Reversing a Culture of Ignorance: Before Jackie Robinson

America’s past time baseball season is in full motion for another season. This marks the 66th year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Black players had played internationally and throughout many Negro Leagues as long as baseball had been introduced in the late 1800s. There were many players who never were given a chance to play in the major leagues because of the gentleman’s code amongst Major League Baseball owners to not allow black players in the league. Jackie Robinson was chosen not because he was the best player but because he could tolerate the racism he was going to encounter being the first black player in the MLB. In this Reversing a Culture of Ignorance I am going to discuss a few Negro League unsung heroes that many people don’t talk about or aware of.

Will “Cannonball” Jackman

He was referred to as the “Greatest Pitcher Never Known”. Will “Cannonball” Jackman joined the Boston Colored Giants in the 1924-1925 season and played ball until he was well into his sixties. He won more than half of the 1,200 games he pitched over 20 years, with nearly 800 strikeouts and more than 40 shutouts. His record was 52 wins and 2 losses.

Will "Cannonball" Jackman

Sometimes nicknamed the “Satchel Paige of New England,” it was reported that Jackman earned $175 a game and $10 per strikeout. But later in his career, he reportedly received $500-$800 for playing against white semi-pro teams in the exhibition games. This was only a portion of what the white players received but on the high end for most black players. Jackman’s worth, however, was said to be more than the combination of several white players; New York Giants coach John McGraw was recorded saying he would “pay $50,000 to the man who could make Jackman white.”

The actual date of his birth was stated between 1897 and 1899 in Carta, Texas. He may have found his love of baseball while watching the nearby spring training camp of the New York Giants in San Antonio. Jackman started playing with the Houston Black Buffalos, drifting to Maryland and New York, before actually joining the Boston Colored Giants in 1925.

Although he was paid for his crowd-appealing pitches, Jackman took a side job as a chauffeur to send money to his family, keeping his job during the off seasons and well into retirement.

The Negro League pitcher left a trail of strikeouts while playing with teams in Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. Throughout his career, Jackman went on to play for the Philadelphia Giants, the Philadelphia Tigers, the Brooklyn Eagles, the Newark Eagles, and the Boston Royal Giants. In the 1952 Pittsburgh Courier’s player-voted poll of the “all-time great Negro League players,” Jackman was voted number one.

When the Boston Red Sox were scouting for African American players to finally join their roster in the 1950’s, they looked to Will “Cannonball” Jackman for guidance and recruiting.

Will “Cannonball” Jackman died on September 8, 1972 surrounded by friends and family. In his honor, the Cannonball Foundation, an organization that promotes baseball play among youth in low-income urban communities, was formed.


James “Cool Papa” Bell

James “Cool Papa” Bell a fellow STLien as myself was considered the fastest and best lead off hitter anyone had seen. He has millions of legends and stories about how fast and agile he was.

James Thomas Nichols was born May 17, 1903, in or near Starkville, Mississippi. The 1910 U.S. Census shows him as the fourth of seven children living with his widowed mother, Mary Nichols, in Sessums Township, just outside of Starkville. When and why he changed his name to “Bell” is unknown. His brother Fred Bell, also played baseball. He joined the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League as a pitcher in 1922. By 1924, he had become their starting center fielder, and was known as an adept batter and fielder, and the “fastest man in the league”. After leading the Stars to league titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931, he moved to the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League when the Negro National League disbanded. Detroit soon folded, leaving Bell to bounce to the Kansas City Monarchs and the Mexican winter leagues until finding a home with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the reorganized NNL. In Pittsburgh, he played alongside Ted Page and Jimmie Crutchfield to form what is considered by many to have been the best outfield in the Negro leagues. Bell left the Crawfords in 1938 to return to Mexico, coming back to baseball in the United States in 1942 to play for the Homestead Grays, who won Negro league titles in 1942, 1943, and 1944 with his help. He last played for the semi-pro Detroit Senators in 1946. He coached for the Monarchs in the late 1940s, managing their barnstorming “B” team, scouting for the club, signing prospects, and teaching the ins and outs of the game to future major-league baseball greats Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, and Elston Howard, among others.


Because of the opposition the Negro leagues faced, and because of the lack of reliable press coverage of many of their games, no statistics can be given for Bell with any accuracy. What is undeniable is that Bell was considered to be one of the greats of his time by all the men he played with. As Paige himself noted in his autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, “If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking.”

There were so many legends about Bell’s and athleticism. Satchel Paige would tell a legendary story about them staying in a hotel where there was a short delay between flipping the light switch off and the lights actually going off due to faulty wiring, sufficient for Bell to jump into bed in the interim. Leaving out the explanatory details, Paige liked to say that Bell was “so fast you can turn off the light and be under the covers. before the room gets dark!” Paige also joked of a time when facing Bell that the outfielder hit a line drive up the middle that went screaming past Paige’s ear, and hit Bell in the buttocks as he was sliding into second base.

