The Negro Leagues were home to some of the greatest hitters to ever play the game, and only a handful ever got a chance to prove their worth on the Major League Baseball stage. Below are just a few of the best hitters the Negro Leagues had to offer.
All statistics referenced come from Seamhead’s Negro Leagues Database. Seamheads compiles data from the game-level up rather than using end-of-year statistics. No statistical record of the Negros Leagues is complete—games often went uncovered in white newspapers—but Seamheads is constantly adding to its database which is the most comprehensive account of Negro Leagues statistics.
As the Negro Leagues records are incomplete, so too is this list. Julián Castillo and Cristóbal Torriente each had numbers comparable to the other names listed here, but each played a large portion of their careers before Rube Foster founded the Negro National League. Mule Suttles and Willie Wells are both credited as being in the top-five of home run hitters of Negro and Latin leagues.
3,859 PA, .365/.449/.690, 238 HR, 202 OPS+
Josh Gibson wasn’t just thought to be the best hitter in the Negro Leagues but one of the best hitters to ever live. Gibson’s reputation has risen to mythological heights. At 18, Gibson supposedly hit a 480-foot home run, and Gibson was also said to have hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium, a feat Babe Ruth never accomplished. Bill Veeck once claimed that “Josh Gibson was, at the minimum, two Yogi Berras.”
Gibson played from 1930 to 1946, spending most of his career with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and in his 17-year career, Gibson has often been credited with over 800 home runs. The 238 homers that Seamheads gives him is a far cry from that, but Negro Leagues teams often played in exhibition games which haven’t been included. By Seamheads’ record, Gibson hit a home run every 16.2 plate appearances. Ruth hit one every 14.2 plate appearances, so Gibson wasn’t far off from the original home run king even with four of Gibson’s seasons coming after falling into a coma in early 1943 and being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Gibson, of course, never got the opportunity to play in the National League or American League. He died in January of 1947 at the age of 35, four months before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
2,827 PA, .343/.447/.579, 103 HR, 180 OPS+
While Josh Gibson was referred to as the Black Babe Ruth, Buck Leonard was called the Black Lou Gehrig. The comparison wasn’t made just because Leonard hit behind Gibson in the Homestead Grays lineup, Leonard was also one of the best hitters all-around hitters in the Negro Leagues. Only Gibson surpassed Leonard’s 180 OPS+, and the only hitters with as many documented plate appearances and a higher OPS were Gibson and Turkey Stearnes.
Leonard played almost his entire professional career for the Grays, manning first base for them between 1934 and 1948. After the Negro National League folded in 1948, Bill Veeck attempted to sign Leonard, but the slugger was already 40 years old so he declined. Though MLB took too long to integrate for Leonard, the best first baseman of the Negro Leagues eventually earned induction into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
6,802 PA, .350/.430/.573, 211 HR, 173 OPS+
Buck O’Neil once described Oscar Charleston as being “like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” In 2001, Bill James ranked Charleston as the fourth-greatest player of all-time. Honus Wagner once said, “I’ve seen all the great players in the many years I’ve been around and have yet to see one any greater than Charleston.”
Charleston got his professional debut at 18 with the Indianapolis ABC’s and kept playing until he was 44 years old. Charleston played wherever he could, from independent Negro League teams to Cuba to the Negro American and National Leagues. Everywhere he played, he dominated including 37 games against MLB competition in which he hit .355/.420/.738 with 10 home runs.
2,113 PA, .352/.394/.576, 67 HR, 178 OPS+
Willard Brown was the longtime center fielder for the Kansas City Monarchs and helped them to six Negro American League championships between 1937 and 1946. Brown had a reputation for taking things easy if the stadium was half-empty or if he just wanted the game over, but his talents still got him to the Hall of Fame.
Brown got a brief crack at the American League in 1947 when the St. Louis Browns signed him and Monarchs infielder Hank Thompson for $5,000 a piece. Though he was the first Black player to homer in the American League, Brown never got it going in the AL, hitting .179 in 67 plate appearances, and Browns manager Muddy Ruel released him and Thompson less than two months after the team acquired them.
Brown had a choice of whether to stay or go and decided to go back to the Monarchs who were paying him better. Brown also said, “The Browns couldn’t beat the Monarchs no kind of way, only if we was all asleep. That’s the truth. They didn’t have nothing. I said, ‘Major league team?’ They got to be kidding.”
4,554 PA, .348/.415/.617, 197 HR, 173 OPS+
Before Josh Gibson came along, the preeminent home run hitters of the Negro Leagues were Mule Suttles and Turkey Stearnes. Stearnes was a bit of an odd player and not because he was a power hitter who claimed he never weighed over 168 pounds. Stearnes was known to keep his bats in a violin case and would admonish or praise his bats based on what sort of results they gave him.
For any of his personal eccentricities, no one could fault Stearnes for his baseball acumen. Stearnes was a fan-favorite of the Detroit Stars in the Negro National League. Stearnes eventually received Hall of Fame induction in 2000.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.