*Anyone familiar with baseball knows the story of Jackie Robinson – the courageous man who integrated America’s game, in the face of overwhelming adversity and pressures. It’s a story that’s passed into legend, and is even about to get the Hollywood treatment.
However, it’s important not to overlook the men who came before Jackie Robinson – the men of the Negro Leagues, talents as great and grand as anyone else who has walked onto the diamond. Playing before the age of SportsCenter and the internet, their achievements are mostly restricted to the record books and the imagination, but they still deserve a place among the legends of the game.
With the 2012 Major League Baseball All Star Game set to be held in Kansas City, the location of the Negro Leagues Museum, there will undobutedly be a renewed focus on the accomplishments of the Negro League stars. Here are five names you should know from the era:
JOSH GIBSON – Gibson is one of sports’ truly compelling and tragic stories. In another era, Gibson might have been regarded as the greatest baseball player of all time – greater than Ruth, Cobb, Mays, or anyone else who came before or afterwards. Stories of his prowess are legendary; some claims have him hitting an astonishing 962 home runs during his Negro League career, including eighty-four in 1936. To put that in perspective, last year’s National League home run champion (Matt Kemp, one of baseball’s shining African-American stars) hit 39 for the whole season. Tragically, Gibson died of a stroke at the 35; his plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame gives some insight into his astonishing talent.
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COOL PAPA BELL – The man with one of the greatest nicknames in professional sports history, “Cool Papa” Bell’s legendary speed – think Rickey Henderson + Usain Bolt – was such that fellow legend Satchel Paige claimed that he could “turn off the lights and be under the covers before it got dark.”
BUCK O’ NEILL – One of the most revered men in the history of baseball, O’Neill was a towering figure in the game from the late 1930s until his death in 2006. At one time a sweet-swinging first baseman in the Negro Leagues, O’Neill became the first African-American coach (for the Chicago Cubs) in Major League Baseball and inked Hall-of-Famer Lou Brock to his first contract; after a career in scouting and coaching, he became a champion for the Negro Leagues, helping to induct the league’s stars in to the Cooperstown institution. Any vistor to Kansas City should head to the Negro Leagues Museum, which O’Neill helped open.
BULLET ROGAN – Another fabulously-nicknamed Negro Leagues Star, “Bullet” Charles Rogan possessed a fastball befitting the moniker, as well as an extraordinary bat. He was a mixture of Justin Verlander and Matt Kemp, able to mow down a team and bash them with his hitting skills in the same afternoon.
SATCHEL PAIGE – Truly one of the most fascinating men to ever play the game, Paige is still regarded as one of its pitching icons; despite only playing a few years in Major League Baseball, his Negro League and other baseball accomplishments (supposedly throwing 300 shutouts and winning over 1500 games in his career) were enough to enshrine him in the Hall of Fame.