This February is not only Black History Month, but also the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, which were born on Feb. 13, 1920. To help celebrate this centennial, MLB.com will be looking back at some Negro Leagues legends throughout the month.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame features over 300 members in its famous Plaque Gallery, but the path for 35 of them was a little more circuitous than the rest.
The Negro Leagues and African-American baseball at large often rivaled the Major Leagues, both at the gates and in the national consciousness, in the first half of the 20th century. But those leagues were created out of an unfortunate necessity; the color line, instituted in white, organized baseball in the late 1800s, forced many of America's most talented ballplayers to write their legends outside the Majors. Jackie Robinson broke that barrier when he debuted with the Dodgers in 1947, but it would take another 24 years -- and a public plea from Ted Williams -- for the Hall to induct its first Negro League star.
Below is a rundown of each of the 35 Negro Leagues stars enshrined in Cooperstown, featuring a mix of players and influential executives elected by various committees over the last five decades. The inductees are listed in chronological order, beginning with Satchel Paige's landmark election to the Class of 1971.
Satchel Paige (1971)
A man remembered even more for the awestruck stories he inspired than his statistics, Paige was named by many who saw him -- black and white -- as the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Paige was known as the ultimate showman as he barnstormed hundreds of games per year and dazzled scores of fans. He finally got his Major League shot at age 42, when he helped the Indians capture the 1948 pennant. Even in advanced age, Paige still befuddled many a big league hitter. More >
Josh Gibson (1972)
Gibson’s exclusion from the Major Leagues evokes as many “what ifs” as any Negro League star. Those who saw him -- from Monte Irvin to Dizzy Dean to Roy Campanella and many more -- argued that Gibson (also a gifted defensive catcher) possessed the most powerful bat of anyone on planet Earth. Though it’s impossible to validate Gibson’s mythical home run distances (reportedly anywhere between 580-700 feet) or totals (over 900, by some accounts), the overwhelming eyewitness accounts place Gibson among the very best to ever step on a baseball diamond. More >
Buck Leonard (1972)
Leonard was the Homestead Grays’ first baseman for 17 years, making him the longest-tenured player with one team in Negro Leagues history. He teamed up with Gibson to form the equivalent of the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, leading the Grays to nine Negro National League pennants and five Negro League World Series appearances. Graceful with the glove and dangerous with the bat, Leonard was a top candidate to break the color barrier before Jackie Robinson. More >
Monte Irvin (1973)
Jackie Robinson was the first Negro Leaguer to break the color barrier, but Irvin was the top choice of Negro League executives -- and he may have been the best player to cross over. Irvin fought in World War II’s “Battle of the Bulge” before returning to star as an all-around threat for the Newark Eagles and New York Giants. He led the Giants to the 1951 pennant, and helped them capture their final World Series title in New York three years later.
Cool Papa Bell (1974)
We can only go by legends (“He could get into bed before the lights got dark” ... “He stole two bases on one pitch”), but perhaps no American athlete -- including the great Jesse Owens -- had more stories spun about his speed. One story states that he was timed going around the bases in just 12 seconds. Bell may well have been the fastest man to ever play baseball, revered for his ability to beat out a two-hopper or bunt his way to extra bases. None other than Lou Brock learned the art of stealing bases under Bell’s tutelage.
Judy Johnson (1975)
The consensus pick as the Negro Leagues’ best third baseman, Johnson’s glovework evoked comparisons to Major League stars Pie Traynor and Brooks Robinson. He was a consistent .300 hitter, too, known for spraying the ball to all fields and driving in runs in the clutch. Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack once said Johnson could “write his own price” on a Major League contract if he were white.
Oscar Charleston (1976)
Maybe the Negro Leagues’ biggest all-around talent who drew comparisons to Major League stars like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, Charleston was the Negro National League's first true superstar when the league began play in 1920. Charleston could do it all: Hit close to .400, steal a base with ease, run down a liner in the gap or nail a baserunner. He was also fearless, evoking Cobb with his aggressive, win-at-all-costs style of play. Said Satchel Paige of Charleston’s ability: “You had to see him to believe him.”
