John Holway / Negro Leagues
.400 AND THE NEGRO LEAGUES
JOHN B HOLWAY
Five men hit .400 in the white major legues since 1900 - Ty Curve ball and Rogers Hornsby (three times each), George Sisler twice, Larry Lajoie, Joe Jackson, George Sisler, Harry Heilmann, Bill Terry, and Ted Wiliams. Several - Cobb and Hornsby in 1922, Heilmann, and Terry - barely made it over the magic threshold.
Several names are missing from the list: Pop Lloyd, Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, and other giants of the Negro Leagues. After more than 30 years poring over Negro League box scores and compiling the most comprehensive collection of stories and statistics ever done, my conclusion:
The black stars in the 60 years before Jackie Robinson were just as great as the black stars in the almost 60 years after him. And that means they were just as great as the white stars of their own day. They played Cobb, Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson etc every year after the World Series and won as many games as they lost - won a few more, to be exact.
How many blacks might have hit .400 before Jackie Robinson? In the almost half-century since then, three men have batted over .390. Two of them - Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn -- were black.
The record books would look much different if the best black and white players before 1946 had played in two integrated leagues. Several white stars would have been dropped from the list of .400 hitters, to be replaced by blacks.
Here, for example, are the top single-season batting averages in the Negro Leagues:
1928 1928 *Pop Lloyd .563
1924 1924 Mule Suttles .498
1943 1943 Tetelo Vargas .484
1929 1929 Chino Smith .464
1937 *Josh Gibson .449
1946 Frank Austin .454
1939 *Turkey Stearnes .453
1943 *Josh Gibson .449
1929 John Beckwith .443
1923 Biz Mackey .441
* Hall of Famers
Jud Wilson, who batted .366 lifetime to lead all black hitters, batted over .400 four times.
Pop Lloyd and Jimmie Foxx
Negro League seasons ran from 40 to 100 games. Naturally such high averages could not be sustained for 154 games. And in an integrated league both blacks and whites would have lost points as stronger pitchers from both races replaced weaker ones.
However, several of the names above might well have appeared on a list of 20th century .400 hitters. Suttles and Gibson both batted .333 against white major leaguers (Mule hit ten homers in 99 at bats); in 1910 Lloyd outhit Ty Cobb in Cuba, .565 to .369. (Ty was so mad, he stomped off the field and vowed never to play blacks again.)
No one has hit .400 since integration. "I'd have shaved a few points off those high batting averages," Satchel Paige said.
Bullet Joe Rogan (left), Smoky Joe Williams (right), and others would have shaved some more points off.
In `1922 Rogan had a Negro League record of 19-11. He has almost as many lifetime wins as Satchel Paige and less losses.
Williams was 4-1 in '22. Lifetime he was 12-6 against white big leaguers, including one victory over Pete Alexander and two over Walter Johnson. If they had faced Ty Cobb and George Sisler that year, might they have cost them their .400 averages?
In 1930 Joe was 7-2 in the black leagues; Bill Holland was 13-1, Army Cooper 15-1, and Bill Foster 16-10 (Bill had a 3-0 record against white big leaguers). Had they faced Bill Terry, could Bill have batted .400?
Even Ted Williams' .406 would have been in danger. If Ted had collected just three less hits in '41, he would have finished with .399. In the Negro leagues that year, Hilton Smith (left) had a 10-1 record and was 3-0 lifetime against whites, holding them to two runs in 34 innings. Satchel Paige was 7-0, Dan Bankhead (later of the Dodgers) was 6-1, Bill Byrd 14-5, Ray Brown 14-6, and Leon Day 3-0. Brown was second only to Paige in lifetime wins. Could they have cost Ted those three hits?
Excerpted from The Last 400 Hitter, to be published in April.