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Is the Hall of Fame forgetting something? (Part Four)
He was a slender 5-foot-11, 170-pound switch hitter who was a superlative receiver with a strong and accurate arm that is regarded as one of the best ever, one that few base runners challenged; he scared base runners also he had feline grace and quickness while fielding pop ups or bunts.
He was known as one of the best Black catchers; he proved himself in a series against the Detroit Tigers played in Cuba in 1910 in which he batted .390 and threw Ty Cobb out at second several times. He is reported to have been the first catcher to consistently throw to second base without rising from the squat.
A good base runner, he led the Cuban League with 20 stolen bases in 1912. He played on the dominating Chicago American Giants from 1911 to 1918, and then served as a player-manager for Detroit until his retirement. A consistent hitter with little power, he batted .349 in 1923 and .341 in 1924 as his career was winding down.
The lean, speedy athlete was more of a base stealing threat than as a slugger. His prowess on the bases was demonstrated when he led the 1912 Cuban winter league with 20 stolen bases.
Also an excellent bunter, he fit right into Rube Foster’s racehorse style of baseball and was often used in the leadoff position. He was also a contact hitter, batting .390 in the exhibitions against the Tigers.
The premier catcher of the day and the first great receiver in Black baseball history, Petway was always in demand by the best teams. He first caught for the Leland Giants in 1906, after abandoning his studies at Nashville’s Meharry Medical College; he left after the season to serve stints with the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the Philadelphia Giants before returning to Chicago, accompanied by John Henry Lloyd and Frank Duncan, for the 1910 season.
That year, he registered a .397 average as a member of an aggregation that Rube Foster considered to be the greatest team of all time, Black or white.
Petway continued as the backstop for Foster’s superb Chicago American Giants, at a time (1910-1918) when they were virtually perennial champions. During his tenure with Foster’s team he was disabled twice by strained ligaments in his throwing arm and once by a leg injury, losing substantial playing time for three consecutive seasons, 1914-1916.
Also a fairly good hitter, he hit .393 for the Lelands in 1910 but, though he was referred to as “Home Run” Petway early in his career, he was not a genuine power hitter, and he could struggle at times as a batter as shown by averages of .253, .208, and .200 in 1916-1918.
In 1916, on his last trip to Cuba, he hit .333, but managed only a .210 lifetime average for his Cuban career, interspersed during the years 1908-16. He is credited with averages of .182 in 1918 and .171 against major-leaguers in exhibitions.
A smart ballplayer, the scrappy receiver was a student of the game and learned much from his years with Rube Foster, enabling him to end his baseball career as a player-manager with the Detroit Stars.
As a manager he was slightly hotheaded but was good with young players. His batting averages in Detroit were .313, .268, .337, and .341 in 1921-1924, before slumping to .156 in 1925, his last season.
Another great Negro Leaguer was Henry Kimbro, a cross between Tim Raines and Kirby Puckett. He was thought to be a brooder; he didn’t always get along with umpires, as well as some of his managers and teammates.
However “Jumbo” Kimbro, he was a great and multi-dimensional player, the stocky: 5-feet-8, 175 pounds, so powerful that Kimbro hit a ball over the right-field roof at Briggs Stadium in Detroit while touring against the Homestead Grays, but not just a slugger he was a threat on the base paths, a slick but dependable fielder, and consistently among the leaders in most all hitting categories during the ’40s.
Twice in his career, Kimbro exceeded the .350 hitting mark (1946 and 1947), and in 1947 won the league batting title while turning in a .346 performance for the Havana club while competing against major league stars in the Cuban Winter League.
He made his debut in the Negro leagues in 1937.
H e played in the 1941 All-Star Game while with the New York Black Yankees and then appeared in five consecutive All-Star Games, from 1943 to 1947, as an Elite Giant.
A perennial All-Star center fielder during the 1940′s in a Negro leagues career that spanned 17 seasons, statistics for the Negro leagues can be sketchy, but Kimbro is believed to have hit over .300 in 10 different seasons.
Despite his wild reputation he was a disciplined and team-focused left-handed leadoff batter who nearly always let the first pitch go by, Kimbro was adept at slashing low fastballs to the opposite field.
Kimbro was a teammate of the future Brooklyn Dodger stars Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam and Joe Black while playing for the Elite Giants. But he was too old for the major leagues by the time the color barrier was broken
He retired then returned for a while as a player-manager he hung his spikes up for good after playing with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1953, records indicate his career batting average was .315 he died at his home in Nashville, in 1999 at age 87.
