February 12, 2007

Are the '43 Homestead Grays the best baseball team ever?: To honor Black History Month, MLB is listing the top five Negro League teams of all time. Coming in at #5 is a Grays club that includes Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell. Even in the fifth spot, the team compares favorably to the '27 Yankees. Ahead of the Grays, at #4 they list the 1916 Indianapolis ABC's, a club that heralded Oscar Charleston and Ben Taylor. #1 could be any one of Rube Foster's clubs, or the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, which sported Gibson, Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige. What's the best team you (probably) never saw?

posted by The Crafty Sousepaw to baseball at 02:13 AM - 9 comments

If you need to do research to find your favorite team, MLB now has a Negro Leagues history site that details all of the league's teams. And you can get info on the top stars of the league, like my favorite utility guy Martin Dihigo. Really great stuff to be found. If you want to learn more about the players, the Baseball Hall of Fame has video bios* of some of the league's greatest stars. *Video clips may or may not bear the fingerprints of a certain SpoFite, but there is no benefit borne by the link.

posted by The Crafty Sousepaw at 02:54 AM on February 12, 2007

Not to take anything away from the greatness of the individual players on the Grays, but I'm not sure any team of 1943 can be considered the best ever, nor even the equivalent of the '27 Yankees. First of all, there was a war going on at the time, and talent in the major leagues was thin. I would imagine that the same was true for the Negro Leagues. Also, even without a dilution of talent due to the war, I'm not sure that the other teams in the Negro Leagues would have measured up to the opposition that the '27 Yankees might have faced. Finally, the article says something to the effect that statistics in the Negro Leagues were loosely kept. My reading of the author's interpretation is that Gibson, Leonard, and Bell might have been denied credit for some of their achievements. It could also mean that their statistics were padded to make them look better. The above is my opinion, and is based on no statistical or historical analysis. I throw it out there as a "straw man" for discussion. Have at it!

posted by Howard_T at 08:12 AM on February 12, 2007

Nice post TCS. Just spent my morning coffee hour (ok 2 and a half hours) clicking and reminising about my favorite major league park, Rickwood Field the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the U.S.A. From the link: Broke Ground Spring 1910 Cost $75,000 Opened August 18, 1910 Surface Grass Owner: City of Birmingham Seating Capacity: 10,800 Current Dimensions: Left field 321 ft (96.3 m) Left center 399 ft (119.7 m) Center field 393 ft (117.9 m) Right cemter 392 ft (117.6 m) Right field 332 ft (99.6 m) And the "48 Black Baron's so kicked ass, winning their third pennant with the help of a teenaged (17 I think) outfielder named Willie Mays. and you are indeed crafty BPP, I didn't know you had changed names.

posted by Folkways at 08:13 AM on February 12, 2007

I came across this great page looking for something else. It has championship outcomes and individual statistics. Pretty cool. Howard, your comment -- which I think is a great observation -- is also a good segue into something I've been wondering recently about the Negro Leagues, and that is whether the talent saturation level and league growth kept pace with the white leagues. For instance, if there were 12 teams between the Negro American and National Leagues in 1943, were they drawing a pool that was 75% the size of what the 16-team Major Leagues drew from? Certainly there were fewer blacks than whites in America at that time, but the Negro Leagues also drew Latin players that were not considered by the white leagues. I think that's a very relevant issue to a discussion on whether Negro League teams could be compared to white teams from that era. Given the enormous and ever-growing talent pool available to the Major Leagues right now, it is hard not to conclude that the best teams of all-time exist at this very moment. Even in a 30-team league, when you consider all of the Latin countries, eastern Asia, Australia -- heck, I hear they've even got some decent ballplayers in Canada -- it's hard to believe that these aren't the best teams ever assembled. The Baseball Hall of Fame at this point honors roughly 1% of everyone who has played major league baseball (I'm not sure if that number includes Negro League Hall of Famers and/or the pool of professional black players from the era of segregation). So, out of any pool of 750 players you would expect to find eight Hall of Famers. Yet, if I asked you to name all the current active players you think are Hall of Famers, I bet you would fly past eight without breaking a sweat. The Yankees alone have a guaranteed three, easily. I also saw an article recently, though I can't locate it now, wondering if the Japanese leagues are headed the way of the Negro Leagues now that they are being so heavily recruited by MLB. I would doubt it, unless MLB does something crazy like establish a team in Japan, and the thought is a bit off topic, but still, interesting.

