Who’s the best player you’ve ever seen in person? Despite the questions about steroids, I would have to say Barry Bonds. The man is 4th all-time in wins above replacement and everybody remembers his light-tower power. But some forget he was a terrific defender and baserunner in his Pirates days with 8 Gold Gloves and over 500 stolen bases. He has a career OPS+ of 182, so he was 82%(!) better than league average in his career. He is the all-time leader in intentional walks with 688 in his career, including 120 in 2004 alone.
But maybe Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime was the best player you ever saw. Or Barry Larkin. Or Eric Davis. Or Rickey Henderson. Or Joe Morgan. Or Hank Aaron. Or Frank Robinson. Or Willie Mays. There are so many options and, honestly, none of these choices are wrong. If you saw any of these players in person, then you should consider yourself lucky because, any way you slice it, you saw an all-time legend.
But now imagine a world in which none of these players had the opportunity to step foot in a major league ballpark. How different would the game be without the incredible players above and so many others? It was not so long ago that this was the case.
Everybody knows that Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But before Jackie broke in, he played a season in the Negro National League with the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson was a multi-sport star in college at UCLA, where baseball was the sport he focused on least because there was virtually no route to a professional career. He had actually sought out a football career as a running back out of college until he was drafted into the Army in 1942, when America was brought into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Robinson was stationed at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky in 1944, where he met a former member of the Kansas City Monarchs who encouraged him to seek a tryout with the club. The Monarchs have become the flagship Negro National League team mainly due to the efforts of one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors in Monarchs alumni Buck O’Neil and President Bob Kendrick of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. The museum is incredible and a must visit for any baseball fan, and you can then make a short walk down the street to see the building where the Negro Leagues began.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. There had been segregated leagues for years, but they were more haphazard and organizations fell apart in 1917 with the U.S. entering World War I. The Great War ended in 1919 and former player and organizer Andrew “Rube” Foster (who got his nickname after he beat famed pitcher Rube Waddell in an exhibition pitching duel) was ready to pick up where he had left off before the war in attempting to get a well-organized league of all African American players off the ground.
Foster and other business partners met at the YMCA in Kansas City on February 13th and 14th of 1920 and established the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs to be the governing body for the Negro National League. There were 8 charter teams to start the league: the Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABC’s, 2 teams named Stars (the Detroit Stars and Cuban Stars), 3 teams named Giants (the St. Louis Giants, Chicago Giants, and the even more confusing Chicago American Giants), and lastly the Dayton Marcos based just down the street from the Cincinnati Reds single-A affiliate Dayton Dragons.
Ohio in Negro League History
The Marcos were started in the 1910s by Moses Moore, a Dayton real estate agent who owned the New Marco Hotel in Dayton and named the team after it. In 1920, John Matthew was running the team — headed by 36-year-old player/manager “Candy” Jim Taylor, who would go on to become the winningest manager in Negro National League history — when they joined the Negro National League. June 12, 1920 was the Marcos’ home opener, besting the Chicago Giants 5-4. Despite only being in the Negro National League for the 1920 season (save for one other season in 1926) and finishing with the worst record in the league at 16-36 and a lowly team OPS+ of 73, this is just a piece of the rich puzzle that is Negro League baseball history in Ohio.
The Marcos moved to Columbus in 1921 and became the Columbus Buckeyes. Again, they finished 7th with a 25-37 record but added Hall of Famer John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. The Columbus Negro League franchise would change hands and names multiple times going by the Keystones, Blue Birds, and Elite Giants. They also boasted such esteemed players as “Dizzy” Dismukes, “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Bill Byrd, and “Cool Papa” Bell at one point or another through the years.
Cincinnati was host to the Cincinnati Clowns in the early 1940s, but they soon moved to Indianapolis, keeping the name Clowns and eventually being the last stop for Hank Aaron before he broke into the majors. The Cincinnati Tigers, whom the Reds have paid tribute to with throwback uniforms, were the most successful Negro League team but were only around for 3 seasons. “Double Duty” Radcliffe was among the notable Tigers players. Cleveland was host to many iterations of Negro League teams, as well, being named the Tate Stars, Browns, Elites, Hornets, Tigers, Cubs, Stars, Giants, Red Sox, Bears, and Buckeyes through the years.
Ohio was also a prominent stop for barnstorming Negro League teams. There are stories of Josh Gibson, possibly the greatest player to never play Major League Baseball, hitting the longest home run in the history of what would become Cooper Stadium, home of the Columbus Clippers. The second belonged to Negro Leaguer and eventual Hall of Famer Monte Irvin. There are also stories in small towns, like the Pittsburgh Crawfords stopping to play a doubleheader in Zanesville with a roster including player/manager Oscar Charleston, “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, “Judy” Johnson, and Satchel Paige, who pitched a no-hitter in the second game that was abbreviated to 7 innings and lasted only 1 hour and 18 minutes.
Stories like this are weaved through states and towns nationwide. Unfortunately, the record keeping for the Negro Leagues was spotty at best, and as many of the players and spectators pass away year after year, most of these incredible stories are hard to track down and end up lost to the memory of time. I cannot recommend enough following Bob Kendrick on Twitter @nlbmprez, visiting the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO, and reading “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America” by Joe Posnanski. “The Soul of Baseball” is my favorite baseball book and possibly my favorite book I’ve ever read.