I have a friend who believes that modern Major League Baseball really didn’t begin until after World War II. He believes baseball records shouldn’t count until after integration. Considering that Ted Williams one said that Satchel Paige was the best pitcher he ever faced, it is not hard to wonder about what could’ve been had African-Americans been allowed to play in the majors.
Instead, they formed their own series of leagues.
The Negro National League was founded in 1920 in Chicago by Rube Foster. Although the Negro National League did not last very long, a second Negro National League came along that saw some of the greatest players to never play in the majors. Two teams based in Pittsburgh dominated the second Negro National League for most of the 1930s. One was the better known Homestead Grays. The other team was the lesser known Pittsburgh Crawfords.
The Crawfords’ 1935 squad contained four players who would end up in Baseball’s Hall of Fame – Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, and Judy Johnson. They are considered to be the greatest Negro League team of all-time. You might even put them in consideration of being able to take on the 1927 Yankees from that era.
The Crawfords’ official record for 1935 is listed at 51-26-3.
The team got its moniker from owner Gus Greenlee’s nightclub, The Crawford Grill, which was located in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. Greenlee stacked his teams with the best stars he could find at the time and the reputation of the Crawfords spread far and wide across the country.
Greenlee also created the East-West game, an all star exhibition at the end of the season that would draw over 50,000 fans to Comiskey Park every year.
For the Crawfords to survive, they had to take games wherever they could. One of the most interesting facts about 1930s baseball is that not one major league team folded. In the Negro leagues, the opposite was true as teams came and went. But under Greenlee’s stewardship, the Crawfords were able to put together an amazing run until 1939.
One thing to remember about Negro league teams is they didn’t have the full rosters that most major league teams did. It was usually set at 14-18 players. Often, players would come and go during the season depending upon if they could make more money playing in exhibitions than they could in a Negro League game. Satchel Paige, who played for the Crawfords for quite a while in the 30s, did so often while under contract.
In fact, Paige was set to be a part of the Crawfords for the 1935 season. He was set to make $250 a month and wanted more. Greenlee did not oblige. So, Paige took a deal to play for a semi pro team in North Dakota for $400 a month instead. And the Crawfords dominated without him winning the first half title.
When it comes to pitching, the Crawfords’ best pitcher in 1935 was Leroy Matlock. Matlock threw 71 innings with a 1.52 ERA. He struck out 38 and walked only 13. Not bad for a 5’9” lefty. The big gun of the pitching staff was Roosevelt Davis, a right hander, who struck out 49 in 86 innings with a 3.14 ERA according to Seamheads.
Much like the 1927 Yankees, the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords were known for their offense. As a team the Crawfords hit over .304 for the season, tops in the eight team league. Josh Gibson led the team in home runs with 10. He also had a .448 OBP, tops on the team. Gibson was just 24 at the time. Often called “The Black Babe Ruth,” legend has it that he hit over 800 HRs, but he’s only credited with 113 in Negro League Play. He was also rumored to have hit a ball 580 feet according to The Sporting News.
Former Cleveland Buckeye manager Alonzo Boone once said of Gibson, “Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I’ve ever seen. Anything he touched was hit hard. He could power outside pitches to right field. Shortstops would move to left field when Josh came to the plate.”
As for 1B and manager Oscar Charleston, he was on the downside of his career in 1935. At 39, Oscar kept penciling his own name in at 1B as he hit .271 that summer. While he only hit 2 HRs that season, he cranked out 3 HRs in the championship series to help the Crawfords take the title. The legendary Buck O’Neil would say of Oscar, “Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year, and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since…he was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.”
Like Charleston, Cool Papa Bell was also in the back half of his career. Still, at the age of 32, Bell hit .345 with a .434 OBP while drawing 31 walks in just 49 games. Bell’s speed was said to be legendary. According to Satchel Paige, Bell could flip the switch and be in bed before the light was out. Satchel Paige also said of Bell’s wheels, “One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit him sliding into second.”
It’s unclear, even today, just how good these players were in their prime. The record keeping was not the best. Cool Papa Bell said.“I remember one time I got five hits and stole five bases, but none of it was written down because they forgot to bring the score book to the game that day.”
While Charleston was the manager, 3B Judy Johnson was selected to be the captain of the squad. Johnson was a legendary fielder, some say maybe the best ever. But Johnson could hit, too. He was the MVP of the league in 1929. After his career ended, Johnson scouted for several teams and signed Richie (Dick) Allen, a favorite player of mine in the early 70s.
While Charleston, Gibson, Bell, and Johnson all got their due in the Hall of Fame, one player who probably deserves more credit for the Crawfords’ success in 1935 is 2B Pat Patterson, who hit .386 that summer. Known for his speed, Patterson began his career in the infield but played most of his career in CF. Patterson would go on to to work in education after his playing career was over.
When Cool Papa Bell talked about the team, Bell always gravitated to talking about LF Sam Bankhead. At 5’8” and 175 pounds, Bankhead played a lot bigger than he was. He was said to have a cannon for an arm. In 1935, Bankhead hit .338 with a .412 OBP.
As for their defense, the speed of the outfield trio of Bankhead, Bell, and Jimmie Crutchfield was legendary. One opposing player joked that their field was always so dry because the three of them could run around and catch every raindrop before a game.
It is hard to compare the ‘35 Crawfords to the ‘27 Yankees. However, SS Mark Koenig, who played for the 27 Yankees, said the Crawfords would “compare favorably” to what many think was the greatest team in the majors before integration.
The Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, would have no part of integration on his watch. Most owners fell in line despite support from players like Dizzy Dean, Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, and others who actually played with Negro League players in exhibitions and in the winter leagues in Cuba and Mexico.
Things did not change until Landis passed away shortly before the end of World War II. The new commissioner, Happy Chandler, is best known for saying, “If they can fight and die on the beaches of Okinawa, they can play in the major leagues.” In 1946, Jackie Robinson became the first when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
As for the Crawfords, their offensive output for the 1935 season was just staggering. It is easy to see why four members of that squad (five if you count Paige) wound up in the Hall of Fame. The deep lineup did not give an opposing pitcher an at-bat off. The Negro League Baseball Museum says that the 1935 Crawfords “are generally regarded as the greatest black baseball team of all time.”
It would have been cool to see this Crawfords squad, with or without Paige, take on Gehrig and Ruth in their prime. But we will never know. Still, talking about it is part of the fun in figuring out what might have happened.
For Further Reading…and Watching
Jim Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001),
Baseball Hall of Fame Player Profiles