There are many other great legends about “Cool Papa”. For example, one claims that Bell scored from second base on a sacrifice fly. Another states that he went from first to third on a bunt, which is possible for a speedy runner if the fielded ball was thrown to first for the sure out and the first baseman, who rarely have strong throwing arms, was unable to make the long throw to third in time. More astonishing is the claim related in Ken Burns’ Baseball that he once scored from first on a sacrifice bunt. In an exhibition game against white all-stars, Bell is said to have broken for second on a bunt and run, with Satchel Paige at the plate. By the time the ball reached Paige, Bell was almost to second and rounded the bag, seeing the third baseman had broken towards home to field the bunt. The catcher, Roy Partee of the Boston Red Sox, ran to third to cover the bag and an anticipated return throw from first. To his surprise, Bell rounded third and brushed by him on the way home; pitcher Murry Dickson of the St. Louis Cardinals had not thought to cover home with the catcher moving up the line, and Bell scored standing up. Another states that he stole two bases on a single pitch, which is difficult but feasible if a catcher making the throw to second made a mediocre throw and had a shortstop unable to catch the runner at third with a throw. There are many other, possibly exaggerated anecdotes about Bell, such as running a full trip around the bases in 11 or 12 seconds

“Cool Papa” Bell died in his home on Dickson Street in St. Louis, Missouri at age 87. In his honor, the city renamed Dickson Street as “James ‘Cool Papa’ Bell Avenue”.


Josh Gibson

Josh Gibson by many is considered one the best power hitters and catchers in baseball history(arguably more than Babe Ruth). Many people believed he would be the one to break the color barrier instead of Jackie Robinson but his drug habit and drinking were distracts that Robinson didn’t have.

Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, on December 21, 1911. he was recruited by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which in 1928 was still a semi-professional team. The Crawfords, controlled by Gus Greenlee, was the top black semi-professional team in the Pittsburgh area and would advance to fully professional, major Negro league status by 1931. In the summer of 1930 the 18-year-old Gibson was recruited by Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, which was the preeminent Negro league team in Pittsburgh; Gibson debuted with the Grays on July 31, 1930.

In 1933 he hit .467 with 55 home runs in 137 games against all levels of competition. His lifetime batting average is said to be higher than .350, with other sources putting it as high as .384, the best in Negro league history.

The Baseball Hall of Fame maintains he hit “almost 800″ homers in his 17-year career against Negro league and independent baseball opposition. His lifetime batting average, according to the Hall’s official data, was .359. It was reported that he won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Grays. It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro league game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium’s distant left field bleachers than the entire American League.

josh gibson

The true statistical achievements of Negro league players may be impossible to know as the Negro leagues did not compile complete statistics or game summaries. Based on research of historical accounts performed for the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, Gibson hit 224 homers in 2,375 at-bats against top black teams, 2 in 56 at-bats against white major-league pitchers and 44 in 450 AB in the Mexican League. John Holway lists Gibson with the same home run totals and a .351 career average, plus 21 for 56 against white major-league pitchers. According to Holway, Gibson ranks third all-time in the Negro leagues in average among players with 2,000+ AB (trailing Jud Wilson by 3 points and John Beckwith by one). Holway lists him as being second to Mule Suttles in homers, though the all-time leader in HR/AB by a considerable margin – with a homer every 10.6 AB to one every 13.6 for runner-up Suttles.

Recent investigations into Negro league statistics, using box scores from newspapers from across the United States, have led to the estimate that, although as many as two thirds of Negro league team games were played against inferior competition (as traveling exhibition games), Gibson still hit between 150 and 200 home runs in official Negro league games.Though this number appears very conservative next to the statements of “almost 800″ to 1000 home runs, this research also credits Gibson with a rate of one home run every 15.9 at bats, which compares favorably with the rates of the top nine home run hitters in Major League history. The commonly cited home run totals in excess of 800 are not indicative of his career total in “official” games because the Negro league season was significantly shorter than the Major League season; typically consisting of less than 60 games per year.The additional home runs cited were most likely accomplished in “unofficial” games against local and non-Negro league competition of varying strengths, including the oft-cited “barnstorming” competitions.

Despite the fact that statistical validation continues to prove difficult for Negro league players, the lack of verifiable figures has led to various amusing “Tall Tales” about immortals such as Gibson. A good example: In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hits one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappears from sight, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams are playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams have positioned themselves on the field, a ball comes falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, “You’re out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!”

In early 1943 Josh Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After he regained consciousness, he refused the option of surgical removal and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. In 1944 Josh was hospitalized in Washington, DC, at Gallinger Hospital for mental observation.

He died of a stroke in Pittsburgh in 1947 at age 35 just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. Some believe the stroke was linked to drug problems that plagued him in his later years.


Make sure you check out this week’s episode of the “Straight Outta Lo Cash” Radio Show. This week’s show “The Saga of B.R.U.H” with Guest Brendolyn Marie. You can also subscribe to the show on I-Tunes or listen on your Android, I-Phone, or I-Pad with Stitcher Radio.

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4 responses to “Reversing a Culture of Ignorance: Before Jackie Robinson

  1. Very good job! I applaud you very much for choosing to highlight these great Black male athletes. Many outstanding Black male baseball players came before Jackie Robinson, although I’m not diminishing the significance of Robinson’s legacy.

  2. I am glad you took the time to do this. Many of us either lose sight, or don’t have any sight, on the fact that there is more to certain parts of history than just a singular figure. There is more to our baseball history than Jackie Robinson.

  3. Love it! Great post! I have always admired Jackie Robinson, it takes a strong person to be able to hold their head high after enduring his type of abuse. But I always have found the Negro League intriguing. My great grandfather swore he knew some players. lol. They were great stories. I didn’t know about Cannonball, though. Pretty cool. Great post!

  4. Pingback: Reversing a Culture of Ignorance: The Jack Trice Story | From Ashy to Classy·

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