02/09/09 9:00 AM EST
Posey was influential to Negro Leagues
Homestead Grays owner forged lasting baseball legacy
By Justice B. Hill / Special to MLB.com
Cum Posey Jr. was destiny's child.
Unlike most black youth at the turn of the 1900s, Posey came from privilege. He was the son of the businessman who found success in Pittsburgh among the growing number of blacks who migrated there from the Deep South in the last decades of the 1800s.
Hailed as a "pioneer of industry," Captain Posey, as the elder Posey was called, left a legacy when he died in 1925 that few sons could have hoped to eclipse. His Diamond Coke and Coal Co. brought him wealth, and this wealth laid the pathway for Posey Jr. to find success in his life, according to Robert Ruck, senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and an authority on the Negro Leagues.
"Given his father's background -- and his father was probably the leading black entrepreneur in Southwestern Pennsylvania and well connected in the black social and fraternal world -- Cumberland Posey grew up in that context," Ruck said. "He absorbed lessons on how to do things."
Yet what were the odds, considering the times, that Posey Jr.'s legacy would eclipse Posey Sr.'s?
Too many obstacles prevented that from happening, right?
Ruck said Posey Jr. never saw obstacles. He was programmed for success, and he succeeded at anything he took on in life. His success would mirror his father's success.
Both would succeed in business. The difference was Posey Jr. forged his Hall of Fame legacy on the baseball diamonds in the heart of Pittsburgh and not inside the coal mines that surrounded the region.
During his life, Posey Jr., the man who owned the Homestead Grays, became what some sports historians have called the most influential owner in the history of "black baseball."
That's high-minded praise to heap on anybody who owned a Negro League team, because more than a handful of owners held great sway when baseball had parallel leagues: one white, one back; separate but equal in so many respects.
In this socio-political climate, Posey used his smarts, the business savvy he inherited from his father, the connections he built with barnstorming basketball teams he owned and the competitive spirit he learned playing basketball and baseball at a white university to turn the Grays into a Negro League dynasty.
"He founded the Grays, basically," said James A. Riley, one of the foremost authorities on the Negro Leagues.
Posey, who wrote a popular column in the black-centric Pittsburgh Courier, took over the Grays when he was in his early 20s, a time when black teams survived as regional powers outside a league structure.
"He was a combination player/manager -- a manager, a road secretary," Riley said. "He could do all things, and he turned them into the professional level."
During those years, in the 1910s, the Grays played as a semi-pro team, but over the years, Posey beefed up the roster with better and better players.
Most teams, including the Grays, were regional, and the best of those teams eventually joined Rube Foster's Negro Leagues. Posey's ambitions couldn't be sated with just being in the league. No, he wanted more -- he wanted to win.
Like Foster, Posey did win. He won because he was an innovator. He was tough -- physically and in his ability to handle conflict. He related to people, from the coal miners to the domestics.
"He was very intelligent," Ruck said. "He used his connections in promoting barnstorming basketball teams. The teams made money, and they created contacts that helped him when he went into baseball."
Those contacts helped Posey, a mulatto, assemble a powerhouse. His 1930 and '31 teams were outstanding. The '31 Grays have often been called the greatest of all Negro League teams.
Posey built the '31 Grays, an independent team that barnstormed the United States, around Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Jud "Boojum" Wilson, Smokey Joe Williams and Willie Foster.
They remained independent until Posey took the franchise to the Negro League in 1937 season. His Grays were no less dominant there than they had been as a barnstorming team.
"The fact that Posey's able to put a winning ballclub on the field and sustain it about as long as any other is remarkable," Ruck said.
Posey put in close to four decades as a baseball owner, but he didn't live long enough to see the color line erased, not that it would have altered his legacy as arguably the most influential owner in the history of the Negro Leagues.
His place in history had been cemented long before he died March 28, 1946.
"In his death," John L. Clark wrote in The 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 contributer to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.