Martín Dihigo (1977)
Dihigo may have been the most versatile player in baseball history. Second base was just the beginning for the lanky Cuban native, who would master every position on the diamond save catcher as he filled out his frame. But Dihigo might have been at his best on the pitcher’s mound, where he twirled no-hitters and won hundreds of games while still winning batting titles at home plate. Dihigo’s nickname -- El Maestro -- perfectly summed up his preternatural ability.
Pop Lloyd (1977)
The Negro Leagues’ best shortstop was likely Lloyd, nicknamed “The Shovel” for the way he would scoop up glovefuls of dirt (along with the ball, of course) in a similar style to Honus Wagner. As good as Lloyd was with the leather, he was just as impressive with the bat: He retired with an average north of .330 (per most contemporary accounts) over a 27-year career, and he reached .400 on several occasions.
Rube Foster (1981)
Foster, the "father of black baseball,” was named by legendary sluggers like Frank Chance and Honus Wagner as one of the greatest pitchers they ever faced. But Foster had loftier goals in mind. He founded the dominant Chicago American Giants franchise and then spearheaded the creation of the Negro National League -- an unprecedented African-American baseball organization for the times -- in 1920. As president and treasurer, Foster grew the NNL into a force that rivaled Major League Baseball.
Ray Dandridge (1987)
Dandridge possessed “the quickest reflexes and the surest hands of any infielder I’ve ever seen,” wrote Monte Irvin, who was no slouch himself with the glove. Flashy yet dependable, Dandridge dazzled with the leather at third base for years with the Newark Dodgers and Eagles. And Dandridge’s hands were just as magical when holding a bat, routinely topping .300 with ease as he sprayed the ball to all fields. In 1939, Dandridge left the United States and authored a separate legend across 11 seasons in Mexico. More >
Leon Day (1995)
Monte Irvin often compared Day to the great Bob Gibson in how he could carry a ballclub when it was his turn to pitch. Day used a deceptive side-armed delivery to rival Satchel Paige as the Negro Leagues’ greatest ace, even outdueling Paige in the 1942 Negro League World Series. He put his career on pause to serve in World War II, but he came back in 1946 to no-hit the Philadelphia Stars in his first game back on the mound.
Bill Foster (1996)
Rube Foster’s younger half-brother authored a legacy all his own with a golden left arm, mixing a high-octane fastball with a famous ability to change speeds that left hitters flailing. “Big Bill” Foster starred for his brother’s Chicago American Giants, winning 26 straight games during the 1926 season -- including both ends of a doubleheader victory over "Bullet" Joe Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs that clinched the pennant. He retired with a Negro Leagues win percentage of nearly .700.
Willie Wells (1997)
“Great as Ozzie Smith is,” wrote Buck O’Neill, “old-timers in St. Louis who saw Willie play for the St. Louis Stars still haven't seen his equal." A well-regarded and well-traveled shortstop, Wells was known as “The Devil,” a moniker he picked up in Mexico (“El Diablo”) after the competition learned to stop hitting the ball his way. Wells was also a pioneer: Many believe he was the first to wear a batting helmet after he was constantly thrown at by opposing pitchers.
“Bullet” Joe Rogan (1998)
Rogan, in the eyes of some contemporary records, was the winningest pitcher of the original Negro National League. He was also one of its best hitters, finishing with a career average of roughly .340 and a slugging percentage around .525. The dual threat helped the Kansas City Monarchs become a mini-dynasty in the mid-1920s, with Rogan going 18-6 on the mound and hitting nearly .400 at the plate during the Monarchs’ 1924 championship season. More >
“Smokey” Joe Williams (1999)
A 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll of African-American sportswriters determined Williams -- not Satchel Paige or Leon Day -- to be the greatest pitcher in Negro League history. Ty Cobb pegged him as a “sure 30-game winner” had he pitched in MLB, and many a Major League star, from Walter Johnson to Grover Cleveland Alexander to Rube Marquard, tried and failed to outduel Williams in exhibitions. His most famous performance came in 1930, when he struck out 27 Monarchs and allowed just one hit in a 12-inning, 1-0 victory.
