The 10 Best Baseball Players Who Never Got To Play In The Majors

Black Americans were not allowed to play in Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Before then, hundreds of gifted black baseball players competed against one another in successful Negro Leagues that formed all over America. There has been a great effort to remember and celebrate these great athletes, and many of them have since been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

10. Buck O’Neil

John “Buck” O’Neil was a first baseman and manager in the Negro American League. After playing, he eventually became the first African American coach in the MLB, and then late in life became a speaker and strong advocate for Negro leagues history, helping to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He played baseball in the Negro Leagues from 1937-1955. He played in four East-West All-Star Games in three different seasons, and two Negro League World Series.

9. Andrew “Rube” Foster

Foster is widely considered the best pitcher of the very early Negro Leagues — he played from 1902-1917. Not all of his games pitched were recorded, but in 338 of them that were, he won 216. He also also founded and managed the Chicago American Giants, and organized the Negro National League, the first long-lasting professional league for African-American ballplayers, which operated from 1920 to 1931. He is known as the “father of black baseball.”

8. James “Biz” Mackey

Above: Biz Mackey by Kadir Nelson, from We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

Before Josh Gibson rose to fame, James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey was regarded as black baseball’s premier catcher. He was a tremendous defender, but also ranks among the leagues all-time greatest in both RBIs and slugging percentage. He was a five time Negro Leagues all-star and MLB great Roy Campanella once said “In my opinion, Biz Mackey was the master of defense of all catchers. When I was a kid in Philadelphia, I saw both Mackey and Mickey Cochrane in their primes, but for real catching skills, I don’t think Cochrane was the master of defense that Mackey was. When I went under his direction in Baltimore, I was 15 years old. I gathered quite a bit from Mackey, watching how he did things, how he blocked low pitches, how he shifted his feet for an outside pitch, how he threw with a short, quick, accurate throw without drawing back. I got all this from Mackey at a young age.”

7. Walter “Buck” Leonard

Buck Leonard was the first baseman for the Homestead Grays for 17 years, the longest term of service for a player on a single team in Negro League history. The Baseball Reference statistics show Leonard with an impressive .519 slugging percentage. Monte Irvin said “Trying to sneak a fastball past [Leonard] was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.”

6. Willie Wells

Above: Willie Wells memorial mural in Austin, Texas by Tim Kerr (photo by me).

Willie Wells was a shortstop who played from 1924-1948. Nicknamed El Diablo (The Devil) by Mexican fans, Wells hit for both power and average, and was a fast baserunner. He was even more impressive with his glove and supposedly taught Jackie Robinson the art of the double play. His recorded career average was .320.

5. James “Cool Papa” Bell

“Cool Papa” was, by every first-hand account, one of the fastest base runners to ever play the game of baseball. Satchel Paige once said “”If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.” Bell was recorded as having rounded the bases in 12 seconds. He had 132 recorded stolen bases.

4. Joe Williams

Known primarily as “Smokey Joe” or “Cyclone Joe” at different times in his career, Williams is widely recognized as one of baseball’s all-time greatest pitchers. He had a 27-year career from 1905 to 1932. Incomplete statistics show him with a career .618 winning percentage and 5.5 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He was also a decent hitter who hit 9 recorded home runs (probably many more in total). In barnstorming exhibition games against white major league players — many of them future Hall of Famers, Joe posted a 20-7 record.

3. John Henry “Pop” Lloyd

“Pop” Lloyd is generally considered the greatest shortstop in Negro league history. Lloyd was a cleanup hitter with a recorded batting average of .337and slugging percentage of .434, but he was even more notable as a fantastic defensive shortstop. He was sometimes referred to as the “Black Wagner,” a reference to Pittsburgh Pirates Hall-of-Famer Honus Wagner. Wagner was quoted as saying “It’s an honor to be compared to him.”

2. Josh Gibson

Josh Gibson was a catcher and a slugger who played in the Negro Leagues from 1930-1946. He died in January of 1947 at age 35, missing by a few months the chance to see Jackie Robinson play in the major leagues. Some folks called him the “black Babe Ruth,” others who say both of them play called Ruth the “white Josh Gibson.” According to the statistics available at Baseball Reference, Gibson had a .350 batting average, and a .624 slugging percentage. If you include his all levels of competition — including winter league, barnstorming, and exhibition games, as well as official Negro league ball — Gibson is credited with 962 home runs.

1. Oscar Charleston

Oscar Charleston played center field in the eagues from 1915 to 1941. In 1932, he became player-manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords — his roster included Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Judy Johnson. Charleston also excelled in exhibition play against all-white major league teams, batting .318 with 11 home runs in 53 games. In Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, he ranked Charleston as the fourth greatest baseball player of all time. He had a documented career batting average of .339, and a slugging percentage of .545. He hit 141 home runs in the just 239 games that statistics are available for.

A note about statistics: These numbers we do have available to us regarding these players are primarily due to a great effort by the folks at Baseball Reference to collect Negro Leagues numbers in one place. That said, statistics in the leagues were incomplete and some are lost to history, so the career numbers for these players were likely actually much higher in most cases.

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