A player who was not flashy but was truly great was Neal Robinson a player so graceful he was known as ‘Shadow’ and so versatile as to have played Center, Left, shortstop and 3rd base and played them all well.
In a career spanning from 1934-50, Robinson was credited with 54 home runs in 1939 against all levels of competition. The following season he had accumulated 35 homers by the end of July, with his final total not being recorded, but he won the second of his back-to-back Negro American League home run titles.
While consistently generating power, the 5-foot-11, 182-pound strong right-handed slugger was a free-swinger and also frequently struck out. Although best known for his hitting prowess, he was a respectable fielder with a strong but erratic arm, and had good speed on the bases but was not a daring base runner.
Over an 11-year period (1938-48), this Memphis Red Sox outfielder played in every East-West All Star game except three, 1942, 1946, and 1947. In the midseason classic he compiled a sensational .476 batting average and a superb .810 slugging percentage, which included two home runs, an All Star total exceeded only by Hall of Famer Buck Leonard.
After a short stint with the Homestead Grays that was aborted due to a severe drinking problem, Robinson signed with the Cincinnati Tigers in 1936 and launched his career with a robust .367 batting average. In 1938, he joined the Memphis Red Sox and was the regular shortstop as they copped the Negro American League first-half championship in 1938.
That season marked his first trip to the East-West All Star game, and he celebrated the occasion with an inside-the-park three-run homer to trigger the West’s 5-4 victory.
The next year heavyweight boxing great Joe Louis threw out the first ball at the All Star game and was photographed before the game congratulating Robinson for his hitting from the previous contest.
Robinson responded with another home run to key the West’s 4-2 victory.
In each of his first two All Star games, his crucial home run was one of a trio of hits he collected. In the winter of 1940-1941 he played in Puerto Rico, but upon his return to Memphis for the regular season, he was moved to the outfield, and he stayed with the Red Sox for the remainder of his career.
In 1942, he hit .314, and in 1944 and 1945 he had averages of .319 and .303, respectively. In the former year Robinson also demonstrated both his speed and his power by finishing second in the league in stolen bases and home runs.
In 1949-1950 he hit .272 and .283, with 10 home runs the latter season.
Although the Negro American League had declined to a minor-league status, he continued for two more seasons with the Memphis Red Sox before retiring after the 1952 season.
Another often forgotten talent was left-handed hitting Chino Smith could be the best hitting talent most never heard of. His premature death robbed Negro League fans of the opportunity to see him complete his career.
Considered by Satchel Paige to be one of the two best Negro League hitters ever, Smith was born in Greenwood, South Carolina, in 1903. His politically-incorrect moniker was derived from the slight epicanthic fold of his eyes. The 5-foot-6, 168-pound player was a line drive hitter who played semipro with the Philadelphia Giants in 1924 and the Pennsylvania Red Caps in 1925 before beginning his professional career with the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1925.
When Smith hit .341, as a rookie, he was just getting started. He hit .439 while with Brooklyn in 1927. Then while with the New York Lincoln Giants, Smith hit .464 (with 23 homers) in 1929 and a .468 mark in 1930. Smith’s was compared to Paul Waner due to his smallish stature and batting prowess.
Against Major League competition, he batted .405, and hit a homer in his first-ever at-bat.
He was also known for his mercurial temperament; he dared pitchers to knock him down, and reportedly could intentionally line screamers back through at them in payback.
At times he taunted fans, playfully lunging at them if they booed and gesturing for them to boo louder once he homered off an enemy pitcher. Chino Smith became ill with yellow fever in 1931, and succumbed before his 30th birthday. He finished his career with a lifetime .377 batting average.
According to legend Samuel Howard ‘Sam’ Bankhead served as the model for the character Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, in a 20 year career that stretched from 1930-1950 he played 2b, SS, LF, CF, RF) and even pitched some for several teams: Birmingham Black Barons (1929, 1931-1932, 1938), Nashville Elite Giants (1930, 1932-1934), Louisville Black Caps (1932), Kansas City Monarchs (1934), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1935-1936, 1938), Santo Domingo (1937), Memphis Red Sox (1938), Toledo Crawfords (1939), Homestead Grays (1939, 1942-1950), Mexican League (1940-1941), Canadian League (1951)
Similar to Pete Rose he was known as a hustling, all-around ballplayer; he was an outstanding fielder with a wide range and good hands but was best known for his exceptional throwing arm. On the bases he had good speed and could take and extra base, and was also a proficient base stealer.