posted by The Crafty Sousepaw at 02:31 PM on February 12, 2007

That 1935 Pittsford Crawfords roster is ridiculous. Still, I'm inclined to agree with TCS and say that the best baseball teams ever are playing today -- bringing together the most talented and best-conditioned athletes from around the world.

posted by Venicemenace at 08:08 AM on February 13, 2007

it is hard not to conclude that the best teams of all-time exist at this very moment. the best baseball teams are playing today True of every sport. Thanks for the baseball fix, Sousepaw.

posted by mjkredliner at 09:24 AM on February 13, 2007

it's hard to believe that these aren't the best teams ever assembled TCS, you've got it right. Just look at players of today compared to those of the '30s and '40s. I mean, look at the back of the baseball card and note the height and weight statistics. Diet, exercise, and generally better health care have given us people who are larger and stronger than their grandparents and parents. As mjkred said, it is true of every sport. Couple this with the number of organized youth leagues in every sport, and the kids today not only are stronger and bigger, but also are far more advanced in skills than their predecessors. Now, getting back to the original intent of the post, I think the percentage of blacks in the population of the US is around 15 to 20%. Even figuring in the number of Latino players who might have been in the Negro Leagues, you are still looking at a talent pool at best about 1/3 the size of the white talent pool. To me, this makes the achievements of the Negro League players even more significant.

posted by Howard_T at 12:39 PM on February 13, 2007

I'm with TCS- I think the wider net being cast in recruiting around the globe (which is only getting wider) ensures that the best talents are being more refined and more easily identified. It's a tough standard, really: there are more phenomenal players now, that standing out among that talent makes one all the more special. For example, 'roids or no 'roids, it'll be hard to argue that either Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds are the greatest offensive threats that ever played baseball. The only exceptions are those who are also still playing. If you set aside the silly puritanical American moralizing, it's hard to avoid the likelihood that Ruth wasn't worthy of holding Bonds' jock strap. As I've said in the past, Ruth never faced a Pedro Martinez in his prime, never competed with foreign born players for counting stat numbers. For example, over the past 10 years when looking at the 20 homerun leaders for both leagues, 5 of the 10 NL HR crowns, and 2 of 10 in the AL (although that's largely because Griffey won 3 of those, and A-Rod 4 others), were won by foreign born players. If you look at the All-Star rosters, at the league leaders in key stats, a significant portion of them are either african-american or foreign-born. The US is still only ~5% of the world's population. Had I the time, I'm sure that further investigation into the top 10 for each of the major counting stats showed a similarly disproportionate bend towards "the rest of the world": the sports that are primarily US based are getting better at finding superior talent in the other 95% of the world's population than in their own backyard. The biggest reasons the MLB and other US-based leagues aren't heavily foreign is that the sport is still primarily played in the US, and that there is a far easier path that a US-born player can progress to the majors via high-school, college, minor-league, then major-league drafting, at each step becoming more trained and refined. This is changing over the past couple of decades, which is why so many truly stellar players are hailing from Puerto Rico and D.R.: we're finding the desperate, raw talent that for skin color and lack of scouting would be missed altogether in years past. Even accounting for conditioning regimens, I think a mediocre team of today would stomp, say, the '27 Yankees. You'd have a flotilla of 6'2", 200lb athletes, every hitter with potential home run power and every pitcher with a 90+ fastball, going against a team of shorter, weaker players who only looked good because the competition was even weaker. Even if we give the likes of Ruth due credit as a pure talent comparable to the best of any era, the reality is the numbers he put up, he put up against some really shitty players.

posted by hincandenza at 12:51 PM on February 13, 2007

The 1942 Kansas City Monarchs come in at #3. A club that ran hot on the arms of Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith. Although Paige is certainly the more famous, Smith may have been the superior pitcher overall. It was not uncommon for Paige to start a game and go three innings, then have Smith finish up the last sixth in relief. By Negro League standards, Paige would get credit for the win, but Smith clearly did the yeoman service. Buck O'Neil felt Smith was by far the better pitcher. The most interesting assertion from the article: "Willard Brown could rival Josh Gibson any day of the week," Dixon said. Brown was elected to the Hall of Fame last year. Best story: As the legend goes, Paige intentionally walked the bases loaded at one point in the game so he could face Gibson, an old teammate. Paige then proceeded to tell Gibson he was going to throw him three straight fastballs. He did just that, and Gibson struck out.

posted by The Crafty Sousepaw at 11:22 PM on February 15, 2007

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