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02/16/06 8:00 AM ET

Posey's Grays were best of the best

Owner considered the most influential in Negro Leagues

To follow the Negro Leagues throughout the 1920s, 1930s and '40s would be to develop an almost cult-like rooting interest in the Homestead Grays and their roster of legendary stars.

For if any team in "black baseball" dominated in a New York Yankees-like fashion, that team was Cumberland Willis Posey's Grays.

In many people's minds, Posey was the most influential owner in the history of the Negro Leagues, which explains why he is one of 39 players and team executives from black baseball who is being considered for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Whether he or any of the others on the ballot make it, will be known Feb. 27 when a 12-member panel of Negro League historians and baseball experts announces its decisions in Tampa. But Posey certainly has his supporters.

"I urge his inclusion in the Hall not because of his record as a player, but for his contribution to black baseball as the owner of one of its flagship franchises," according to the document that helped put Posey's name on the Hall of Fame ballot. "He was the helmsman of the Grays for over a quarter of a century, and a principal architect of the baseball world that black America created on the other side of the color line."

True enough, it was Posey's vision and direction that, indeed, transformed the Grays into a franchise that dominated the Negro Leagues for much of their existence. The Grays were a financial and artistic success.

"The man who could properly be called the father of the Homestead Grays, his association with the ballclub had its roots reaching virtually to the team's inception," wrote baseball historian James A. Riley of Posey in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. "His genius made the Grays a successful franchise."

Under Posey's ownership, the Grays drew well. They played all comers, which included independent black teams, Negro National League teams and Eastern Colored League teams that passed through Pittsburgh.

The Grays were also regulars on the barnstorming circuit.

Posey, who also played for the Grays, helped the team blaze a trail through many white communities. He secured dates and the pick of local opponents. As one respected historian with an expertise on the Negro Leagues wrote of the Grays: "One can still hear older men in the region boast of having played the Grays.

"Other black clubs in the area deferred to Posey, whom they saw as their de facto leader. When the top black sandlot clubs formed the Greater Pittsburgh Colored Baseball League in 1930, they acknowledged Posey's influence by asking him to head the league."

Posey's powerhouse teams featured a Who's Who of black baseball. Hall of Famers Martin Dihigo, Smokey Joe Williams, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and Willie Foster played for Posey's Grays at one point in their careers.

And so did Josh Gibson, the "Babe Ruth of black baseball."

In the history of the Negro Leagues, the Grays trumped the Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, the Chicago American Giants and the Pittsburgh Crawfords as the dominant team in league history.

To put it simply, Posey's Grays were the best of the best in the history of the league.

The franchise was one of the earliest teams to put ballplayers on salary, a move that Posey made to keep rivals from raiding his roster.

black history month 2006

"Cum Posey owned the Grays, and he was as good a baseball man as ever lived," John B. Holway quoted "Double Duty" Radcliffe as saying in his book, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers. "He had gone to college and he could have passed for white. He treated a man like a human being, and he'd look out for his players, just like [J.L.] Wilkinson [owner of the Kansas City Monarchs]. The best hotels, the best everything. They operated like big league teams. ... Cum Posey was a genius."

He was also an innovator and a pioneer, people say of Posey, a star basketball player at Duquesne. He was relentless in his quest for excellence in his teams.

In their "The Negro Leagues Book," historians Dick Clark and Larry Lester, two members of the Hall of Fame committee that will decide whether Posey, Wilkinson or Effa Manley, among others, make it into Cooperstown, credit the Grays with 12 pennants and three World Series.

But Posey's four decades in black baseball didn't last long enough to see the color line erased, not that it would have changed his legacy. It had been cemented long before he died March 28, 1946.

"In his death," John L. Clark wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier, "the race lost one of its most dynamic citizens, baseball lost its best mind, and Homestead lost its most loyal booster."

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