As with any conversation about the tremendous Negro league players, there are a lot of “what ifs.”
What if these men had gotten to play in the majors, would the record books read differently? What if they had played their whole careers in the majors, would they have changed the fortunes of some of the teams?
Negro League Greats
Based on what Satchel Paige did in his forties in the majors, it’s certain that the best of Negro league players could have held their own – even dominated – in the majors.
While numbers from the Negro leagues are often incomplete, enough is known about the following five players to believe they would have torn up the majors. All have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Everyone knows Paige. These five deserve to be known, too.
Charleston played from 1915 to 1941, primarily with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, voted in by the Negro League Committee. He played centerfield and first base, and most experts compare him to Willie Mays. Buck O’Neill said Charleston was “Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” He hit for power and had tremendous speed that he used both on the base paths and in chasing down fly balls in the outfield.
The catcher that many compare to Johnny Bench was the catcher for Paige for a time in Pittsburgh. He died young, at age 35. He played from 1930 until 1946 and was considered the greatest power hitter of his generation. Legend has it that he hit one completely out of Yankee Stadium which, if true, would likely make him the only player to accomplish that feat. Gibson also was inducted in 1971 into the Baseball Hall of Fame – the second player to enter the hall after Paige.
Leonard spent his entire career, from 1934 to 1948, with the Homestead Grays. He was at the center of a team that dominated the Negro leagues in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Leonard played first base, and many compared his batting style to that of Lou Gehrig. He was offered a big league contract in 1945, but turned it down, saying, “I knew I was over the hill. I didn’t try to fool myself.”
George “Mule” Suttles
Suttles finally got voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Suttles played from 1923 to 1944 with the Birmingham Black Barons, St. Louis Stars and Newark Eagles. He played first base and the outfield and was a power hitter. Unlike Paige and Gibson, he didn’t get a lot of publicity and he wasn’t the kind to seek it out. Suttles would have been “lost to history,” according to the Hall of Fame, without those who continuously proclaimed his greatest. His teammate, Red Moore, said of Suttles, “He was a laid-back person. He didn’t do much talking. He wasn’t the boastful type. Sometimes the better players get overlooked.”
Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell
Cool Papa Bell was, according to those who saw him play, the fastest player ever to step on a baseball diamond. He could hit, too, although without much power. He was the prototypical leadoff man, reaching base, stealing second and reaching home on a single. He was that kind of fast. Stories about him include the classic about turning off the lights and getting into bed before the room got dark. Paige claimed he was so fast that he’d get struck by his own hit when sliding into second (Paige had a gift for the dramatic).
These five players all were Negro League legends. There is no denying their greatness. The only wish – the one all baseball fans will always have – is that they could have been on the same field as Ruth and other big league greats.