02/26/07 10:50 AM ET
1931 Homestead Grays best ever
Team with galaxy of Negro League stars dominated
By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
Look closely at the roster of the 1931 Homestead Grays:
Oscar Charleston ... Hall of Famer
Jud "Boojum" Wilson ... Hall of Famer
Smokey Joe Williams ... Hall of Famer
Willie Foster ... Hall of Famer
Josh Gibson ... Hall of Famer
And what do the names of these legendary figures from "black baseball" say about the '31 Homestead team?
They say a lot, said Brian Carroll, a professor at Berry College in North Carolina and an authority on the Negro Leagues.
"You could safely say this: Rarely, if ever, have more of the very best that the Negro Leagues have ever had were wearing the same uniform at the same time," Carroll said. "I mean, that roster just makes your mouth water."
Others believed as Carroll did.
Sift through the history books on black baseball, and great ballplayers and great teams litter its pages. But few teams have had the widespread recognition as the "best of the best" the way the '31 Grays have.
Authorities on the Negro Leagues have made them the consensus pick as the best team ever. Sure, the 1932, '35 or '36 Pittsburgh Crawfords always get plenty of support as well. So do a handful of other teams. But picking the 1931 Grays No. 1 overall isn't a choice that people dismiss out of hand.
"The Grays, obviously, were one of the great black franchises of all time," said Dick Clark, a respected baseball historian who's written several books on the Negro Leagues. "The biggest reason is the number of great players that were on the team."
Credit for that stretch of greatness, including the '31 season, goes to one man: Cumberland Posey, the Hall of Fame owner of the storied franchise.
Starting as a player in the early half of the 1900s, Posey spent 35 years as the brains behind the Grays. Few men had the eye for talent that he did, and in the freewheeling world of the Negro Leagues, Posey opened his wallet to stock the Grays with the best talent on the market.
He did perhaps his best spending, some people say, in the 1931 season.
His strategy might have gotten its roots watered across town as Gus Greenlee, a deep-pocketed racketeer who was the moneyman behind the Crawfords, was about to buy a roster of high-end talent as well. To compete with Greenlee, Posey needed talent of his own.
"I think Posey knew that, even in his own city, he's gonna have some serious competition," Carroll said. "That would have been pretty good motivation to put a really good team together."
Having already assembled a strong team in 1930, Posey still had Charleston, whom people compared to Ty Cobb, as his shining star. But the Grays got a lot stronger when Posey signed 19-year-old Gibson, the "black Babe Ruth," for the 1931 season. He made a difference.
"I don't know if Gibson was the main reason they were so good," Clark said. "But it certainly didn't hurt having him on the team."
So with the black equals of Ruth and Cobb in Grays uniforms, Posey had a roster poised for greatness, and it achieved that greatness.
Playing an independent schedule, the Grays took on all comers. They barnstormed against independent white teams, semipro black teams, coalminer teams, steelworker teams and Negro League teams. No team matched Posey's powerhouse.
The won/loss ledger for the '31 Grays looked like something out of fiction. Various sources listed that record at anywhere from 138-6 to 163-23.
But like much of the history of "black baseball," statistical information has proved sketchy, confusing and unreliable. As baseball historians like Clark and Carroll continue to comb that statistical history, a clearer picture of the Negro Leagues, its players, and its teams and their achievements might emerge.
Any new findings will perhaps make the debate about which team was the greatest no point of contention. Or maybe those findings will stoke the debate even more, because to separate great teams like the '31 Grays from the '35 Crawfords or the '43 Monarchs or the '16 Indianapolis ABCs might be more difficult than splitting an atom with a butcher's knife.
They were all great, as were other teams of black baseball.
Still, the Grays have staked a legitimate claim to the top spot. In 1931, they finished the year with the billing of "Colored Champions," a title that few people who watched them play could say wasn't deserved.
Yet the Grays, playing everywhere and often, were more than "Colored Champions" that 1931 season. They were much more. For they could stand tall next to any team of any color and of any era and still carry the label of champions without risk that people might call it bogus.
But how can any roster that had as much talent as the Grays had have been anything except a champion?
From the top of their lineup to the bottom, the Grays were a sight to behold, as Carroll said. Adding Gibson alone catapulted them to the No. 1 spot.
For the big, hulking Gibson swung a bat loaded with dynamite, and he proved the piece that made the Grays the elite of the elite.
"On the Grays," pitcher/catcher Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe said in his biography, "it didn't matter if we got behind by four or five runs because Josh would hit in 12 runs all by himself. Josh was some kind of hitter."
Besides Gibson, Charleston and the other Hall of Famers, the '31 Grays featured other star-quality players like Radcliffe, George Scales, Vic Harris, Ted Page, Lefty Williams and Porter Charleston. Those '31 Grays looked like a colored mix of the 1927 Yankees and the 1963 Dodgers.
And the '31 Grays played as hard as any professional team ever did, said Rob Ruck, a senior lecturer in the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh and an authority on the Negro Leagues.
"In 1931, it was tough for all America in terms of the Depression but exceedingly difficult in the black community, where economic conditions were much worse," Ruck said. "What I see here are guys who are playing who realized baseball was a great option compared to what they could be doing. They'd probably be unemployed."
Those men were playing for their livelihoods. Their play brought them greatness along with their paycheck.
So can people rate the '31 Grays as the greatest of the great black teams?
"You have to because of their roster," said Ruck, who's written books and articles about black baseball in Pittsburgh. "I mean, my goodness -- Josh Gibson, Vic Harris, Double Duty Radcliff, Smokey Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston -- that's quite a team.
"So, surely, they were awesome."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.