In 1973, the Chicago Defender, a groundbreaking Black newspaper, ran a baseball item based on an interview with a white man, former major league umpire Jocko Conlan.
Conlan, then 74, was nearly a decade removed from his time as an umpire, and still another year from being selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the veterans committee. He’d also played two seasons for the White Sox in the 1930s, and before that, as John M. Coates II wrote in the Defender, Conlan “played semipro ball against the Chicago American Giants and other top teams in the Negro National League.”
A couple of months before Coates’ article, former Newark Eagles and New York Giants star Monte Irvin had been inducted into the Hall, and Conlan didn’t get it.
“I don’t know how Monte Irvin could be selected over Oscar Charleston, one of the greatest players I ever saw,” Conlan said. “Monte was a fine person when he was in the National League and I like him very much. But he was no Charleston. Charleston was one of the premier players of the 1920s. He was clever, powerful, a heck of an outfielder, and a strong hitter. He belongs in the Hall of Fame if anyone does.”
Charleston did make it to Cooperstown in 1976. But he wasn’t the only player Conlan campaigned for when he spoke to the Defender. Willie Foster, Bullet Joe Rogan, and Cool Papa Bell were the others Conlan believed belonged in Cooperstown.
“It was a shame the early black players couldn’t play in the big leagues,” Conlan said. “But, they should still put those four fellows in the Hall. They belong — no question about it.”
Foster was inducted in 1996, Rogan in 1998, and Bell — the only one of the group to live to enjoy his honor — in 1974.
Although all four got their plaques, not a single one of the players Conlan listed made the cut in 1969 when Joe Black, the former Baltimore Elite Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, named his “All-Time All-Star Black Team” for the Defender.
Black mostly tabbed stars of the Negro Leagues, but as he was making an all-time team also included a couple of then-active players who were on their way to Hall of Fame careers.
As a first-team lineup, Black had Buck Leonard at first base, Jackie Robinson at second, Tommy Butts at shortstop, Ray Dandridge at third, Martin Dihigo in right field, Willie Mays in center field, Charleston in left field, Josh Gibson catching, and a three-man pitching staff of Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, and Jonas Gaines, with Sam Bankhead as a utilityman.
Joe Black’s first-team Negro League All-Stars
1B Buck Leonard
SS Tommy Butts
LF Oscar Charleston
CF Willie Mays
Utility Sam Bankhead
Joe Black’s second-team Negro League All-Stars
1B Mule Suttles
2B Piper Davis
SS Willie Wells
CF Roberto Clemente (not really his position, but OK)
RF Hank Aaron
Utility Jim Gilliam
On the second team, Black selected Mule Suttles at first base, Piper Davis at second, Willie Wells at short, Minnie Miñoso at third, Hank Aaron in right, Roberto Clemente in center (not really his position, but, okay), Frank Robinson in left, Roy Campanella behind the plate, and a mound trio of Don Newcombe, Impo Barnhill, and Barney Brown, with Jim Gilliam in the utility spot.
Notably missing are Judy Johnson and Pop Lloyd, two of the first Negro Leaguers to go to the Hall of Fame in the 1970s. Gaines appears rather unheralded in baseball history circles. Black obviously is just one voice, and to take his list as authoritative would be a mistake, but it’s wild that someone with his experience could name so many players as among the best of all time who are not honored in Cooperstown.
Butts, who was Gilliam’s double play partner with the Baltimore Elite Giants, made it to the Philadelphia A’s farm system in the 1950s, but was already in his mid 30s and didn’t get to the majors. Gilliam, for his part, was the 1953 National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star, and an on-base machine for the Dodgers, but is not a Hall of Famer.
The other of Black’s first-teamers not inducted to Cooperstown are Gaines and Bankhead. Another star of the Baltimore Elite Giants, Gaines pitched in three East-West All-Star Games, before wrapping up his career with the Hankyu Braves (now the (Orix Buffaloes) in Japan in 1953. Bankhead, who played primarily in Pittsburgh with the Crawfords and Homestead Grays, was a baseball pioneer in his own right, becoming the first Black coach in the minor leagues when he was a player-manager for the Farnham Pirates of the Quebec Provincial League in 1951.
