Eight outrageous tales from Negro Leagues history

Is there a ballpark Josh Gibson didn't hit a ball out of?

February 18th, 2020

The Negro Leagues never kept official statistics. We don't know just how many homers Josh Gibson hit in his career, how many batters Satchel Paige whiffed. Most of us will never know what it was like to watch Cool Papa Bell sprint around the bases in his prime, or to see Pud Wilson knock a ground ball down with his chest before firing to first.

What we do have are the stories, passed down from generation to generation by those who saw or played against some of the best baseball players on the planet -- in cities, in small towns, even at beachside resorts. Perhaps because of that lack of official documentation, those stories have taken on a life of their own, physics-defying feats from almost mythic characters, blurring the line between legend and reality.

You could fill a whole book with these tales, but to start, we've compiled eight of the best that you may not have heard before. Like ...

The time Bruce Petway stopped Ty Cobb in his tracks (and may or may not have driven him mad)

"Team That Is Causing Tigers Much Trouble," blared the headline in the Detroit Free Press on Nov. 27, 1910. Detroit was in Cuba for a few exhibition games over the winter, and as they squared off against the Cuban League's Havana Reds, things weren't going as smoothly as many had assumed.

The main reason? A few stars from the Chicago Leland Giants, after playing in Cuba that fall, had decided to stick around and join the Reds roster -- including Petway, one of the best catchers (and with quite possibly the best throwing arm) in the Negro Leagues. He didn't waste any time showing it off.

On Nov. 28, Cobb stepped up with two outs in the top of the first. He tried to bunt his way on, but Petway sprang up, grabbed the ball and threw to first in time. In his next at-bat in the fourth, Cobb drew a walk, then tried to steal second ... only to be thrown out by Petway again. What happened next depends on who you ask: Some accounts claim that Cobb, furious, hopped up and demanded that the umpires measure the distance between first and second base. Whether or not that's actually true, no one's sure, but that's part of the Negro Leagues' charm. Either way, one thing's clear: Petway had a cannon.

The time Josh Gibson hit a home run that didn't come down

Befitting a man dubbed "the black Babe Ruth," it can be tough to tell where the myth of Gibson ended and the truth began. Some say he's the only man to hit a ball clean out of the original Yankee Stadium. Others say he hit a ball out of the Polo Grounds and onto the elevated train tracks outside. Some say he hit a home run that literally didn't come down.

According to Robert W. Peterson's book, "Only the Ball Was White":

One day during the 1930s the Pittsburgh Crawfords were playing at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where their young catcher, Josh Gibson, hit the ball so high and so far that no one saw it come down. After scanning the sky carefully for a few minutes, the umpire deliberated and ruled it a home run. The next day the Crawfords were playing in Philadelphia, when suddenly a ball dropped out of the heavens and was caught by the startled center fielder on the opposing club. The umpire made the only possible ruling. Pointing to Gibson he shouted, "Yer out -- yesterday in Pittsburgh!"

The time Cool Papa Bell rounded the bases in 12 seconds flat

Seemingly everybody has their own story about how fast Cool Papa Bell was. He scored from first on a sac bunt. Satchel Paige once claimed that Cool Papa Bell was so fast, he could flick off the light switch and be in bed by the time the room went dark. “If he hit one back to the pitcher,” Jimmie Crutchfield said, “everyone yelled, ‘Hurry up!’”

The easiest way to get an idea of Bell's legendary speed, though, is this: He could, allegedly, round the bases in just 12 seconds. For context, the record for the fastest inside-the-park home run in the Statcast-era is Byron Buxton, an elite athlete with ridiculous speed ... at 13.85 seconds.

While this may sound too wild to be true, Bell really might have been that fast. Multiple sources recorded Bill Veeck himself clocking Bell at 13.1 seconds in Chicago -- on a muddy field, his uniform flapping in the wind. In more ideal conditions, it's not hard to imagine him making a run at the 12-second mark.

