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THUMB-NAIL BIOS

By John B. Holway

In the old Negro Leagues, they called Jud Wilson “Boojum” for the sound his hits made rattling off the fences. With his broad shoulders, spindly legs, and gruff voice, he seemed more like a professional rassler than one of the best hitters in baseball history, but his lifetime .366 batting average was the highest of any man in the black leagues and just one point shy of Ty Cobb’s .367, which led the white leagues. Jud loved to hit and fight, and his run-ins with umpires are as famous as his batting exploits.

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If Josh Gibson and Mule Suttles had been allowed in the white major leagues, one or both probably would have smashed Babe Ruth’s 60-homer record a decade after it was set in 1927. Along with Jimmie Foxx, they were America’s top sluggers of the 1930s and early ‘40s, and they battled each other for the black home run crown year after year. They also terrorized white big league pitchers in exhibitons. When Jackie Robinson went to the Dodgers in 1947, Mule was 43, and Josh destroyed himself with drink and addictive drugs, depriving most Americans of seeing two of history’s greatest sluggers.

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Little Bullet Joe Rogan stood only 5’7” tall and weighed 60 pounds less than Babe Ruth, but he and the Babe were the two greatest double-threat men –hit and pitch – in baseball history. Bullet played centerfield and second base, plus pitcher, and in his heyday in the 1920s he could bat .400, win 20 games, and slug homers at a rate of 40 per year if he’d played a 154-game white season. Rogan’s lifetime wins, 195 in a short ten-year career, are second only to Satchel Paige in Negro League annals.

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Down in Havana in the winter of 1911, Negro Leaguer John Henry Lloyd met the great Ty Cobb man to man, and Lloyd out-hit Cobb, .500 to .369. Lloyd, a shortstop, wore iron shin guards under his socks, and when Cobb slid into second with his famous sharpened spikes, Lloyd blocked him off the base. They say Cobb was so mad, he stomped off the field and vowed never to play against blacks again.

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In 1934 the great Satchel Paige battled the Cardinals’ colorful Dizzy Dean and a skinny black left-hander, Slim Jones, for the title of America’s best pitcher. In the black leagues, Satchel was 19-4, and Jones 20-6. In a two-game showdown in Yankee Stadium, Jones won the first game 2-0. A week later, the boys in the barbershop were “woofin’” that Jones would do it again. Satch led 3-1 as darkness fell in the ninth, then struck out the side, poked his head in the dugout, and said, “Tell that to the boys in the barbershop.”

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San Antonio's Willie "Devil" Wells was a pesky shortstop and the fourth leading home run hitter in the Negro Leagues. In 1929 he bedeviled a team of American League all stars. In game one his two-out triple in the ninth tied the game, and a moment later he stole home with the winner. The next day he slammed two more triples and stole home again as the blacks won 10-1. In game four Wells came up in the ninth tied 6-6 and smashed a single over third to beat the big leaguers for the third time in four games.

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Big Bill Foster of Calvert Texas was 19 years younger than his half-brother, Rube, and was probably the greatest black left-hander of all time. In 1926 his Chicago American Giants faced the Kansas City Monarchs in the playoff and went into the final game losing four games to three. On a snowy day in Chicago, Bill beat KC's great Bullet Rogan 1-0 to open a double header. His teammates begged him to go back for game two. "You pitching?" demanded Rogan, grabbing the ball himself. Foster won again 5-0, his double-header shutout putting the Giants in the World Series.

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"Kick, Mule!" the fans chanted when Mule Suttles, the Alabama coal miner, came to bat. Second only to Josh Gibson as a Negro League home run hitter, Mule once smashed a ball in Cuba that was measured at 598 feet. In the 1935 All Star game in Comiskey Park, Mule hadn't had a hit as the teams were tied 8-8 in the 11th. With two men on, he sent a pitcher to "pinch-kneel" in the on-deck circle, fooling pitcher Martin Dihigo into walking Josh Gibson. Mule then smashed an upper-deck home run, a la Ted Williams, to win.

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Cristobal Torriente was the greatest player ever to come out of Cuba. Great centerfielder and hitter, he also pitched and even played third base -- left-handed. In 1920 he faced Babe Ruth in a mano-a-mano duel in Havana. Ruth walked. Torri smashed a homer deep into the unfenced centerfield. Ruth grounded out. Torrie homered again. Babe hit another grounder, then put himself in to pitch. Torri drilled a ball to third that "almost tore my leg off," said Frank Frisch. It was a double. Babe walked in the seventh, and Torriente blasted his third homer to win the duel.

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They called Cool Papa Bell the fastest man in spikes (though Negro Leaguer Oscar Chalston stole more bases). In 1948, the 46 year-old Bell wrapped up his ancient legs for one last game against white big leaguers. With Bell on first and the Cardinals' Murray Dickson pitching, Satchel Paige laid down a bunt. Bell was off with the pitch, reached second when bat hit ball, and kept streaking to the uncovered third. The Red Sox' Roy Partee ran to cover the bag, so Bell raced past him and slid across the now unguarded plate. He had scored from first on a bunt.

