The Negro Leagues' Two-Way Star
By David Adler | @_dadler
Bullet Rogan was the stuff of legend – a Ruthian figure of the early days of the Negro Leagues.
Rogan hit like Ty Cobb. He pitched like Walter Johnson. He played center field like Willie Mays. He excelled among Negro League icons and against Major League Hall of Famers. He was a two-way star who did it all.
We don’t know Rogan’s exact stats (Negro League records are murky), or his exact birthdate (it could have been 1889 or 1893). Even his name changes from one mouth to the next. Rogan’s Baseball Hall of Fame plaque is inscribed “Wilber Joe Rogan (Bullet).” Other records name him “Charles Wilber Rogan.”
But whether you call him Bullet Joe or just Bullet, this is for sure: Bullet Rogan could play ball.
• Rogan starred as a cleanup-hitting outfielder and ace starting pitcher for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs – the same team Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Ernie Banks would later play for – for nearly 20 years from 1920-38. Bullet’s picture was plastered around Kansas City.
The stats that have been researched and collected are incredible. Baseball-Reference credits Bullet with a 119-50 record as a pitcher for the Monarchs, with 128 complete games and 15 shutouts. As a hitter, he had a .338 batting average, .515 slugging percentage and .905 OPS. He’d rank among the winningest pitchers in Negro League history, and among the top hitters. Move over, Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani.
Beyond playing for the Monarchs, Rogan also managed them, and he umpired in the Negro Leagues, too. Off the field, he opened a pool hall in Kansas City. After his retirement, he worked in the post office.
• Rogan was inducted into Cooperstown in 1998, about 30 years after his death in 1967. His son, Wilber Rogan Jr., accepted the honor in Bullet’s place.
“People ask me two questions when talking about my dad,” he said in his speech. "One, where did he get the name ‘Bullet’ from? And, who was the fastest – him or Satchel Paige?
“My answer to both questions is, I don’t know. They were both fast. But one thing I do know: When Satch was on the mound, he needed a designated hitter. When my dad was on the mound, he was in the cleanup spot.”
• Bullet Rogan folklore abounds. They say he swung a heavier bat than the Bambino. They say he threw even harder than Paige or Smokey Joe Williams – though he was only 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds and pitched without a windup. Rogan threw forkballs. He threw spitballs. He was a master of the palmball.
Here are a few of the quotes that have been collected about Rogan by various reporters and authors:
Paige himself said of Rogan: “He was the onliest pitcher I ever knew, I ever heard of in my life, was pitching and hitting in the cleanup place.”
Rogan’s Monarch teammate Frank Duncan, who caught both Paige and Rogan, said: “Bullet had a little more steam on the ball than Paige – and he had a better-breaking curve,” and that, “If you had to choose between Rogan and Paige, you’d pick Rogan, because he could hit.”
Another Monarch, Chet Brewer, recounted: “I saw him one winter just make Al Simmons” – that’s MLB Hall of Famer Al Simmons – “crawl trying to hit that [palmball].”
Buck O’Neil, one of the Negro Leagues’ defining figures and MLB’s first black coach, once said: “If you saw Ernie Banks hit in his prime, then you saw Rogan.”
• Rogan faced his share of Major League legends on the barnstorming circuit. They knew firsthand how good Bullet was.
In 1929, Rogan was playing in the integrated California Winter League for the Philadelphia Royal Giants when he faced an All-Star team led by Hall of Famers Simmons and Jimmie Foxx. Rogan pitched his team to a 10-3 victory (and got two hits himself, of course). Foxx managed to go 3-for-3 off Bullet … Simmons (remember what Brewer said?) went 0-for-5 and struck out three times.
The Chicago Defender, covering the game, wrote: “The All-Stars had to look at the blinding speed of Rogan and they melted before it. Rogan was never faster in his life and the Stars merely blinked at many of his offerings as they streaked across the plate.”
Years later, Bob Feller saw Rogan, at age 48, knock three hits and steal a base against his All-Star team – one hit off Feller himself – then said: “I can’t imagine how good he must have been when he was young.”
Dizzy Dean recalled: “Old Rogan, he was a showboat, a Pepper Martin ballplayer. He was one of those cute guys, never wanted to give you a ball to hit. Should be in the Hall of Fame.”
• In 1924, Bullet Joe led the Monarchs to the inaugural Negro League World Series championship. With Kansas City facing the Hilldale Club of the Eastern Colored League, Rogan had two complete-game victories on the mound with a 2.57 ERA. He batted in the middle of the order and hit .325. He played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. The Monarchs won the series, five games to four.
Rogan’s listed stats for that season? An 18-6 record with 21 complete games as a pitcher … a .392 batting average, .603 slugging percentage and 1.046 OPS as a hitter.
• Before the Monarchs and the Negro National League were founded in 1920, Rogan made a name for himself as a teenage ballplayer for Kansas City-area teams like Fred Palace’s Colts, then for the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Wreckers, a famous black baseball team with many future Negro Leaguers.
Rogan started playing for the Wreckers in July 1915, at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser newspaper chronicled the fanfare of Bullet Joe’s first intramural game.
“The chief interest in the game was the first appearance on the local diamond of Rogan,” the article from July 2, 1915, reads. “He looks like the classiest infielder the regiment has had in some time.” Even then, the papers sang Rogan’s praises as a pitcher and hitter – on the mound, Rogan had “worlds of speed” and a “puzzling” delivery; at bat, he “met the first ball pitched on the nose” every time up.
In his first real game, on the Fourth of July, the Advertiser details how Rogan led the Wreckers to a win by going 2-for-5 and making a “flying leap” to corral a high throw and save a run in the bottom of the ninth.
• The winter of 1924-25, Rogan was playing for Almendares of the Cuban League. The story goes (as told in John Holway’s book “Blackball Stars”) that Bullet Joe was pitching the championship game. He held a one-run lead in the ninth inning. The bases were loaded. Cuban Hall of Famer Alejandro Oms was up.
Oms was a famed curveball hitter. Rogan’s catcher, Biz Mackey – the best in the Negro Leagues, now a Hall of Famer – knew it. So he called for Bullet’s fastball. Rogan shook his head no.
Mackey said: “Bullet, you know this man can hit a curveball.”
Rogan answered: “He can’t hit mine.”
Mackey said: “You have to be crazy.”
Rogan answered: “You do the catching. I’ll do the pitching.”
Bullet threw Oms three straight curveballs. He struck him out.