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League of Extraordinary Men

The legendary power hitters of the Negro leagues, overlooked in their time, are getting recognition from baseball that many think is long overdue

July 23, 2006|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

George "Mule" Suttles was just where he wanted to be. He stood at the plate on the biggest stage of his era, the game on the line, his huge 50-ounce baseball bat across muscular shoulders formed in his younger years toiling in Alabama coal mines.

It was Aug. 11, 1935, and Comiskey Park in Chicago was packed with 50,000 fans and celebrities for the annual East-West Classic -- All-Stars from the Negro National League squaring off against the Negro American League.

And Suttles rarely missed a chance in this game, turning it into his own classic.

With the score 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th inning, he stepped up to face New York Cubans ace Martin Dihigo, a future baseball Hall of Famer.

Before the stadium announcer even called Suttles' name, the crowd began a crescendo chant of "Kick Mule! Kick Mule! Kick Mule!" until it grew into a locomotive sound.

Suttles then launched a three-run home run to end the game, give his West team the victory and add gloss to his legend.

"Mule Suttles, now he could hit a ball," says Art "Superman" Pennington, a former Negro leagues home run king.

"He was just one of many great power hitters that we had. We got quite a bit of attention among ourselves, but things were so darn prejudiced back then, whites didn't know much about what we were doing."

Black power hitters have a long history in baseball, well before they began moving into the mainstream of American sports with Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues in 1947. But consider that despite being excluded for the first half of the 20th century, five of the majors' top 10 home-run hitters of all time are African American, and that does not include Sammy Sosa, who is from the Dominican Republic.

Major League Baseball's record books would have a very different look if sluggers from the Negro leagues era had been able to compete. Some contend that had Josh Gibson -- inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 -- been allowed to play in the major leagues, Barry Bonds would be chasing Gibson's all-time mark today.

"Babe Ruth was the left-handed Josh Gibson. That's the way they should have said it," Hall of Famer Monte Irvin says about Gibson, who led the Negro leagues in homers for 10 consecutive seasons and is credited with 75 home runs in 1931 and 84 in 170 games in 1936.

Gibson was "one of a kind," says Irvin, a former Negro leagues All-Star who played eight seasons in the major leagues. "He was bigger, stronger, a better hitter than anyone I've ever seen. As strong as two men. He had an unbelievable swing.

"Pitchers were afraid to knock him down because they figured if he ever took a swing at [them] or retaliated, he would probably kill somebody. Very rarely did he lose control."

Home runs of 500 feet were almost commonplace for Gibson. He once hit a reputed 580-foot shot to the top of the center-field wall in Yankee Stadium that came within a couple of feet of leaving the ballpark; no one has yet hit a fair ball out of that stadium.

And with Gibson, the legend of his power tended toward myth. One story of his strength began in Pittsburgh, where he hit a mammoth shot out of the stadium that no one could see land. The next day in Philadelphia, a ball dropped unexpectedly into the glove of an outfielder, at which point the umpire exclaimed, "Gibson, you're out yesterday in Pittsburgh!"

"They called me Superman because I was known for hitting long home runs," Pennington says. "I hit a ball in Venezuela that may have been the longest one I ever hit. I was feeling real good about it, and then they told me that it wasn't the longest ever hit there. They showed me a hotel about half a block away that someone hit with a home run, and I said, 'Who hit that one?' and they told me, 'Josh Gibson.' Enough said."

Gibson, who was 6 feet 1 and nearly 220 pounds, had the size and speed of Bo Jackson and was regarded as one of the best all-around catchers ever. He regularly hit well over .300.

Precise records from the Negro leagues are hard to come by and vary by source; Gibson was said to have hit more than 900 home runs, though that total included exhibitions and barnstorming games against varying levels of competition in addition to Negro leagues games.

"He was great, and he knew he was great," Irvin said. "He was a great clutch hitter. Usually in key situations he would come through for you.... Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, they couldn't compare with Josh Gibson....

"He would have been a sensation in the majors. Anybody who saw him would say the same thing I'm saying now."

Gibson may have been the best-known home run artist, but nearly every team in the Negro leagues featured a power hitter who could change a game with one swing. Four of them -- Willard "Home Run" Brown, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop and Suttles -- will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30.

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