not the browns, not some antecedent of a major league team like the perfectos. the st. louis stars played from 1922 to 1931: throughout that time, one of the greatest baseball players ever, james "cool papa" bell played centerfield for the stars. and yet i wouldn't have been able to identify him or tell you much of anything about him until a week or so ago when i got the idea to do a series on the negro leagues and their role in st. louis baseball.
the history of the negro leagues and african-american baseball playerss before jackie robinson is fascinating and complex. the more i've read the more i am intrigued by this part of baseball history.
i'm not sure why we don't know more about the negro leagues than we do. i suppose part of it is that we lack the continuity of history, so when the post-dispatch asks who was the greatest second baseman of all time for the cardinals, the stars players aren't included in the question; not because anyone there is a flaming racist, but just because there is no continuity between the two clubs. another factor is the age of the negro leagues. on a related point, the lifeblood of appreciating historical baseball - statistics - is hard to approach for the negro leagues. rigorous statistics were not kept. most records come from daily box scores in newspapers of the times. no cumulative statistics were followed. in addition, the play of the league was irregular; exhibition games, games made up with patchwork squads taken from several teams, interracial games playing a white team or a collection of white stars from several major league teams made tracking statistics and determining what games "counted" a real challenge. even what stats we have are hard to compare to those of major leaguers.
another factor is that within a few years of jackie robinson's appearance, the negro leagues had declined to the point of near-irrelevance. when we talk about great players from the history of the negro leagues, we are mostly talking about players from the 20's and 30's. even major leaguers of that era don't fare so well in the collective memory. ronnie belliard is more likely to come to mind as a cardinal second baseman than rogers hornsby for most fans.
and, yes, i think the era of segregation, in baseball and the nation as a whole, is one that many baseball fans are just as happy to forget. it's hard to appreciate bullet rogan or oscar charleston without thinking at the same time about what was lost, what we missed out on. i can't read the history of the negro leagues and not wish i could have seen bullet rogan pitch to ty cobb or lou gehrig. of course, i've never really seen lou gehrig pitched to by anybody. what i mean is that the glory of the league and all its amazing athletes feel so bittersweet. the better they were the more you wish things had been different. it's easier to take your baseball history without the bitter aftertaste.
james "cool papa" bell was among the greatest ball players in history. i was shocked to learn that he began his career, in fact, as a knuckleball pitcher. he allegedly gained his name because he learned as a rookie while on a train that he was scheduled to pitch against the feared chicago american giants the next day. he was so nonplussed his teammates commented that that was one "cool papa" who could show no fear about pitching to the best team in the league.
one example of this forgotten history of the negro leagues was recalled to me in thinking of the response to rick ankiel's transition to the outfield. i can't tell you how many times i read that he was the first since babe ruth to do this. well, technically, no; cool papa bell transitioned in 1922 (3 years after ruth) from an apparently decent knuckler to one of the best outfielders in history. googling "rick ankiel" "babe ruth" gives you 25,000 hits, including a wikipedia entry indicating that rick ankiel was the first since babe ruth to make the P->OF transition. googling "rick ankiel" "cool papa" gets you 1500 hits.
truth is google, and google truth, and that is all you need know.
back to cool papa bell. bell's calling card was speed. a number of probably apocryphal stories exist about bell's speed. instead, take this story from the 1925 playoffs. in game 1 against the kansas city monarchs -- kansas city's best baseball team sure hasn't been the royals and it may not have been the a's either; the monarchs were a perennial negro league powerhouse -- bell hit a grounder to short which he beat out with his ridiculous speed. he went to second on another player's groundout, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on a hit. the next night, he grounded to short again and beat the throw again, stole second and third, then scored on a single. in short, the man was so exciting he makes jose reyes look like a tax attorney. he was among the best baserunners of all time. throughout his career with st. louis, he made the top three or four in his league in stolen bases most seasons.
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apologies for the jumping around, but i wanted to get initial stuff and a st. louis hook out of the way. the early history of african american ballplayers is fascinating.
the first game of baseball recorded with the names of african - americans in the lineup came on july 4th, 1859 in beautifiul Jamaica, NY. the african american squad lost 54-43.
the first african american to play major league baseball is NOT jackie robinson. fleet walker graduated from oberlin college, got his law degee from Michigan, then joined the Toledo Blue Sox in the american association. after racial confict within the league, african-american players dropped out of their major league assignments. not for another sixty years would an african-american share a big league uniform with white players.
[i really was falling asleep in editing this entry last night. i will not try to re-edit it now, but i did fail to properly cite my sources: john holway's "the complete book of baseball's negro leagues" (2001) was a useful resource in understanding the history of african americans in baseball. i have another book i am reading now (sol white's "history of colored baseball") and will try to track down a copy of "only the ball was white" for future posts.]