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WHEN BASEBALL WAS DOMINATED AND DOMINEERING : Crawfords May Have Been Best-Ever Team

October 02, 1994|ALAN ROBINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PITTSBURGH — They were arguably the greatest team in baseball history, one so good it might have been the best professional team in any sport ever.

The pitcher was the dominant player of his lifetime. The catcher hit the longest home runs of all time. The center fielder-manager was so good that rather than being compared to Ty Cobb, Cobb was compared to him. Two other Hall of Famers rounded out the lineup.

How good were they? They frequently didn't reach double-digit losses until June. They so devastated major leaguers on post-season barnstorming tours that even the incomparable Babe Ruth often refused to oppose them. They called Pittsburgh home, but were such a popular gate attraction they won games and fans in virtually every state in the union.

They had only one strike against them: they were black men playing a white man's game in the 1930s. That solitary strike was a life sentence because it barred many of the great black ballplayers from the major leagues forever.

Now, 60 years later, the 1933-36 Pittsburgh Crawfords must rely on colorblind historians and the fading memories of their dwindling fandom to keep their memories alive. They must hope that history doesn't forget that not only did they equal the 1927 Yankees and the 1970s Reds and 1940s-50s Yankees, they almost certainly were better.

"It was the best team that was ever put together in any country--the best team, Negro or white," a rather biased Satchel Paige wrote in his 1962 autobiography. "We played everywhere, in every ball park you could find, and we won like we invented the game."

They did, too. The Crawfords, who gave Pittsburgh's largely black Hill District a national identity and self-respect decades before desegregation, won Negro National League pennants in 1933, 1935 and 1936. Many of their stars then crossed town to lead the Homestead Grays to a record nine consecutive pennants.

Paige, catcher Josh Gibson, center fielder Oscar Charleston, third baseman Judy Johnson and outfielder Cool Papa Bell, perhaps the fastest player in history, represent the Crawfords in the Hall of Fame. The '27 Yankees also have four position players in the Hall, plus two pitchers.

The Crawfords, named for a Pittsburgh bath house that sponsored a semipro team, were owned by Gus Greenlee, the king of Pittsburgh's black numbers racket and a nightclub operator in a thriving Hill District area known as Little Harlem.

The Crawfords played most of their home games at Greenlee Field, but they often staged exhibition games at every whistlestop along the Negro League circuit. Sometimes, they played four games a day in three cities--morning, afternoon and a doubleheader at night, with Paige pitching at least once and sometimes twice.

Today, it's almost impossible to imagine Roger Clemens and Ken Griffey Jr. playing a morning game in Wheeling, W.Va., an afternoon game in Steubenville, Ohio, and a night-time doubleheader in Pittsburgh. But in the rugged Depression days of the 1930s, well-paid players often made only $150 to $250 a month, and every exhibition they squeezed in meant extra bucks.

Paige was the showpiece, a man who pitched nearly every day, winter or summer, for 20 years in the United States, Canada, South America or the Caribbean. He won more than 2,000 games during a career that began in the 1920s--and, because his age was never accurately documented, perhaps earlier--and stretched into the 1960s.

With a vast collection of pitches he gave catchy names such as the "beeball," "trouble pitch" and "hesitation," he often won as many as 75 to 100 games in a year and was a frequent 30-game winner in the Negro Leagues. He pitched at least 55 no-hitters and, conservatively, struck out 25,000 hitters--nearly four times as many as Nolan Ryan.

Paige often saved his best pitching for the barnstorming tours that all ballplayers, white or black, took in those tough economic times. Once, upon learning a Ruth-led team was ducking him, Paige said:

"We'll take our team and we'll play the All-Stars from the major leagues. We'll play them right across the country, anywhere and anytime. And we'll beat them so bad they won't ever play anymore."

This was more than braggadocio. Black historian John Holway has documented 268 black victories in 400 games against white major league teams, and Paige himself went more than four years without losing a single off-season exhibition on the West Coast, where many of the tours stopped for the winter.

"Satchel was a great pitcher when he finally got to the majors" in 1948 at age 42 with the Indians, former Negro Leaguer Clarence Bruce said in a 1988 interview. "If he had made it 20 years before, they wouldn't have been able to hit him. He might have won 450, 500 games."

After losing to Paige in a memorable 1-0, 13-inning exhibition in 1934, Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean said, "I'm pretty fast, but my fastball looked like a change of pace alongside that little pistol bullet Satchel shoots up to the plate."

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