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Three for a Show

Black baseball's greatest teams featured Hall of Fame talent,played to big crowds and captured the nation's imagination

July 30, 2006|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Baseball's-best discussions don't all involve Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, or "Murderers' Row" versus "The Big Red Machine."

In fact, one of the longest-running debates in the game's history stems from the old Negro leagues: Which team was the most powerful, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs or Homestead Grays?

Old-timers from that era aren't much help in providing answers. With lineups full of future Hall of Famers who routinely attracted crowds that overflowed stadiums, they say all three franchises were special.

"They had some great, great teams," said Ben Jones, who played with the New York Black Yankees. "Everyone wanted to see Pittsburgh because they had Josh Gibson, the greatest power hitter of all time, and Satchel Paige, the greatest one-game pitcher of all time. ... Buck Leonard's Grays always won, and, you know, the Monarchs had some great teams."

Indeed, the Crawfords were black baseball's "Dream Team" of the early 1930s; the Grays, also from Pittsburgh, were a mainstay for 38 years; and the Monarchs were an institution in the Midwest from 1920 through 1950.

"That's what made the Negro leagues so great," said James Tillman, who played for the Grays during the early 1940s. "Every team had Hall of Fame players and we didn't have a lot of teams in the league, so you played against them often."

Gibson, Paige, Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Ray Brown, Buck O'Neil and Bullet Rogan were among the stars who wore the uniforms of the Crawfords, Monarchs and Grays, three teams that captured the imagination of baseball fans -- not only African Americans -- from across the nation.

Looking Like Winners

Funded by money owner Gus Greenlee earned as a mobster, the Crawfords not only played well, they looked great doing it.

Greenlee, who bought himself a fancy new Lincoln automobile every year, was considered the George Steinbrenner of his day for his willingness to open his pocketbook for the team.

His players earned top dollar, wore the best uniforms and traveled in style, using state-of-the-art buses. They were also treated as celebrities away from the field, especially at Greenlee's Crawford Bar and Grille, a famous two-story restaurant and dance hall in Pittsburgh that regularly featured artists such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie and the Mills Brothers.

During their heyday, the Crawfords were black baseball's marquee franchise. As an independent club in 1932, they won the Negro League World Series, defeating the Monroe Monarchs of the Negro Southern League, 5-1, in a best-of-nine series.

By the next year, when Pittsburgh became a charter member of the second Negro National League, its lineup featured Gibson, Paige, Charleston, Bell and Judy Johnson.

"That's five Hall of Famers playing together during the prime of their careers," O'Neil said.

Added Jones: "It was always something to play against the Crawfords. When you played against them, you knew you were playing against the best players in the world, black or white."

Named after the Crawford Recreation Center in Pittsburgh, the Crawfords played their home games at Greenlee Field, the game's first entirely black-owned stadium, which their owner financed with $100,000.

Like everything else associated with the team, the stadium was a first-class facility. But the Crawfords were just as much of an attraction on the road, barnstorming against minor league teams typically made up of local white players.

"They would come down and play teams from all over, and it was always a big thing when they played games on the [New] Jersey Shore," said Alfred Morgan, a former Black College All-American center fielder at North Carolina A&T who played against the Crawfords during the 1940s.

"Everyone wanted to see Satchel Paige, who could throw a fastball anywhere he wanted. I faced him as a teenager and got a hit off of him that I remember to this day. And Josh Gibson, he once smacked a ball so far in Belmar [N.J.] that it traveled across the street from the field and hit the post office."

Estimated distance: 600 feet.

Parade of Stars

As glamorous as the Crawfords were in the short term, the Monarchs stood the test of time.

Kansas City won 10 pennants, two Negro World Series championships, and featured a "Who's Who" roster of legendary players that included Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Turkey Stearnes, Newt Allen, Jesse Williams, Bonnie Serrell, Hilton Smith, Rogan, Bell and Paige.

The Monarchs, who sent the most players into the major leagues after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, are well represented in Cooperstown, N.Y. The Monarchs already have 11 inductees, which does not include Robinson or Banks, who played for them before moving to the major leagues, or Williard "Home Run" Brown, Andy Cooper and Jose Mendez, who, along with owner J.L. Wilkinson, will be inducted today.

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