Given that (1) we're drawing our fifteen top Major League Baseball teams from about ninety-five seasons (1902-99), and (2) there were only about thirty Negro League seasons (1920-50), in terms of proportionality it makes sense to pick the top five Negro League teams. So that's what we'll do.
Now for the comparisons. It's easy to have opinions about the Negro Leagues, but not so easy to back them up with facts. However, elsewhere in this book we're trying to use the facts at hand, and consistency being the hobgoblin of our little minds, let's be consistent here. Aside from opinions, then, what do we have to go on? I've come up with four indicators that might be at least a little helpful:
- 1. Regular-season winning percentage
- 2. All-Stars
- 3. Hall of Famers on roster
- 4. Negro World Series results
Each of these has its own problems. To wit:
- 1. Regular-season winning percentage isn't derived from large samples of games. When it comes down to it, the 154 or 162 games we usually look at for American and National League teams isn't even a great sample. So what do you do with the 1923 Hilldale Giants, who played 49 Eastern Colored League games? Or the 1939 Kansas City Monarchs, who played just 24 contests against Negro American League opponents? This, perhaps, almost necessitates looking at more than one season for the teams in question.
- 2. All-Stars were selected only from 1933 through 1950. What's more, they were chosen through ballots printed in the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Not exactly the most scientific of methods.
- 3. It's instructive to look at Hall of Famers, but again we're talking about a small sample size. Only sixteen players have been elected as representatives of the Negro Leagues. We can expand the pool of players by including Negro Leaguers who were elected for their service in Major League Baseball. Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Larry Doby, for example, all played for pennant-winning teams in the Negro Leagues. But this pool is heavily biased in favor of players in the '30s and '40s. By the time the Hall got around to honoring Negro Leaguers, there simply weren't many people around who could still remember the players of the 1920s. And given the dearth of meaningful statistics from those days, remembrances are about all you've got to go on.
Another problem with Hall of Famers is that just because they were on the roster doesn't mean they were always around. Satchel Paige, for one, would quite often jump his teams in the middle of the season, or at least take off for a few days in favor of a big barnstorming paycheck.
- 4. The Negro League World Series, aside from the obvious problem with the sample size-best-of-seven or best-of-nine series-was played only seven times, 1924 through 1927 (Negro National League versus Eastern Colored League) and then 1944 through 1946 (Negro National League versus Negro American League).
I'm not suggesting that all this data will result in some Grand Unified Formula telling us which team was the greatest, but at least it's a start. I entered all the data into a spreadsheet, and then I . . . well, I eyeballed it. Yes, I know it's not very scientific. Okay, it's not scientific at all. But given the elusive nature of Negro Leagues data, it might be the best we can do. So without further introduction, here are my picks for the five greatest teams in Negro Leagues history.
5. Newark Eagles, 1946-47
The Newark Eagles of 1946-47 were a pretty awesome team, featuring three future Hall of Famers. The pitching staff was anchored by thirty-year-old Leon Day, who some say threw as hard as Satchel Paige. The middle of the infield was manned by shortstop Monte Irvin and second baseman Larry Doby, both of whom would eventually enjoy great success as outfielders in the major leagues.
In '46, the Eagles placed five players on the All-Star team: the aforementioned trio, plus catcher Leon Ruffin and third baseman Murray Watkins. They dominated the competition in both halves of the season, finishing with 47 wins and 16 losses (the next-best record was posted by the New York Cubans, at 28-21). Newark capped their season with a seven-game triumph over the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series.
Leon Day was off to Mexico City in 1947, but Doby and Irvin led the Eagles to a first-half title. Unfortunately, second-half standings weren't published and there was no World Series, so it's hard to say just how good the '47 Eagles were.
4. Kansas City Monarchs, 1923-26
The Monarchs were a good team, we're just not sure how great they were. Over the course of their history, however, the Monarchs were the best-run, most consistent black team, and it just seems like they belong here somewhere.
