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Comparing Negro League All-Timers to Japanese All-timers

by Jim Albright

I thought it would be interesting to compare the best players of the Negro Leagues to the best of Japan. For the Negro Leaguers, we'll use players inducted into Cooperstown plus those I think are worthy of the same honor. The Japanese team will have all the players I've indicated are potentially worthy of the same honor plus three active players (Ichiro, H. Matsui and Furuta) and three middle infielders (Chiba, Toyoda and H. Ishige).

It's possible that both teams may be missing a few players, but no one missing from this article has made their case for that honor to my satisfaction as I write this. The Negro Leaguers would probably be the side to gain more players, and they've already got a slightly larger number of players. The Japanese need the middle infielders to put a legitimate team on the field. The Japanese also need a backup catcher, and since Furuta's still active and closing in on being the second best catcher in Japan anyway and might be deserving of Cooperstown when he hangs up his spikes, he's a solid choice. I think Ichiro is likely to turn in a career worthy of Cooperstown, at least if you combine the Pacific League and major league portions of it. H. Matsui doesn't strike me as a future Cooperstown inductee, but the fact he's still active and playing well means there's a real possibility he'll prove me wrong. Besides, if I don't give the Japanese squad him, they've only got four outfielders and four guys total on the bench.

At least Rogan among the Negro League pitchers can really hit, and Dihigo was a heck of a pitcher. We'll start going position by position, then look at the bench and bullpen.

As good as Katsuya Nomura was, he's no match for Josh Gibson. Then again, it's my opinion no catcher ever truly matches up well with Gibson. Gibson's defense is better, he'd hit for a far better average, and he has more power. Nomura might have had more plate discipline, but that's not nearly enough. The Negro Leagues win this one in a runaway.

First Base
I'll definitely take Sadaharu Oh over Buck Leonard. That's not taking anything away from Leonard, but he's clearly a cut below Oh in my estimation. However, the Negro Leagues are still ahead. The Japanese win first base.

Second Base
I'm using Frank Grant for the Negro Leagues at second since that was his primary position. Martin Dihigo might have been even better than him at second, though. No matter. Either one is a legitimate Cooperstown quality player. Shigeru Chiba is as good a second baseman as Japan has ever produced. He was a fine fielder. As a hitter, he was a right handed hitter who slapped everything to right field in Japan. I simply can't see a player with that profile being able to turn in a Cooperstown worthy career in the majors--and the major league conversions of his stats would tend to support that notion. The Negro Leagues win this position easilty.

Third Base
This one is a real tussle. Both Ray Dandridge and Shigeo Nagashima played great defense. Dandridge would have hit for a better average, but Nagashima had more power. I suspect Nagashima's plate discipline was better, so I'll give the Japanese the nod at this spot by a tiny bit.

Pop Lloyd is one of the very few shortstops anyone has ever suggested was in Honus Wagner's league. Yasumitsu Toyoda could have played in the majors--but the fact he moved to first base after about ten years without hitting like a major league starting quality first baseman would have in Japan means those last few years of his career can only receive the credit one would give a backup utiltiy guy (not much). That defeats his case for being considered worthy of Cooperstown. The Negro Leagues win this one easily.

My all time Negro League outfield consists of Turkey Stearnes, Oscar Charleston and Cristobal Torriente. The all-time Japanese outfield would be Isao Harimoto, Koji Yamamoto and Ichiro. I'll match them up one by one:
Stearnes versus Harimoto: Stearnes' defense is better, and while Harimoto could hit well for average, Stearnes was even better in this category. Stearnes also had more power. The Negro leagues clearly win this matchup.
Charleston versus Yamamoto: No contest. Charleston comes in somewhere between Mays and Mantle in my book while Yamamoto has a case for Cooperstown, but as a guy who clears the bar by a little. The Negro Leaguers cream another worthy opponent.
Torriente versus Ichiro: Both men play great defense and hit for high averages. The main difference is Torriente had lots more power than Ichiro. The Negro Leagues win again.

Starting Pitching
The first three matchups are Satchel Paige versus Masaichi Kaneda, Smoky Joe Williams versus Victor Starffin and Bullet Joe Rogan versus Kasuhisa Inao. Each one is a relatively close call against similar lineups. Overall, though, I've got to give the Negro Leaguers the edge for these three matchups total.
At the back end of the rotation Ray Brown bests Akira Bessho, but I'll take Shigeru Sugishita over Cannonball Dick Redding. Call the last two spots a tie

Relief Ace
Interestingly, both men started during a lot of their careers. Anyway, I'll take Yutaka Enatsu over Hilton Smith. The Japanese get this one.

The Japanese definitely get an edge here, as each of their candidates is preferable to their Negro League counterpart. By adding in their "maybe" cases, the Japanese also have more candidates. I'd take Masaaki Koyama over Willie Foster, Tetsuya Yoneda over Leon Day, Jiro Noguchi over Rube Foster, and Takashi Wakabayashi over Martin Dihigo (on the mound only). Then the Japanese get to add and Ryohei Hasegawa. So the Japanese win here. Unfortunately for them, they face the problem the Negro Leaguers will face with their bench: these guys either wouldn't play much, would play only when the game was decided, or would take time away from better players with the game on the line.

The Negro Leaguers are even more dominant with their bench than the Japanese were with their bullpen. The Japanese have only five reserves, and each one can be matched up against a superior Negro Leaguer. Louis Santop beats Atsuya Furuta at backup catcher, John Beckwith bests Hiromitsu Ochiai as a multiposition infielder, Willie Wells smokes Hiromichi Ishige at backup at shortstop, Cool Papa Bell is better than Yutaka Fukumoto and Monte Irvin is superior to Hideki Matsui. The Negro Leaguers get to add to their riches Biz Mackey, Martin Dihigo, Dobie Moore, Home Run Johnson, Jud Wilson, Mule Suttles and Judy Johnson, though I have serious doubts about Judy Johnson's worthiness in HOF terms. The Negro Leaguers win here easily, but the advantage probably doesn't amount to a great deal.

I'd say the pitching would be roughly equal and the huge edge of the Negro Leagues on the bench wouldn't amount to much. However, among the everyday starters, the Japanese can only claim an edge at two spots, and one of them (third base) is a close call. The Negro Leaguers go comfortably ahead when the two middle infield spots are added to the mix. They then proceed to win the three outfield spots and catcher handily. There's no way to escape the conclusion that the Negro League team is the better one.

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