Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tall Tales From the Negro Leagues

Although the games frequently drew sizeable crowds, Negro League players received little attention from the mainstream press. Verbal accounts were often deliberately exaggerated with the subjects being elevated to superhuman status. No one doubts that Josh Gibson was one of the greatest power hitters of all-time. His Hall of Fame plaque states that he hit almost 800 home runs in his seventeen-year career. But due to the absence of reliable statistics, we will never know the exact number. We can assume the following fable never actually took place, though it makes for fascinating reading. The stocky catcher once hit a ball so hard that it allegedly disappeared from sight into the summer sky. In Philadelphia the next day, the ball dropped into the mitt of an opposing center fielder. The umpire pointed to Gibson and cried: "Yer Out! Yesterday, in Pittsburgh!"

A number of myths surround center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who was reputed to be the fastest man ever to step onto a diamond. In one account, he scored from second base on a sacrifice fly. In another, he came all the way around from first on a sac bunt. The tallest tale of all: Satchell Paige once alleged that Bell hit a line drive past his ear one day and, as Paige turned to track the flight of the ball, he saw it hit Bell in the buttocks as he was sliding into second base. Paige famously bragged that Bell was so fast you could turn out the lights and he'd be under the covers before the room got dark.

Paige himself is at the center of many imaginative fables--Some true and some open to debate. He had funny names for all of his pitches and was fond of pulling his teammates off the field to make it more dramatic when he struck out the side. In essence, he was a one man traveling sideshow. By his own estimation, he lost just two games over the course of his first two years of professional service. Enamored with his talents, Chattanooga Lookouts owner Sammy Nicklin allegedly offered Paige $500 to paint his face white so he could play in an exhibition against Chattanooga's arch rivals, the Atlanta Crackers. (There was a ban on blacks in the Southern Association as well as the majors at the time.) As the story goes, Paige seriously considered the offer before one of his coaches talked him out of it. It would be interesting to know what would have happened had he agreed to the crackpot scheme.

Effa Manley played numerous roles in her lifetime--owner, business manager, civic activist. The first woman elected to the Hall of Fame, she allegedly drove players to distraction with her disarming beauty. One Negro League yarn alleges that the bewitching Newark Eagles owner would sit in the stands and flash signs to her players by crossing and uncrossing her shapely legs. Enjoying the show a bit too much one day, Eagles infielder Willie Wells was allegedly knocked unconscious by a pitch from Bill Byrd of the Baltimore Elite Giants.

As previously stated, some of these stories may be factual. Others are obviously fluff. But one thing is for certain: The history of the Negro Leagues is just as rich in detail as that of the Majors (if not more so).

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