Ask 10 fans to name the greatest baseball team ever, and you'll very likely get 10 different answers. The '01 Mariners. The '75 Reds. The '42 Cardinals. The '18 Red Sox. The '27 Yankees (or the '39 Yankees, or the '98 Yankees, or ... ). But there's one name that you almost certainly won't hear.
An all-black team before integration, they played far away from the bright lights of the Majors. They began as a group of steel men just outside Pittsburgh. Heck, they didn't even have a league to call their own: The Negro National League more or less collapsed following the death of founder Rube Foster in December 1930, and the East-West League wouldn't arrive until 1932.
No, the 1931 Homestead Grays weren't particularly glamorous. They simply played anybody, anywhere -- black teams and white teams, semi-pro teams and former Negro League teams, town teams and company teams, teams of coal miners and teams of steelworkers -- and won at a rate that seems like something out of a video game. History has shown them to be one of the greatest collections of baseball talent on record. And as we honor the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, it's about time we give them their due. Not just as one of the best of their era, or of their league, but as quite possibly the best baseball team of all-time.
That is, to state the obvious, a pretty extraordinary claim to make -- but the Grays are a pretty extraordinary story. They began in the 1900s as a sandlot team, a group of steelworkers across the river from Pittsburgh who played in local industrial leagues. They became something much more because of Cumberland Posey.
A two-sport Hall of Famer
Posey was a legendary athlete in his own right: He was dubbed "the outstanding athlete of the Negro race" thanks to an outstanding prep basketball career, and he's still the only man in both the Basketball and Baseball Halls of Fame. He also happened to be a shrewd entrepreneur and the son of one of the richest black men in town -- and after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1915, he decided to use those tools to turn the Grays from a weekend hobby into a national powerhouse.
The world of the Negro Leagues was freewheeling, to put it lightly. Margins were slim, teams came and went and players hopped around in order to make what money they could, especially as the Great Depression set in. Posey played this game as well as anyone: At one point or another during his more than 20 years as owner and manager, the Grays rostered 11 of the 31 non-Posey Negro League players currently in Cooperstown. (It certainly helped that he refused to sign a non-raiding contract, and that he didn't much care about the complaints of Negro League owners frustrated that he was poaching their stars.) He had the financial might -- he paid his players regular wages, a rarity at the time -- but just as importantly, he could close.
“Some may say he crushed the weak as well as the strong on the way to the top of the ladder," the Pittsburgh Courier once wrote. "But no matter what his critics say, they cannot deny that he was the smartest man in Negro baseball and certainly the most successful.”
That knack for finding talent and twisting arms almost immediately made the Grays a hit on the regional barnstorming circuit. In 1931, though, it made them legendary.
Assembling a dream team
The Grays already had Smokey Joe Williams, an imposing Texan with a fastball that made him one of the most feared pitchers in the Negro Leagues -- and who once struck out 27 hitters in 12 one-hit innings to earn the Grays a win over the Kansas City Monarchs. (No less than Ty Cobb swore that, if Williams had pitched in the Majors in his prime, he would have won 30 games.)
They already had Oscar Charleston, a former two-way dynamo in center field who'd moved over to first base, whose prodigious bat control and hitting prowess -- he won several batting titles in the 1920s -- earned him a reputation as the black Ty Cobb.
And last but certainly not least, they already had Josh Gibson at catcher. Gibson would go on to become perhaps the Negro Leagues' biggest legend, a slugger by all accounts comparable only to Babe Ruth, almost more myth than man (a 1967 story in the Sporting News claimed that a Gibson homer at Yankee Stadium traveled some 580 feet, up against the back wall of the bleachers).
Before all that, though, he was a teenager plying his trade on the Pittsburgh semipro circuit ... until, on July 25, 1930, he became a Gray by accident. Homestead catcher Buck Ewing injured his hand in the middle of a game, and Gibson's reputation around town was already such that the team decided to pull him from the stands and put him in the lineup. The rest, as you could probably guess, was history.
To that impressive core, Posey made two additions prior to the '31 season: Willie Foster, quite possibly the best left-handed pitcher in Negro League history, and Jud "Boojum" Wilson, quite possibly the best third baseman in Negro League history. ("Boojum" was the sound his line drives made as they banged off the outfield wall.)
One of the most dominant seasons ever
Williams and Foster in the rotation; Gibson, Charleston and Wilson in the lineup -- that's five Baseball Hall of Famers on one team, six if you count Posey -- more than the '70 Orioles, more than the '42 Cardinals, more than the Big Red Machine, as many as the '48 Indians, just one shy of the '27 Yankees. (And this doesn't even mention other stars/80-grade nicknames like George “Tubby” Scales and pitcher/catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.) The Grays didn't have an official league to compete in, so they scheduled everybody they could -- and blasted just about all of them.
Attempts to pin down statistics and standings from that era should be taken with a grain of salt. Negro League teams didn't keep official stats; the only option is to reconstruct them from local newspaper reports, which can be unreliable for any number of reasons -- that issue of a given paper might be missing from the archives, or the date is too difficult to identify, or the game story will mention a player missing from the box score. Still, no matter who you ask, the Grays' record that year was comical: anywhere from 138-6 to 163-23, depending on the source. (The most precise guess, from the author and researcher Phil Dixon, pegs it at 143-29-2.)
Estimates of the individual numbers might be even more ridiculous. According to Dixon's calculations, Gibson hit an estimated .390 while leading the team with 40 home runs. (For comparison, just five big leaguers even cracked the 30-homer mark in 1931, and two cleared 40: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.) Charleston hit .346 with 58 doubles, 19 dingers and 26 triples (the Major League leader that year was Bill Terry with 20). Wilson hit .486, while outfielder Vic Harris hit .403. Oh, and the Grays had four 20-game winners: Lefty Williams (23, no relation to Joe), George "Chippy" Britt (21), Foster (20) and Williams (20). The 1920 White Sox and 1971 Orioles are the only MLB teams to ever pull that off.
The constant churn of the Negro Leagues made sure that the group's run was short-lived. Gus Greenlee, a Pittsburgh bar owner and infamous racketeer, had started a club across town, and he had deep pockets of his own -- which he used to convince Gibson, Charleston and Wilson to come play for the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932, giving Posey a taste of his own medicine. Foster returned to his old club, the Chicago American Giants. Williams retired after the '32 season at the age of 46.
Their run was all too brief. They don't have any pennants to hang on the wall, any trophies to mark that they were there. It would be easy to let them fade with time. But what the Grays do have are the stories, and a small but dedicated group of historians and researchers dedicated to keeping their memory alive. In a poll conducted by MLB.com back in 2007, a five-person panel voted the '31 Grays as the greatest team in Negro League history -- better than the Crawfords, better than the Monarchs, better than the Indianapolis ABCs.
And really, given all the talent that we know was on that roster, talent that never had the chance to prove itself on the Major League stage, why should we stop there? Homestead had a historically great one-two pitching punch at the top of its rotation, not to mention Gibson, who inspired as much awe as just about any athlete ever. Why couldn't the black Babe Ruth go toe-to-toe with the white one?
(Many thanks to Charlie Fouché and the Society for American Baseball Research for their invaluable work on the '31 Grays.)