Now that the old Negro Leagues are being formally recognized as major leagues and players’ stats included in MLB records, one has to wonder: Where does Cool Papa Bell fit in among Mississippi natives on the all-time charts? The Hall of Famer from Starkville, a legendary speedster, played in the Negro Leagues for 21 years between 1922 and ’46. According to seamheads.com, the foremost authority on Negro Leagues numbers, Bell batted .324 for his career. That would be tops among Mississippians. The leader was Buddy Myer, an Ellisville native who played from 1925-41 and hit .303 (.3028 to be precise). Bell’s career stolen base total of 297 would trail only Billy Hamilton’s 305; Jarrod Dyson drops to third at 256. Bell’s best single-season steal total was 52 in 1929, when he played 102 games. That would rank second on the Magnolia State chart. Hamilton stole 59 in 139 games in 2017. Bell banged out 82 career triples, which trails only Myer’s 130 on the state list. Bell was credited with 1,636 hits, well short of Dave Parker’s 2,712, though, again, Bell played far fewer games. In 1,273 games, Bell also scored a remarkable 1,208 runs. That ranks a close third behind Parker’s 1,272 (in 2,466 games) and Ellis Burks’ 1,253 (2000 games). … William (Bill) Foster, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest Negro Leagues pitchers, isn’t a Mississippi native but did move to Rodney as a child and grew up there (see previous posts). His numbers are worthy of a look. The left-hander, a former Alcorn State player and coach, won 150 games (per seamheads.com) between 1923-46 with a 2.59 ERA and 1,263 strikeouts. Only three Mississippians rank above him in wins: Guy Bush (176), Roy Oswalt (163) and Claude Passeau (162). Only Oswalt (1,852) had more K’s, and only Reb Russell (2.33 from 1913-19) had a better ERA.
The old Negro Leagues, which Major League Baseball is celebrating today, produced not only great players but great teams. Mississippians played major roles on some of the best. There is surely ample debate about which Negro League team deserves to be called “the best,” but the short list would have to include the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. There were four future Hall of Famers on that team, five if you count Satchel Paige, who was on the roster but held out most of the season. The center fielder and leadoff batter for the Crawfords, the Negro National League champs in ’35, was James “Cool Papa” Bell, the Starkville native and Hall of Famer whose speed is legend. Clarksdale native David “Lefty” Harvey was a pitcher on that team, which also featured the incredible slugger Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson. Bell was also the leadoff man for the 1930 St. Louis Stars, another NNL champion with a stacked lineup that included Willie “The Devil” Wells, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe (from the Ken Burns films) and George “Mule” Suttles. Nicknames apparently were a Negro Leagues staple. William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and played and coached at Alcorn A&M, didn’t have a nickname — he was known simply as Bill or Willie — but did have a great arsenal of pitches as the left-handed ace of the 1927 Chicago American Giants. That team won the NNL pennant and the Negro World Series, with Hall of Famer Foster throwing a shutout in the decisive eighth game. The Giants’ roster also featured Pythias Russ, “Gentleman Dave” Malarcher, Walter “Steel Arm” Davis and Willie “Pigmeat” Powell. The 1945 Cleveland Buckeyes, with Jackson native Buddy Armour playing center field, won the Negro American League pennant and the World Series in a sweep against a Homestead Grays team that trotted out a 42-year-old Bell and Greenwood native Dave Hoskins. The Buckeyes, 53-16 in the regular season according to “Only the Ball Was White,” were led by future major leaguer Sam “The Jet” Jethroe and the brothers Jefferson, Willie and George, both pitchers. Hattiesburg’s Rufus Lewis was the ace of the 1946 Newark Eagles, who won the NNL title and the World Series in seven games against Kansas City’s Monarchs. Lewis won Game 7. Future big leaguers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and Max “Dr. Cyclops” Manning were other stars on that great Newark team. … All MLB players, managers, coaches and umpires will wear today a patch commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. The logo is based on the official logo created by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Eighty years ago, they ruled the Earth. Well, in 1935, the Pittsburgh Crawfords ruled a segregated part of the Earth. The ’35 Crawfords are widely regarded as the greatest Negro Leagues team of all-time, and — wait for it — a pair of Mississippians were part of the club. Owned by the legendary – and deep-pocketed — Gus Greenlee, the Crawfords trotted out five future Hall of Famers, including Starkville native Cool Papa Bell. The lightning-quick Bell, one of just two Mississippi natives enshrined in Cooperstown, was the leadoff batter in a lineup that also featured Josh Gibson, player-manager Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson and Sam Bankhead. The brilliant Satchel Paige pitched for that Crawfords team for a time, though their ace was Leroy Matlock, who, according to one source, went 18-0 that season. The team went 26-6 in the first half of the Negro National League season, 39-15 overall and beat the second-half champion New York Cubans in the league championship series. A lesser known star on that Pittsburgh team was Bill “Lefty” Harvey, a Clarksdale native who pitched and occasionally played first base and pinch hit. Harvey famously beat Bob Feller in a head-to-head matchup in a California winter league game in 1939 and also hit three home runs in a game at Yankee Stadium, according to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Good as he was, Harvey was just a bit player on the ’35 Crawfords team that validated its greatness by winning a thrilling seven-game championship series over the Cubans. The Crawfords, down 3-2 in games and three runs in the ninth, rallied to win Game 6 on the road, then got homers from Gibson and Charleston to take the pennant in Game 7 at home at Greenlee Field. When the conversation turns to greatest teams, remember the Crawfords.