I don’t generally get excited much, but I am really, REALLY excited to begin playing with the Strat-O-Matic Negro Leagues All Stars Set. The set includes 103 players, all of the big name Hall of Famers I’ve read about over the years, and many more players who I hope to learn about now that I can put some statistics and positions and context to their names.
There are 35 Negro Leaguers in Cooperstown. That includes Monte Irvin who spent a good part of his career in the Major Leagues and wasn’t in the Negro Leagues long enough to be included in this set and owners Like Effa Manley and JL Wilkinson; the rest of the Hall of Famers are included here.
Looking at the statistics on some of these cards makes me wonder how many more players would have been Hall of Fame caliber players had they been given a chance. Joe Posnanski is doing a really interesting list over at The Athletic where he ranks the top 100 ballplayers not in the Hall of Fame. He’s already written about Quincy Trouppe, and I suspect there will be several more Negro Leaguers coming.
Take John Beckwith for example. Beckwith’s card has him hitting .387, averaging 34 home runs and 102 RBI’s per season, with a .450 on base percentage and .690 slugging percentage. It’s easy, as many people have done over the years to assuage guilt, to write off those outlandish statistics as a result of inferior play in the Negro Leagues. But the dogged researchers over at Seamheads.com have compiled Beckwith’s stats against Major League pitchers against whom he hit .313 with a .340 on base percentage and unbelievable .667 slugging percentage in 104 plate appearances. Beckwith had a career slash line of .347/.399/.595. But no enshrinement in Cooperstown for John Beckwith.
It’s impossible to look at the success of Black ballplayers in the Major Leagues after 1947 and continue to believe the play of the best Negro Leaguers was in any way inferior. From 1949 to 1962 eleven of the fourteen National League MVP awards were won by players who would have been excluded from the opportunity prior to 1947. And that is exactly why I’m so excited to play the game with the likes of Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Double Duty Radcliffe, Buck Leonard, and John Beckwith, along with so many others.
The biggest question at the beginning is how to approach this set. The players in the Negro Leagues bounced from team to team, league to league, country to country, chasing every playing and financial opportunity, so Strat-O-Matic did not create player cards based on a specific year or by team but rather put together an average peak year card for each player. So how to create teams, matchups, games?
I decided to start by creating two all-star teams and have them compete head to head. I made Buck O’Neil and Oscar Charleston opposing managers and alternated top picks for each at each position, beginning with Buck’s choice of Josh Gibson as starting catcher. Buck’s squad has an opening day battery of Satch and Josh reunited,* with Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson and Willie Wells in the infield, Turkey Stearnes, Willard Brown and Alejandro Oms in the outfield. In addition to Oscar Charleston, possibly the greatest Negro Leagues player of all time, the other squad has Hilton Smith as the ace, throwing to his staffmate Double Duty Radcliffe, and backed up by greats Martin Dihigo and Mule Suttles in the infield, and an incredible outfield of Chino Smith, Cristobal Torriente, Cool Papa Bell, along with another two way great, Bullet Joe Rogan.
*Satch and Josh are often used in the classic tale of baseball in heaven. The story goes that Satch and Josh made an agreement that whoever died first would come back and tell the other if there was baseball in the afterlife. Josh died first, of course, and Satch went on to pitch for years and years and years. But one day Satch came home to find Josh in his living room. Josh smiled and greeted his old friend, then got down to business. Josh said, “I’ve got good news and bad news, Satchel. The good news is there is baseball up there, and the play is great. Best quality of ball you’ll ever see.” “I knew it,” Paige shouted jubillently. “But what’s the bad news?” “The bad news,” Josh said quietly, “is you’re pitching tonight.”
The “champions” of Negro League baseball were often decided by a head to head matchup varying in length from 7 to 13 games (although quite often the series was abandoned before a winner was ever officially decided, often because players would jump ship to pursue a paycheck in another league starting up elsewhere or to barnstorm with other all-stars against Major Leaguers). I’ll be playing a best of 9 series between these two super teams and using some of the best performances as a way to research some of these unappreciated players.