Mind you, the Monarchs were excellent in the mid-1920s. They may have featured just one future Hall of Famer-Joe "Bullet" Rogan, inducted in 1998-but they were the dominant team in the Negro National League of the time. Beginning in 1923, the Monarchs won four straight pennants, and over those same four seasons they went 231-99 (.700) in league games.
In 1924, the Monarchs faced off against the Hilldale club, champs of the Eastern Colored League, in the first "World Series" involving black teams. Led by third baseman Judy Johnson, Hilldale was itself a fantastic club, and the best-of-nine series went the distance before Kansas City prevailed in the game 10 finale, 5-0 (game 3 ended in a tie). The two clubs met again in the 1925 World Series, and this time Hilldale romped over the Monarchs, five games to one. In 1926, the Monarchs were topped by the Chicago American Giants, five games to four, in a playoff for the National Negro League pennant.
3. St. Louis Stars, 1928-30
Up the middle, the Stars employed a pair of future Hall of Famers in shortstop Willie Wells and center fielder Cool Papa Bell. Mule Suttles, who rivals Josh Gibson as the most powerful man in Negro Leagues history, manned first base. In 1928, St. Louis won both the first and second halves of the season, finishing 66-26 overall. The next season they dropped to 59-33, second behind the 62-17 Monarchs. But in 1930, the Stars finished with their best record ever, 65-22. Their combined record for those three seasons was 190-81, which works out to a .701 winning percentage.
Regrettably, the Stars never got a chance to face off against the Eastern Colored League champs because the E.C.L. came apart during the 1928 season. The St. Louis club would die a quick death. After going 11-11 in the first half of the '31 season, the Stars disbanded. Not long after, so did the rest of the Negro National League.
2. Homestead Grays, 1943-45
At another point in this book, we suggest that perhaps wartime teams really can't be taken too seriously because the talent base was so depleted. However, this wasn't so true in the Negro Leagues, as most of the top black players played right on through the early '40s. And the Homestead Grays of Pennsylvania were clearly the best black team during the war. From 1943 through 1945 they won three straight Negro National League pennants and combined for a 90-34 (.726) record. Homestead featured a trio of all-time greats, aging though they were, in Cool Papa Bell (forty years old in 1943), Josh Gibson (an old thirty-one), and Buck Leonard (thirty-five). In both '43 and '44, the Grays aced the Birmingham Black Barons in the World Series, but in the last hurrah for Bell, Gibson, and Leonard, the Grays were swept four straight by the Cleveland Buckeyes in the '45 Series.
1. Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1934-36
Most authorities on the Negro Leagues wind up picking this squad as the greatest ever. In the Society for American Baseball Research's The Negro Leagues Book, Merl Kleinknecht describes the 1935 Crawfords as "arguably the greatest black team in history." In The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, James A. Riley writes, "Although their existence as a team was brief, the Pittsburgh Crawfords are considered the greatest team in the history of black baseball." We concur. Given their talent, there's no reason to think that the Crawfords at their best couldn't have played with just about any team, anywhere, at any time. After all, how many major league teams have ever boasted five Hall of Famers? The Crawfords could put on the field, all at once, Cool Papa Bell in center field, Oscar Charleston at first base, Judy Johnson at third, Josh Gibson behind the plate, and Satchel Paige on the mound. True, Paige didn't actually pitch much for the Crawfords in 1935 (he was off barnstorming, making piles of money for himself) but Leroy Matlock went 19-0 in Satchel's absence.
The Crawfords finished third in 1934, sort of, as their 29-17 combined record (the season was split into halves) was just a few percentage points behind the Chicago American Giants (28-15) and the Philadelphia Stars (23-13). But Pittsburgh won Negro National League pennants in both 1935 (39-15) and 1936 (36-24).
Like the great St. Louis Stars team, the Craws dynasty didn't last long. In 1937, most of the stars left to play in Dominica for dictator Rafael Trujillo's team. In 1939 the Pittsburgh Crawfords became the Toledo Crawfords, and a year later they were the Indianapolis Crawfords. But in their time, the Pittsburgh Crawfords probably were as talented as any baseball team on the planet, whatever the chromality of their players. - Rob
From Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein.
Copyright © 2000 by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Reprinted with permission.