The time Satchel Paige asked for Josh Gibson, then struck him out

Paige is a walking anecdote: There's the time he outdueled Dizzy Dean in 13 innings, or the time he got to the mound via helicopter, or the time he ordered his fielders to sit down with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning ... and calmly sat down the final batter of the game.

A personal favorite: While with the Kansas City Monarchs, Paige came on in relief in Game 2 of the 1942 Negro World Series against the Homestead Grays, holding their star-studded lineup in check while K.C. built a seemingly commanding 5-0 lead. In the bottom of the eighth, though, the Grays rallied, scoring four runs of their own and putting the tying man on base.

If you thought that might rattle Paige, well, you must be new here. Rather than shrink from the big moment, he actively sought it out: The legend goes that the righty intentionally walked two batters, loading the bases just so that he would have a chance to face Josh Gibson -- one of the very best sluggers of all-time. (Depending on who you ask, he also warned Gibson where each pitch would be going.) Of course he struck him out, because he was Satchel Paige.

The time Rube Foster engineered an 11-bunt (!) rally

Foster is one of baseball's titans: On Feb. 13, 1920, Foster assembled a group of owners in a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., and a couple of days later the Negro National League -- and a new era for black baseball -- was born. But he was also a heck of a player in his own right -- and, after that, one of the shrewdest managers the game had ever seen.

Foster is credited with popularizing all sorts of plays, from the suicide squeeze to the bunt and run, and his aggressive tactics regularly flummoxed opponents. Case in point: One story goes that, with his Chicago American Giants down 18-0 to the Indianapolis ABCs in the eighth inning, Foster jumpstarted a rally by signaling for 11 bunts in a row. Opposing fielders were so flummoxed they couldn’t get anybody out, and the Giants went on to hit two grand slams and tie the score before the game was called on account of darkness.

The time Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe earned his nickname

It's possible that no one in the illustrious history of baseball nicknames has earned his as much as Radcliffe did. With his Pittsburgh Crawfords playing a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, he had one of the greatest days the game has ever seen: He caught a shutout by Satchel Paige in the first game, then took his gear off, came back out and threw a shutout in the nightcap. Sportswriter Damon Runyon wrote that Radcliffe “was worth the price of two admissions," and "Double Duty" was born.

(It should also be noted that, according to Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, Radcliffe once wore a chest protector in an exhibition game that read, “Thou shalt not steal," which is not directly relevant to this story but is still impossibly metal and deserves to be shoehorned in.)

The time "Smokey Joe" Williams struck out 27 batters in a single game

Paige usually gets the love, but if their contemporaries are to be believed, Smokey Joe Williams gave him a run for his money as the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues. Born in Seguin, Tex., Williams loomed like something out of a folk tale -- that's him standing in the center of this photo of the 1931 Homestead Grays, looking twice as large as everybody else:

That size gave him an overpowering fastball, and made him one of the best strikeout artists of his time. His masterpiece? In a game against the Kansas City Monarchs in 1930, Williams struck out 27 batters while allowing just one hit -- at the age of 44. And his team needed every bit of it: The opposing pitcher, Chet Brewer, fanned 19, and the game was scoreless until the Grays scratched across a run in the 12th.

The time Cristóbal Torriente out Bambino'd the Bambino

Speaking of large: Torriente -- one of the finest players to ever come out of Cuba -- was built like a barrel, and the damage he could inflict on a baseball is the stuff of legend. No legend looms larger than the time his Almendares welcomed the New York Giants to Havana in the fall of 1920 ... with Babe Ruth in tow, making his first and only appearance on the island.

The locals couldn't wait to catch a glimpse of the Babe, but Torriente would be the one to steal the show. He went deep three times that day, and as if that wasn't enough, he also stepped up against Ruth himself and hit a line drive so hard that it apparently burrowed into the Earth -- at least according to third baseman Frankie Frisch:

"I think I was playing third base at the time," Frisch recalled, "and he hit a ground ball by me. ... It dug a hole about a foot deep on its way to left field."

By the time someone retrieved it, Torriente was at second base, and all Ruth could do was look on in amazement.