A good clutch hitter with moderate power, he could pull the ball and was always a threat at the plate.
He was a player’s player who was at home as a middle infielder or as an outfielder and excelled at whatever position he was placed.
He was selected to the East-West All Star team seven times, representing three different teams (Elites, Crawfords, and Grays), .346 in the classics.
In a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll, he was selected as the first-team utility player on the all-time Negro Leagues All Star team. He was a speedy, versatile, good-hitting infielder-outfielder he played and started at five different positions.
A tough leader on the field, he became a manager late in his career. While still playing shortstop, he was skipper of the Vargas Sabios (Wise Men), champion of the Venezuelan winter league in 1946-47. Bankhead then led the Grays during their last two years as an independent club (1949-50) while batting 346. During the winters, he and his brother Sam also starred in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
He was also a color-line busting pioneer; in 1951, Bankhead signed with the Farnham Pirates in the Provincial League as player-manager. He is recognized as the first African-American manager of a predominantly white team. The team went 52-71, finishing 7th in the eight-team league, as the player/manager batted .274 at age forty-seven.
Sam was an integral part of the great Pittsburgh Crawfords of the mid-1930s and 1940s. He possessed one of the strongest arms in the Negro Leagues and was a solid hitter, with a .318 lifetime batting average. In 1937 he jumped to Santo Domingo along with Satchel Paige to play with the Ciudad Trujillo team, hitting .309 to help them win the championship.
During the ensuing winter he led the Cuban League with a .366 average, and in his four seasons on the island, 1937-1941, produced a lifetime .297 average. He also is credited with a .342 average in exhibition games against major leaguers.
Even late in his career, Bankhead was still regarded as one of the top players in the Negro National League, and had averages of .287, .282, and .277 in 1944-1946, and also hit .350 in the 1944 World Series against the Birmingham Black Barons.
He began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1929, and played with the Nashville Elite Giants in 1930 before returning to the Black Barons, where he established himself early in his career as a superb utility man, playing infield and outfield.
The Alabaman even did a little catching, and in 1932 took a few turns on the pitching slab with the Black Barons, Elite Giants, and Louisville Black Caps. However, pitching was hardly his best position, as available records show a 2-6 tally for the year.
After the season he traveled to the West Coast to play in the California winter league, where he hit .371 and .344 with good power for the next two winters, 1932-1933, while also ranking high in stolen bases each year.
Back with the Elites as a shortstop, he hit .338 in 1934 to earn his first All Star assignment.
The next season he signed with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords, a team that fielded five Hall of Famers and is generally conceded to be the greatest Black team of all time.
Bankhead fit right in with the other superstars, batting .354 and .324 in 1935 and 1936. In 1938, Memphis Red Sox manager “Double Duty” Radcliffe picked up Bankhead and David Whatley from the Birmingham Black Barons for the Negro American League playoffs against the Atlanta Black Crackers.
The next season both players were signed by the Homestead Grays, the defending champions of the Negro National League; joining the Grays as a second baseman, he hit .377 as the Grays won their third consecutive pennant.
Bankhead interrupted his tenure with the Grays to accompany his friend Josh Gibson to Monterrey, Mexico, in 1940 and 1941, while there Bankhead hit .318 and .351 while again showing good power and piled up impressive totals of stolen-bases, leading the league with 32 stolen bases in 1940.
He and Gibson returned to the Grays for the 1942 season and, at age 38, Bankhead moved into the lineup at shortstop as the Grays won the next four straight pennants and Bankhead made four more All Star appearances out of his first five seasons back in the field.
While with the Grays, he played winters with Ponce in the Puerto Rican League, batting .351 in 1941-1942 and .271 and .290 in 1944-1946. Back in the United States, Bankhead hit .284 as the Grays won another pennant in 1948, the last one before the Negro National League folded. During the latter years of the league, Bankhead played a winter each in Venezuela (1946) and in Panama (1948).
The next year, as the Grays became a traveling independent team, he managed them for two seasons before they disbanded. Sam had four younger brothers (Dan, Fred, Joe, and Garnett) who played in the Negro Leagues, he was close to Josh Gibson and, after Gibson’s death, and Bankhead became a surrogate father for Josh Gibson, Jr.
NEXT: Some of the Negro League’s best pitchers.