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02/09/06 10:00 AM ET

Poles a proficient leadoff hitter

Negro League speedster ended his career with .400 average

How good was Spot Poles? Paul Robeson, one of America's most influential civil right leaders and entertainers, called Poles one of the four greatest black athletes of all time. The other three were Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens.

John McGraw, one of the greatest baseball managers of all-time, once said that Poles should be one of the first African-Americans to play in the Major Leagues.

But Poles never received his chance to play big-league baseball. His time was long before Jackie Robinson integrated the sport in 1947. Poles played in the Negro Leagues during the early 20th century.

He was often compared to outfielders Ty Cobb and Cool Papa Bell. One of the fastest players in baseball, Poles was once clocked under 10 seconds in the 100-yard dash, and he stole bases regularly.

Run producers loved to hit behind Poles, who was the prototypical leadoff hitter in the Negro Leagues. Known for his time with the New York Lincoln Giants, Poles hit .398 or better during his first four seasons with the team from 1911-14. He ended his 15-year career with a .400 average.

Poles was just as good with the glove. He had excellent range and prevented runners from taking the extra base with his accurate arm.

One wonders what Poles might have done in the Major Leagues. He hit .594 against big-league pitching, and he once collected four hits in a barnstorming game against Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander.

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"Poles had blazing speed. He didn't have a lot of power, but he did get a lot of extra-base hits because of his speed. He was the ideal leadoff hitter," said Negro Leagues historian James A. Riley, who wrote "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues."

Poles was a person who never lost his hitting stroke. After serving in World War I, in which he received five battle stars and the Purple Heart, he returned to the Negro Leagues, played for four teams and was still considered one of the most dangerous hitters.

He was in his 60s and a member of the Harrisburg Giants when he entered a semipro game as a pinch-hitter and singled to right field.

A great athlete, indeed.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.