A little over one year ago, Rob Manfred recognized the Negro Leagues–the leagues in which African American baseball players participated in before they had the option to play in the MLB–as “official,” meaning that all statistics, players, and records in the Negro Leagues (1920-1948) would be counted as the Major Leagues, an effort to repair the injustices to black ballplayers during the years of racial segregation. Buck Leonard would be put alongside Lou Gehrig, Satchel Paige alongside Walter Johnson, Bullet Rogan alongside Babe Ruth.
These players deserve to be remembered just the same as white ballplayers, but sadly fewer fans of baseball know about the Negro League greats who were talented and unique. With statistics now publicly available on websites such as Baseball Reference and Seamheads.com, the opportunity to salute these athletes is available to all. Today, I will explore some of the best to ever play in the Negro Leagues.
I wanted to use one of the most accurate statistics for a player’s overall performance, Wins Above Replacement (WAR), to highlight four phenomenal ballplayers. I plotted the Negro Leagues players’ WAR on offense, vs. WAR while pitching. I used a minimum of either 500 PA (for batters) or 500 batters faced (for pitchers). The results are below:
First, let’s start with the two players right in the middle of the graph: now, why are these two players significant? They were both outstanding two-way players! Move out of the way Shohei Ohtani and Babe Ruth, these may be the two of the greatest to ever pitch and hit at the same time! In Dihigo’s 12 years in the Negro Leagues, he collected an OPS+ of 144 (100 being average, so this is All-Star/MVP candidate level), while collecting an ERA+ of 133 on the other side of the diamond. By comparison, Ohtani put up a 158 OPS+ and 141 ERA+ in his 2021 MVP season, but he is unlikely to remain near those numbers for more than a few seasons, much less 12 like Dihigo. Over his career, the Great Bambino put up a lifetime 206 OPS+ and 122 ERA+, so I admit that the Babe was the best ever…but Dihigo was pretty darn close.
Hall of Famer Johnny Mize once said, “Dihigo was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, manage, run and switch-hit.” I didn’t even mention Dihigo’s managing abilities, and the fact that he could swipe bags and hit from both sides!
Then there was Bullet Rogan, the Kansas City Monarchs superstar, who in his 17 years in the minors put up arguably better numbers than Dihigo: a 155 OPS+ and a 142 ERA+. There was no one like Rogan–he completed 104 out of the 143 games he started between 1921 and 1925, and during those same years he hit .298, .368, .370, .386, and .372, starting nearly every game that he did not pitch in center field.
So next time you ponder the great two-way players, include “El Maestro” (Dihigo), and Bullet Rogan on the list!
Second, there was the Negro Leagues’ greatest hitter, Oscar Charleston, and the leagues’ greatest pitcher, Satchel Paige.
Charleston led the Negro Leagues in Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage in three seasons, an extremely rare feat that puts him alongside Ruth, Bonds, and others, and also led the leagues in home runs, walks, stolen bases, RBI, and more season after season–one year batting .433 with a 250 OPS+.
Satchel Paige (who almost all baseball fans have heard of) was unlike the other players discussed in this article, because he played in both the Negro Leagues and MLB. There’s a small caveat: Paige, known for his longevity, first stepped on a MLB mound at the age of 41, long after most retire. That didn’t stop him, as he had an ERA+ of 124 in 476 innings. Imagine the records he would have set if he had played during his prime!
Lastly, let the wise words of two other Hall of Famers, Monte Irvin and Ted Williams, paint the picture of Paige and Charleston’s talent:
“Oscar Charleston was the Willie Mays of his day.” – Monte Irvin
I hope you found today’s article informative and I will catch you in the New Year!
Miami, Fla.: Baseball Almanac, 1997. Web.. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <lccn.loc.gov/2003557424>.
Seamheads Negro leagues database. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.seamheads.com/NegroLgs/index.php