Turkey Stearnes (2000)
Quiet and unassuming, with a funky running style and a corkscrew batting stance all his own, Norman Stearnes’ play did all the talking that was needed. Stearnes routinely challenged for home run crowns and stole plenty of bases, too. Fellow stars from the time said Stearnes could hit a ball as far as anyone -- perhaps even Gibson, on the right day -- while also tracking down every ball to the gap.
Hilton Smith (2001)
Smith often played Robin to Satchel Paige’s Batman, spelling Paige in relief for the Monarchs. But that’s likely selling him short.
“The old-timers would all say that if you were going to hit anything, you better hit it off Satchel,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick once said, “because you weren’t going to touch Hilton Smith.”
Smith’s sweeping curveball, honored on his Hall of Fame plaque, was his calling card. Kansas City won six Negro American League pennants and one Negro League World Series title with Smith coming out of the bullpen.
Ray Brown (2006)
Though he was often overshadowed by bigger names, Brown was the Homestead Grays’ “Sunday Pitcher” -- the popular term at the time for the ace who could draw a crowd -- throughout the franchise’s dynastic run of nine straight Negro National League pennants. He wore that honor proudly, twirling a one-hit shutout in the 1944 Negro League World Series and a perfect game the following year. Most accounts have Brown’s career win percentage above .700.
Willard Brown (2006)
The Monarchs featured plenty of star power as they claimed six Negro American League pennants in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, but “Home Run” Brown -- as he was called by none other than Josh Gibson -- was probably their biggest lineup threat. A famous bad-ball hitter in the style of future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Brown was said to have homered once off a pitch that bounced. Brown was an even bigger legend in Puerto Rico, where he captured a pair of Winter League Triple Crowns. In 1947, Brown got a brief shot at the Majors with the St. Louis Browns, knocking the first AL homer by an African-American player.
Andy Cooper (2006)
Few pitchers won more decisions over the first two decades of Negro League play than “Lefty” Cooper, a fixture of the Detroit Stars' and Kansas City Monarchs’ rotations. He had a rubber arm, often pitching in relief between starts, and he was revered for his control despite all the innings. As player-manager, Brown led the Monarchs to pennants in 1937, ’39 and ’40.
Frank Grant (2006)
Grant may have been the best African-American player in organized baseball during the 1880s, succeeding in spite of intense racism both on and off the field. He wore wooden shin guards to protect himself from spikings at second base, and he was repeatedly on alert for beanings at home plate. Still, Grant led the International League’s Buffalo squad in hitting each year from 1886-88. When the color line was drawn for good in ’89, restricting African Americans from the International League, Grant went on to star for the Cuban Giants and other African-American ballclubs until the turn of the century.
Pete Hill (2006)
A star before the organized Negro National League brought more eyes to African-American baseball, Hill's range and arm were legendary, with tales told often at the turn of the century. Hill was also a frenetic baserunner in the style of Jackie Robinson, pestering pitchers as he danced back and forth on the basepaths. Those talents, along with Hill’s prolific line drives from the plate, earned him comparisons to Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.
Biz Mackey (2006)
When the great Negro League catchers are listed, Mackey’s name should always reside next to Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella. Mackey was a pitcher’s dream in his ability to receive, call the game and throw out baserunners with his rifle arm -- and he was plenty gifted as a hitter, too. Mackey taught Campanella the nuances of catching in the late 1930s, and the future Dodgers legend would pay homage to his mentor during his 1959 farewell speech.
Effa Manley (2006)
The Negro Leagues’ influence might not have been as strong without Manley, the Hall of Fame’s first female member and an executive who thrived in an industry overwhelmingly run by men. Manley operated the Newark Eagles, alongside her husband, Abe, for 13 seasons, handling the club’s promotions, travel schedules and contract negotiations in addition to many other behind-the-scenes tasks. She was the Negro Leagues’ champion for team compensation once players began jumping to the Majors, and she argued for Negro Leaguers' inclusion in the Hall of Fame in her later years.
José Méndez (2006)
Méndez was the first Cuban star of the pre-Negro Leagues era, rising to fame in 1908 after he tossed 25 consecutive scoreless innings across three exhibition games against the Major Leagues’ Cincinnati Reds. He was a summer star in the United States and a winter hero in his native Cuba. While arm injuries moved Méndez from pitcher to shortstop in the mid-1910s, he later returned to the mound in style, pitching a shutout in the decisive game of the inaugural 1924 Negro League World Series.