In addition to Gilliam, the non-Hall of Famers on Black’s second team include Davis, the player-manager of the Birmingham Black Barons who helped guide the young Mays through his first professional experience. None of Black’s second-team pitchers made the Hall, either, which is a particular slight to Newcombe, who was the 1949 National League Rookie of the Year, 1956 MVP and Cy Young winner, and a four-time All-Star who missed 1952 and 1953 in military service.
Barnhill, who pitched for the New York Cubans through the 1940s, was 35 when he got a shot at Triple-A with the Minneapolis Millers — in 1960, at 36, he was third in the American Association in strikeouts, behind a young Harvey Haddix, and helped pitch the Millers to the league title. Brown, a lefty, pitched mostly for the New York Black Yankees and Philadelphia Stars, and played into his late 40s in Canada, which became a haven for former Negro League players in the 1950s.
And then there’s Miñoso, whose continued exclusion from the Hall of Fame is so mind-boggling, Barack Obama chided it when the legend died in 2015.
The Defender published Black’s picks on August 9. Five days later, the paper’s sports columnist, A.S. “Doc” Young, wrote about the “panel of experts” being assembled, with Campanella’s help, to evaluate Negro League history and eventually select that first group that made the Hall in the 1970s.
“If the idea is to be done justice, the panel of experts must get down to intensive and extensive research,” Young wrote. “In preliminary listings of all-time Negro greats, too many superstar players are being by-passed. Proof of the fact is a nationally-circulated article which lists the better-known Negro greats but makes no mention of Bud Fowler, the first Negro to play with a predominantly-white team (Newcastle, Pa., 1872) as well as a Negro-league star; Moses Fleetwood Walker, first Negro to play in the major leagues (Toledo, 1884) and also a star in Negro ball; George Stovey, a great pitcher who was coveted by the New York Giants in 1887; Smokey Joe Williams of the Lincoln (Neb.) Giants who was possibly a finer pitcher than Satchel Paige and others whose names are now hidden in dusty archives or in the memories of the aged.”
If this is the first you’re hearing of Fowler, you’re not alone. Walker is better known, but he, like Fowler, remains unenshrined in Cooperstown, as does Stovey. Of that group named by Young as the first and most important to look at, only Williams is in the Hall — and it took until 1999 to get him there.
“All too easily — if care isn’t exercised in the selection of the panel — this project can fall into a pattern of paying tribute to players well-remembered from the pre-Jackie Robinson era and forgetting the others,” Young wrote. “Everybody knows about Satchel Paige and many have heard of Josh Gibson. Their names pop quickly into mind. But, Smokey Joe Williams’ record must be research, and so must the records of Bizz Mackey, John Donaldson, Ray Dandridge, Martin Dihigo, Vic Harris, and Chet Brewer — as well as Buck Leonard, Bingo DeMoss, Judy Johnson, John Henry Lloyd, Pete Hill, Oscar Charleston, and Christobal Torriente.
“This is a worthy project. It is the product of a good thought. It deserves loving care.”
More than a half-century after Young wrote that, we’ve seen the product of the project. There are 35 Negro League figures in the Hall of Fame. There are 41 white players — never mind pioneers, managers, and umpires — in the Hall of Fame who played in the 19th century.
The first player Young named, Williams, didn’t make the Hall until 1999. Mackey didn’t get in until 2006, along with Hill and Torriente. Dandridge, Dihigo, Johnson, Lloyd, and Charleston all were earlier inductees.
But Donaldson, Harris, and DeMoss haven’t gotten their due. Several players whom Black selected among his best Black players of all time aren’t in, either. The longer some of these legends go without going into the Hall of Fame, the greater the chance that they fade unrecognizably into the ether of history.
It still is a worthy project to give the Negro League legends the honors that they deserve. It still is the product of a good thought. And it still deserves loving care.