'43 Grays -- comparable to '27 Yanks?
One of the Negro Leagues' best ranks fifth on experts' list
Which team is the greatest in the history of black baseball? That's the kind of question that's likely to spark a debate. While many people can rattle off the great Negro Leagues players, most baseball fans would be hard-put to pick the greatest teams. So as a tribute during Black History Month, MLB.com put the question to Negro Leagues historians and experts. Twenty-two people responded, and 25 teams got at least one vote. The countdown to the greatest five teams begins at No. 5 with the 1943 Homestead Grays. Here is their story.Hall of Fame sportswriter Leonard Koppett wrote that any man willing to rank another ballclub ahead of the 1927 Yankees would have to make a case based on unimaginable factors. Brad Snyder agreed. Snyder, an author who's written extensively about black baseball, won't dare rank another team above those storied Yankees of '27. He is, however, bold enough to say the 1943 Homestead Grays were, at least, the Yankees' equal.
To Snyder, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig stood no taller than Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson. Both sets of teammates hit homers and drove in runs; both took their teams to championships.
And like the '27 Yankees, the '43 Grays had more than two stars.
With Leonard and Gibson providing power and runs, Cool Papa Bell was running amok on the bases, Jud Wilson was lacing singles everywhere and Ray Brown was winning games every time he pitched.
But unlike those '27 Yankees, the greatness of the Grays wasn't built around dead-cold facts. Negro Leagues statistics were loosely kept. So just imagine what those stats were and factor them into Snyder's belief that the '43 Grays, from top to bottom, were as good as the '27 Yankees.
"It was a great, great team," Snyder said of the Grays. "I try not too often to analogize the Homestead Grays to the Yankees, but they were that year. They were the perennial pennant winner."
No disagreement on that point, either.
For in 1943, the Grays won the Negro National League pennant for the ninth straight season. With Candy Jim Taylor as their manager, they beat the Birmingham Black Barons in seven games for their first Negro World Series title.
Leonard and Gibson, who batted third and fourth in Taylor's powerhouse lineup, played major roles in that first World Series title. And their success that season led Snyder to another comparison.
"Leonard to Gehrig and Gibson to Ruth makes some sense," said Snyder, author of Beyond the Shadow of the Senators. "Leonard was quiet, and Josh was kind of the life-of-the-party guy."
And both Leonard and Gibson -- "The Thunder Twins" -- belted baseballs unlike any tandem in the history of black baseball. Leonard was more of a line-drive hitter with some pop in his swing, and Gibson was simply a basher.
During the '43 season, Gibson hit more homers at Griffith Stadium than the entire Washington Senators team. What's even more astounding, he crushed more pitches over the left- and center-field fences at that ballpark than the entire American League.
"Left field was 405 feet down the line, and there was a spot in left-center that was 457," Snyder said. "Griffith Stadium was a huge ballpark. So the '43 season was -- at least statistically -- the apex of Gibson's time in Washington with the Grays."
That year also stood out among the legendary Gibson's many great seasons because he was able to overcome a nervous breakdown earlier in the year.
"He sort of has an up-and-down couple of years with his weight and whether or not he's got a tumor," said Robert Ruck, a Negro Leagues historian and a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "There's some mental issues or something going on, but it's a little uneven."
Whatever Gibson battled, fans still flocked to Griffith Stadium to watch him that season more than in any other. Snyder said at least 225,000 people in 1943 attended the 26 Grays appearances in Washington, a total that shattered a single-season attendance record set a season before.
Battles between Gibson and Kansas City Monarchs right-hander Satchel Paige were part of Griffith Stadium's mystique.
"The neat thing about '43 was that it was Josh Gibson's last great season," Snyder said. "It was sort of the last gasp for both Satchel and Josh in their primes. That was when you saw the real Satchel and the real Josh."
And people saw a lot of Gibson and the Grays in D.C. It was wartime in America, and travel restrictions kept the expanding black population there from leaving the area. Rather than vacationing, folks flocked to Griffith Stadium during the summer.
"The Negro Leagues, in general, did very well during World War II," Ruck said. "People had much more money in their pockets than they did during the Depression. People couldn't buy new homes and they couldn't buy cars, so a lot of their money was spent on entertainment."
The war arguably gave the Grays an advantage on the field, too. They lost fewer key players to the war than other Negro Leagues clubs, Snyder said.
In all, six Grays players entered the armed services. But the team's core of Leonard, Gibson, Bell, Wilson and Brown -- all Hall of Famers -- along with outfielder Jerry Benjamin, shortstop Sam Bankhead and pitcher Roy Partlow remained intact.
By comparison, the Newark Eagles lost 13 players to the military, including Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin.
Aside from a strong core, the Grays also had owner Cum Posey making decisions, and he had the smarts to keep a powerhouse team on the field and to schedule a number of games in Washington for '43.
"There's a reason why [Posey's] one of the four executives in black baseball in the Hall of Fame," Ruck said. "He has created arguably the greatest franchise -- along with the Monarchs. Posey is dealing with the limitations of financing, and he does a marvelous job."
Few people can disagree. For despite those limitations in '43, Posey assembled one of the greatest teams in the history of black baseball.
"I certainly think that Gibson and Leonard are two of the greatest hitters of their time," Ruck said. "When you have guys like that on your team, you're solid.
"Add that to the fact that you have Cool Papa Bell in center field and Brown pitching, that's special."
Coming Feb. 8: Team No. 4
Kevin Yanik is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.