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Josh Gibson was an 18 year-old rookie in the black playoffs of 1930, when he hit the first ball ever over the 457-foot centerfield fence at Forbes Field, home of the Pirates. (He would do it again in 1946.) In Yankee Stadium, against slow-balling Broadway Connie Rector, Josh drove a pitch deep to left-center, then called "Death Valley." It was a low line drive and banged against the back of the old bullpen, a run-way between the grandstand and bleachers. Two feet higher, and it would have been the only fair ball ever hit out of the House that Ruth Built.

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In a 1952 poll of Negro League players and sports writer, Satchel Paige lost by one vote for best pitcher to Smoky Joe Williams of Seguin Texas. Legend says Joe beat the great Walter Johnson 1-0. Two eye-witnesses describe another gem, a ten-inning 20-strikeout one-hitter against the National League champ New York Giants. Joe lost it 1-0. Hall of Famer Ross Youngs trotted in from the outfield, slapped Joe on the rump, and said, "That was a hell of a game, Smoky," giving him his immortal nickname.

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Negro League pitchers loved to pitch to Raleigh "Biz" Mackey, another native of Sequin. "He was an artist behind the plate," they said. "Oooh, he just built you up and got you feeling so good!" Biz batted .421 in 1924, but his fielding was his forte. He taught 17 year-old Roy Campanella everything he knew. Roy, from Philadelphia, called Mackey better than Mickey Cochrane of the old Athletics, considered the best white catcher of that era. Campy introduced Biz to 90,000 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum just before Mackey passed away.

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The first ball ever hit out of Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, was struck in 1921 by a teenage rookie named John Beckwith of the Negro National League. Fans showered the kid with coins as he crossed home plate. He went on to become one of the six top home runs hitters in blackball history. Beck played both shortstop and catcher, and was considered as sullen as Albert Belle of a later date. In 1928 Big John traded home runs with Jimmie Foxx to beat the big leaguers 2-1. His .347 lifetime average is one of the best in the Negro Leagues.

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In 1926, thirty years before Don Larsen, Claude "Red" Grier of the Negro League Atlantic City Bacharach Giants hurled the first World Series no-hitter, though he was far from perfect. He walked six men but was supported by some great plays by flashy infielders Oliver Marcelle and Dick Lundy. A year later his teammate, Red Farrell, pitched another Series no-no, walking five. His teammates made four errors, and Farrell staggered to a 3-2 win in seven innings, when a sudden rain storm sent the players running for cover.

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Yankee Stadium opened its doors to black teams July 6 1930, and the first black home run was drilled by Herbert "Rap" Dixon of the Baltimore Black Sox. But the New York Lincolns' little Chino Smith stole the show. Like Babe Ruth, Chino played rightfield and batted third, and he had a Ruthian day -- two homers and a triple. The pugnacious Smith once told Yankee pitcher Johnny Allen, "Hit me in the head, you couldn't hurt me." Allen obliged. The next pitch Smith hit straight at Allen's head, and the two rushed each other in the middle of the field. Chino died suddenly at age 30, leaving behind a lifetime average of .388.

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Rube Foster of Calvert Texas was one of the four or five most influential men in baseball history. Without Rube and the Negro League he founded in 1920, there might not have been a Jackie Robinson -- or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron -- trained and ready to walk through the big league doors. Rube was a great pitcher, 1902-1912. As manager of the Chicago American Giants, he gave signals with his meerschaum pipe and pioneered the triple steal and the hit-and-run bunt, sending the runner fom first to third. Finally, he founded the Negro National league. After World war II the flood of new black stars saved baseball. "Without Foster," one writer said, "this harvest, this crop just might not have been there."

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Cubans called lefty Eustaquio Pedroso "Bombin," or "Deby Hat." In 1909 he hurled one of the greatest pitching masterpieces in North American history, against the American League champion Detroit Tigers. Detroit didn't bring its stars, Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, but for 11 innings Pedroso stopped the rest of the champs without a hit. Fans collected 300 pesos for Bombin -- even some of the Tigers chipped in. The Cubans beat Detroit eight games to four that fall The Reach Baseball Guide pronounced the Tigers a "disgrace."

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White writers called Oscar Charleston "the black Ty Cobb," but others called Cobb "the white Oscar Charleston." Psyching pitchers and infielders with smouldering, leonine eyes, Charleston filed his spikes and played the same savage game on the bases as Cobb -- he stole more bases than Cool Papa Bell. He hit to all fields, batting .342, and, unlike Cobb, he hit with power, ranking fourth in lifetime Negro League home runs. Charlie was fast with his fists, starting several riots, and could swing a man around by the heels, bowling over several attackers at the same time.

