Greatest Team That Almost Was: Homestead Grays

Brian WolffCorrespondent IJune 26, 2009

Pirates Remember Negro League Homestead Grays

The Pirates kicked of African-American Heritage Weekend by donning the uniforms of the Homestead Grays, one of the greatest teams to ever take the field in the 1930s.

The Pirates and the Kansas City Royals will wear the throwback uniforms again for tomorrow's game.  The Royals wore the uniforms of the Kansas City Monarchs.

The Grays were one of the more storied teams to play in the Negro Leagues of the first half of the 20th century. After years of independent play, the team formed by Cumberland "Cum" Posey, joined the Negro National League and after a two-year rough start, would dominate the league for a decade.

Posey, part of the group that formed the team in 1910 from a group of steel workers, started as a player for the Grays in 1911. Eventually he became manager and later owner. The original team, Blue Ribbons, an industrial league team, had been formed in 1900. 10 years later they became the Murdock Grays, and two years later the Homestead Grays.

His team would win nine consecutive Negro National League pennants between 1937-45, as well as three Negro World Series. The Grays played most of their games at old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and at their home away from home, Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

The Grays were real "barnstormers" as they traveled around playing against teams in hundreds of small towns across the Eastern United States.

The team was led by such players as catcher Josh Gibson who was known as the "black Babe Ruth." Some who saw him conversely descried Babe Ruth at the "white Josh Gibson." 

In 1934, he hit 69 home runs including barnstorming (non-league) games, including 11 in 53 league games. In 1933 he batted .467 with 55 home runs in 137 league and non-league games. His lifetime batting average is .359.

He was voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. The plaque reads, "Almost 800" homers hit in his 17-year career.

James "Cool Papa" Bell, a switch-hitting left fielder, was described by his contemporaries as the fastest man on the base paths. The great Leroy "Satchel" Paige said of of the speedster, "If Cool Papa had known about colleges or if colleges had known about Cool Papa, Jesse Owens would have looked like he was walking." In his obituary, the New York Times described him as the "fastest man to ever play baseball."

In the Pirates game against the Royals, lighting fast Nyjer Morgan reached first on a "sacrifice" bunt that moved Andrew McCutchen over to third. It was the speed of Bell that first turned sacrifice bunts into hits, rather than sacrifices.

Three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Bell had a chance to pay against some Major League players.  The same obit recounts a Major League All-Star game Bell appeared in two years after his retirement in 1948.

Reaching first base on a hit, Bell later took off on a steal after the pitch to Paige. Reaching second without a throw, Bell noticed the third baseman had not retreated after charging to cover the bunt, and he headed for third. When the catcher ran toward third with the ball, Bell turned toward home and adeptly sidestepped the tag, scoring on the play. 

The story is also recounted in Ken Burns documentary, "Baseball."

Another story says he stole two bases on a single pitch. Believability certainly stretches the imagination, but he was clearly fast. He stole 137 bases in his career.

Bell twice batted better than .400 in his career, his first and final seasons, and had a lifetime average of .337. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.


Another player was one of the Gray’s star pitchers. Smokey Joe Williams pitched for 27 years, his last two for the Grays. Highlights of his career include a 20-7 exhibition record against Major League teams.  In 1917 he struck out 20 batters while no-hitting the New York Giants, losing the game 1-0 on an error. In a game his first year with the Grays against the Kansas City Monarchs, he struck out an inconceivable 27 batters in at 12-inning game, giving up one hit.

In 1914 he had a record of 41-3. Ty Cobb described him as a “sure 30-game winner” had he been able to pitch in the majors. If you ask people who it the greatest Negro Leagues pitcher half will tell you it is Satchel Paige. The other half will tell you it is “Cyclone” Joe Williams.

Paige and Williams met once at the beginning of one career and at the end of another’s Paige won out 1-0 in the contest between the Baltimore Black Sox and the Grays. Paige said "Smokey Joe (Williams) could throw harder than anyone."

The Cyclone was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. 

The stars of the Homestead Grays made the baseball team arguably the best to ever play in the Negro Leagues. Though history will never let us know, as many have said, they could have been the among the very best in the Major Leagues, had the color-barrier not been in place at that time.

These men were successful because they loved the game first and foremost. The lasting mark they have left on baseball is irrefutable, changing the game with their talent and their contributions.

After the disbanding of the Negro National League in 1948 the Grays struggled to survive until finally folding in 1950.

PICTURE ABOVE: the 1913 Homestead Grays at Forbes Field, "Champions of Homestead & Vicinity, 1913."

Photo of Homestead Grays is in the public domain, courtesy of Mrs. Cumberland W. Posey.

Photo Source=[ Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh] |Date=1913 |Author=Unknown, Courtesy of Mrs. Cumberland W. Posey |Permis)


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