Alex Pompez (2006)
Pompez is often credited with bringing international flair to the Negro Leagues, signing the league’s first players from the Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to his Cuban Stars and New York Cubans clubs. He was also influential in organizing the first Negro League World Series in 1924. Pompez later scouted for the New York Giants, ushering in more international talent to the Major Leagues.
Cumberland Posey (2006)
The Homestead Grays were the powerhouse of the East under Posey’s ownership. He fielded 11 separate Hall of Fame players on his roster at various points, aggressively assembling top-end clubs year-in and year-out. Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith wrote that Posey was “the smartest man in Negro [League] baseball, and certainly the most successful.”
Louis Santop (2006)
Santop was famous for tape-measure blasts and sky-high batting averages in the pre-Negro Leagues, known as the Dead Ball Era. He was flashy, known for calling his shots years before Babe Ruth did, and his combination of skill and showmanship made him one of the early drawing cards in African-American baseball. In 1917, Santop collected six hits off Major League All-Stars Chief Bender and Bullet Joe Bush in an exhibition series. Three years later, he outhit the Babe in an offseason matchup between the Yankees and Hilldale Daisies.
Mule Suttles (2006)
Suttles’ Negro Leagues homer total finished somewhere around 190 (rivaling Turkey Stearnes and Josh Gibson for the all-time mark), and he slugged over .600 across 22 Negro League seasons. He swung a 50-ounce bat, and was said to have once homered three times in a single inning. Suttles hit the first homer in the history of the East-West All-Star Game in 1933, and he won the exhibition with a walk-off, three-run blast in the 11th inning two years later. When a pitcher asked Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher how he should pitch Suttles in an exhibition, Durocher replied, “Just pitch and pray.”
Ben Taylor (2006)
Taylor was the Negro Leagues’ premier first baseman before Buck Leonard’s arrival, and Leonard would credit Taylor with teaching him the finer points of the position. He and his famous brothers, “Candy Jim,” “Steel Arm” Johnny and C.I., raised the Indianapolis Stars to prominence in the 1910s, with Ben serving as big bopper from the cleanup spot.
Cristóbal Torriente (2006)
Torriente’s legend was built on a national scale in 1920, when he outhit and outhomered Babe Ruth during a nine-game exhibition series in Cuba. But early Negro League fans were already familiar with Torriente’s remarkable five-tool ability from his play stateside -- first with the Cuban Stars and then the Chicago American Giants, whom he helped to three straight Negro National League pennants. Wherever he played, Torriente was a sure bet to clear .300 at the plate and track down almost every ball in center field.
Sol White (2006)
Like several other African-American ballplayers of his time, White thrived in otherwise all-white, organized baseball leagues until he was told he could no longer play. In 1902, White organized the Philadelphia Giants and built them into a true force of the decade; the Giants won four consecutive Eastern championships from 1904-07, including a 108-win season in ’06. White’s greatest contribution was likely his first book, “History of Colored Baseball,” which provided the first in-depth anthology of African-American ballplayers before the Negro Leagues formed in 1920.
J.L. Wilkinson (2006)
Wilkinson was Cumberland Posey’s chief rival as owner of the successful Kansas City Monarchs, a franchise that excelled in both the Negro National and Negro American Leagues. He transformed his ballclub into a barnstorming phenomenon during the lean years of the Great Depression, investing his own money into a portable field lighting system that he trucked behind the team bus on road trips. Seven Negro League Hall of Famers, including Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige, played for Wilkinson’s Monarchs, as did future Major League stars Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks.
Jud Wilson (2006)
Wilson ranked among the strongest men to step foot on a Negro League diamond, earning the nickname “Boojum” for the sound of his line drives bouncing off the outfield walls. He was fearsome (he considered every pitcher and umpire, black or white, to be his foe) and he was durable, playing across three decades for some legendary teams in the Baltimore Black Sox, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and Philadelphia Stars. Wilson’s career average settled near .360, right on par with Josh Gibson for the Negro Leagues’ best all-time mark.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.