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Why isn't Ray Brown in the Hall of Fame? He won almost as many Negro League games as Satchel Paige -- 155 to 159 -- but lost a lot less -- 50 to Satchel's 90. (Remember, black teams played half as many league games as whites did.) Brown's won-lost percent, .747, is the best of any pitcher in history, black or white. If Brown had said, "Don't look back, someone may be gaining on you," he and not Satch might be in Coopersown. Brown and Josh Gibson formed the greatest battery in black -- or possibly any history. From 1937-39 Brown won 22 straight league games. A temperamental, handsome man, he married the owner's pretty daughter.

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Turkey Stearnes weighed 168 pounds soaking wet, yet he slugged more Negro League home runs than any man, beating Josh Gibson and Mule Suttles by 17 (although he came to bat more times). Turkey also batted .352, second best in the Negro Leagues. Stearnes was a great centerfielder and often batted leadoff ahead of Suttles. He finished first in lifetime homers and triples, second in batting, third in doubles, and ninth in steals, making him the best lead-off man in baseball history.

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Josh Gibson once said he could hit Satchel Paige "like any other pitcher." "Did he now?" Satch asked. In the 1942 black World Series, with a two-run lead, Satch deliberately walked the bases loaded to bring up Josh. "Now let's see how good you can hit me," he taunted Gibson as his manager and owner charged onto the field, shouting, "You got to be crazy!" "I ain't gonna trick you," Satch said. "I'm gonna throw fast balls at the knees." Josh didn't believe it and took the first two side-arm strikes. He swung at the third, missed it, and threw his bat 40 feet in the air.

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Third baseman Ray Dandridge was so bow-legged, "you could drive a train between his legs -- but you couldn't drive a baseball through them." Ray hit like George Kell and fielded like Brooks Robinson, charging bunts and one-handing them to nip his man at first. He was 35 before he got his shot with the New York Giants' farm in Minneapolis. He batted .347 and was elected rookie of the year. The next year he hit .311 and was elected MVP. The Cleveland Indians needed him in 1949, and the Giants in 1950 but they wouldn't bring him up, and both finished third. He was considered more valuable on the farm "baby-sitting" rookie Willie Mays.

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In 1918 Casey Stengel discovered shortstop Dobie Moore on the Arizona desert playing with an all-black Army team. "That man could hit line drives out there as far as you want to see," Casey told the black Kansas City Monarchs, who signed both Moore and Bullet Joe Rogan. Some old-timers say Moore, the round-faced Georgian, was the best black shortstop ever. But his career was abruptly ended in 1926, when his girl friend shot him in the leg. Dobie was batting .390 at the time and finished with a lifetime average of .361.

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Rotund little J.L. Wilkinson put together two great dynasties of Kansas City Monarchs. In 1930 his pioneering lights saved the black leagues -- and helped save the white minors. He gave Satchel Paige his second chance after arm trouble had apparently ended his career, and gave Jackie Robinson his first chance in professional baseball. A white man from Brooklyn, Iowa ("I used to pitch for Brooklyn"), he founded the multi-racial and bi-gender All Nations team. Beloved by his players, when the white raids began in 1947, Wilkie gave up more men than any other black owner -- 27 in all, including Robinson, Paige, Ernie Banks and Lou Brock -- and got almost nothing in return.

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Talk of opening the major leagues to blacks surfaced in 1939 and again in 1942 -- imagine seeing Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige in their primes! Roy Campanella's name was also mentioned. Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, told Gibson and Washington Grays teammate Buck Leonard, "it would break up your league." Thereafter Josh began taking alcohol and drugs. In 1944 he was literally in and out of a mental hospital, yet batted .443 and led the league in homers. In '46, still abusing himself, he hit .404 and smashed homers at a pace of 66 per 550 at bats. In three months he was dead at 35. If he didn't die of a broken heart, he died with one.

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Ted Williams faced Satchel Paige for the first time in 1948, when Satchel was an American League rookie. "Jeez, he had a nice easy motion," Ted marveled. Before he knew it, he was 1-for-6. "Heh," he said, "I better get going." The next game Satch went into his windup, and at the top he turned his wrist "like this. Everybody in the park saw it. He made damn sure I saw it. I said, "Jeez, curve ball." Whoosh, fastball, strike three. "Next day I'm in the dugout after the National Anthem. Satchel comes in -- he was always late. 'Where's Ted? Where's Ted?' 'Right here, Satchel.'" "Ted," Paige grinned, "you ought to know better than to guess with old Satchel!"

These and other stories and statistics of the great Negro Leagues are from 'The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues" by John B Holway. For a personally autographed copy, send $29.00 to: Craig Tomarkin / 2333 Congress St / Fairfeld, CT 06430. Postage is free. Mention whom you would like John to autograph the book to.

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