For all of our friends at Baseball Almanac, we thought we should write a column about one of the all-time great professional baseball teams that played in our area some sixty years or so ago. No, we are NOT referring to the Washington Senators. We are talking about the great Homestead Grays. Unfortunately, unless you go to Howard University Hospital and gaze around at what used to be Griffith Stadium, there is nary a trace of the Grays in downtown D.C. So we thought we would rectify this a bit as the New Year begins.
The Homestead Grays originated in 1910, a good two decades after the color barrier crashed down forcing African Americans to play baseball outside of the white organized major leagues. Homestead was a steel town in Pennsylvania and the black mill workers created, as a recreational activity, a ball team that would eventually thrill baseball fans for years. From around 1912 through the early 1930’s, under the leadership of owner Cumberland Posey, the Grays traveled extensively throughout the east as an independent ball club. They were known as barnstormers who would play ball in hundreds of small towns, usually taking on and beating the best local baseball talent available, white or black.
Josh Gibson of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
(Photo courtesy of FC Associates)
By the mid 1930’s, the Grays entered the Negro National League, a financially sound organization that had weathered the Great Depression. It was from this time period for the next several years that the Grays featured some of the greatest baseball talent to ever play organized ball. The team played not only in Pittsburgh but also at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. For years they dominated other great ball clubs from the Negro Leagues. From 1938 through 1948, the Grays won an unprecedented nine league championships. That is a record unmatched in professional team sports. During that period of time, they fielded stars such as Baseball Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Jamie “Cool Papa” Bell as well as other greats like Sam Bankhead, Jimmy Crutchfield, Luke Easter, and Wilmer Fields.
Slugger Josh Gibson.
(Photo Courtesy of FC Associates)
Even casual fans today recognize the name of Josh Gibson. Catcher Josh Gibson is said by many to have been the greatest long ball hitter of all time. Along with his teammate Buck Leonard, Gibson powered the Grays during their heyday in the late 1930’s until his sudden death in 1947, a few short months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Negro League historian, John Holway, correctly notes that Gibson’s batting feats were mythical and his power was legendary. Holway documents that between 1930 and 1945, Josh batted .351 and led the Negro Leagues in homers every year except for two. This was quite a feat since most of the games in the latter part of his career were played at the cavernous Griffith Stadium. Old timers say that some of those homers that Gibson hit were monstrous shots! In fact, a year before his death no less of a student of the game than Ted Williams rhapsodized about Gibson’s magic and lamented that players such as he would have been thrilled to face Josh and the great Grays team.
Two other Homestead Grays players deserve special note. From 1934 until 1948, Buck Leonard, anchoring the middle of the lineup, played with the Grays and provided a steady glove at first base. Many baseball historians consider that during his tenure with the Grays he was the premier first baseman in all of baseball. Leonard is most often compared favorably with the legendary New York Yankees former first baseman, Lou Gehrig. He batted well over .300 for 18 of the 22 years that he played in organized ball and even reached the .400 milestone twice.
Satchel Paige Signed Baseball (with spelling from his birth name)
(Phoo courtesy of Mastronet)
For several years, Gibson and Leonard shared the diamond with another Hall of Famer by the name of Jamie “Cool Papa” Bell. Bell was a lifetime .341 hitter who not only played for the Grays but spent a considerable amount of time with their rival club, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He was known as a speed demon the bases. Satchel Paige enhanced “Cool Papa’s” legendary moves by claiming that Bell could snap off the light switch on this doorway hall and be in bed under the covers and ready to sleep before the room darkened. Whether you believe that tale or not, the fact of the matter is that most people who saw Bell play consider him one of the fastest and most cunning base runners of all time.
After World War II, a rising tide of moral indignation against discrimination in baseball peaked, coinciding with the vision of Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. Rickey would be the first white owner to take advantage of the vast reservoir of black baseball talent when he handpicked Jackie Robinson in 1947 to break down the walls of segregation. Shortly after Robinson’s historic debut, the Negro Leagues began to die out. By 1953 only four teams were left. The best players – Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and many others – had followed Robinson into the majors.
To many, the death of the Negro Leagues was bittersweet, sad because it was a great source of pride in the African American community, but also liberating because it marked an end to a regrettable chapter in our nation’s history – segregation in our country’s national pastime. It is important, though, that the history of the “separate” league be celebrated and shared and that teams such as the Homestead Grays and their great players be recognized for what they were – outstanding ballplayers who have left their mark on the national pastime. Our area was fortunate to host these greats for about 12 years, from the late 1930’s throughout the 1940’s. Let’s not forget the great Grays teams!