get an argument from me.
By the same token, Bob Feller (#56) joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, thus sacrificing the four best years of his life and probably 100 victories and 1,000 strikeouts to his country. Despite it, Bob won 266 games, compared to 256 by Bob Gibson (#46). If one deducts the same ages from Walter Johnson (#8), Christy Mathewson (#42), and other immortals, one gets numbers very close to Feller's 266 wins. In the missing seasons, Feller could conceivably have won 30 games at least once, and might have added three more no-hitters to go with the three he did get. He also had 11 one-hitters, any one of which could have been a no-hitter but for the luck of the bounce. Without a war, Feller, not Nolan Ryan or Steve Carlton, would very probably have broken Walter Johnson's srikeout mark. Yet the fans wouldn't even vote him to their best-50 All-Century team. The Hall of Fame, which corrected other "mistakes" by the fans, didn't lift a finger to correct this injustice. And James rates him even below Sandy Koufax (#51), who won only 165 games.
I'd put Bob up there with two other wartime heroes, Pete Alexander (#20), who won 373 games and served in the trenches in World War I, and Warren Spahn (#36), who led the charge across Remagen Bridge, when he could have been winning a few more games to go with his 363.
While many others (Tom Seaver, #36, Roger Clemens, #49, etc) were fattening their totals, Bob was in the South Pacific, manning an anti-aircraft gun and blasting away at kamikaze planes. He's proud of one record that none of the other immortals can claim -- eight battle stars. Does he regret his decision to volunteer? "No," he says firmly. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. That's not one of them."
Two more men who gave up three or more years to their country are not on James' top 100 list, though both are among the best-hitting shortstops ever -- Cecil Travis and Johnny Pesky.
Travis was drafted right after beating out Joe DiMaggio .359 to .356 in Joe's "streak" year of 1941. At that point Cece had a lifetime average of .329, the second-highest of any shortstop ever, behind only Honus Wagner (#2). Three subpar post-war years brought Cecil's average down to .314, leaving him third behind Wagner and Arky Vaughan (#39, .318). Travis' wartime service and the big "W" on his cap, for Washington, are two millstones just too heavy to carry into Cooperstown, let alone into Bill's list.
Pesky missed three years and the chance to make 200 hits in his first five seasons. His lifetime .307 would be higher if he could count the missing seasons -- he was averaging .330 before and after the war. Incidentally, he never held the ball while Enos Slaughter scored in the 1946 World Series. The official films confirm that he got a bad rap, but it has kept him out of Cooperstown for half a century. Yet Bill rates Pesky way below Luis Aparicio (.262), George Davis (.295), Jim Fegosi (.265), and Phil Rizzuto (.273).
Before Bill's feelings are hurt, I hasten to add that he's dead right about Craig Biggio (#35) and Jeff Bagwell (#45). Using a different approach, Batting Wins and Losses, I came to the same conclusion. Bill is measuring theoretical value, while BW and BL measure actual wins on the field (see Thebbguru, date). But we agree that the Killer Bees are indeed the most under-rated value players in the game. They finished 1-2 in my method of rating the 2001 MVP, and have been near the top in their league since the late 1990s.
Most stats assume that traditional numbers (BA, HR, RBI) translate into value. Maybe they do, and maybe they don't. It's important to hit 'em where they ain't; it's even more important to hit 'em when they count. James' method is an improvement, but even he remains theoretical without reference to actual performance in real games.
A check of Teddy Ballgame's career, and a spot-check of Cobb's suggest that Ty and Ted may run 1-2 in lifetime Batting Wins. The order might be reversed if Ted had played as many games as Ty. Who needed all Babe's or Mickey's homers? The Yankees would have won without them. But the Tigers and Red Sox could not have won wiithout Cobb and Williams producing key runs day in and day out.
One last request. Sadaharu Oh. He was even better than his 868 lifetime home runs indicate. People don't realize he did it in only 9250 at bats, compared to 12,364 by Hank Aaron. If Oh had come up as often as Aaron, he'd have hit over 1,000 homers. The Japanese teams played only 130 games a year. U.S. players get a full 32 games, about 25 percent, more. And Oh walked more than any man in history, 500 times more than Rickey Henderson, Ruth, or Williams. He never came to bat as many as 500 times a year officially, and often it was under 400. In his best home run year he hit 55 in only 390 times up. That comes to 69 per 550 at bats. Toughie Rhodes tied the record this year, but he needed 160 more at bats to do it.
Oh's target in Tokyo was 288 feet, helped him, but it was only eight feet less than Ruth's 296 feet in the Stadium.
Oh faced U.S. stars such as Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, and Mickey Lolich, who estimated he would hit 25-35 homers a year in the States. Indeed, in his games against them, he averaged 34 per 550. (In Japan he averaged 48, the same as Ruth.)
When Ichiro, Nomo, Shinjo, and Yoshii came to the States, they pretty much duplicated their Japanese numbers. The only exception was Irabu. Ichiro's lifetime average in Japan was .353, compared to .350 in the States. How would Oh have done here?
Perhaps left-hander Shoichi Kaneda might also get consideration. He held the world strikeout record, 4,090, until Nolan Ryan broke it.
If Bill will open his doors to Oh, can Cooperstown be far behind?