Buck Leonard September 8, 1907—November 27, 1997
The Rocky Mount, NC native was already 25 when he left the sandlots for the Negro Leagues, but made up for his late start by playing until he was 48. Leaving school at fourteen, Buck worked as a shoeshine boy, mill-hand, and on the railroads while playing semi-pro ball. Laid off during the Depression, he turned to baseball full-time and joined the Homestead Grays. Anchoring the squad for the next seventeen seasons, the slick-fielding, hard-hitting first baseman was a 12-time Negro League All Star and the cornerstone of the Homestead Grays’ dynasty.
Buck Leonard led the Negro Leagues in home runs and batting average in 1948, when the Grays beat the Birmingham Black Barons and Willie Mays in the last Negro League World Series ever played. The Negro National League dissolved after the season but Buck continued to play ball, starring in the Caribbean and Mexico until 1955. Finally leaving the game, he completed his high school degree and became a probation officer in Rocky Mount, where he organized the town’s ballclub in the Carolina League. Inducted Hall of Fame: 1972.
Oscar Charleston October 12, 1896—October 6, 1954
Oscar Charleston might have been the best centerfielder of all time. As fast, defensively adept, and tenacious as Ty Cobb, with whom he was often compared, Charleston had a more amiable disposition. Batting over .400 five times in the Negro Leagues, Charleston’s lifetime batting average of .361 in Cuban baseball is the highest ever recorded. A left-handed power hitter known for playing the shallowest centerfield imaginable, Charleston ran away from home when he was 15, served in an all-black regiment in the Philippines, then joined the Indianapolis ABCs.
After playing for the Grays, Charleston became the Crawfords’ player/manager during their heyday as one of baseball’s greatest teams. He managed and played in the first East-West Classic, Negro League baseball’s all star game. A lifetime .351 hitter in the Negro Leagues, Charleston led the Negro and Cuban leagues in batting, homeruns, and stolen bases at one time or another and was fourth all-time in Negro League homeruns. Inducted Hall of Fame: 1976.
Victor Harris June 10, 1905 – February 23, 1978
Vic Harris and his brothers, Earl, Neal, Bill, and Richard, grew up on Pittsburgh’s sandlots. The Harris brothers were instrumental in making the city a center for black baseball. After graduating from Schenley High School, Vic began his professional career in Cleveland in 1923. He joined the Homestead Grays in 1925 and stayed with the club for the next 23 seasons, until the Negro Leagues collapsed in the wake of major league baseball’s integration.
Harris was a hard-hitting outfielder who played in six East-West Classics, but was even more renowned as a manager. As the Grays’ skipper between 1935 and 1948, Harris led the club to nine National Negro League pennants and two Negro League World Series titles, including black baseball’s last world series in 1948 when the Grays beat the Birmingham Black Barons. No man managed more times in the East-West Classic, where he led the East team eight times. Harris also coached for the Baltimore Elite Giants, played in Cuba’s winter leagues, and managed the Birmingham Black Barons and the Santurce Cangrejeros in Puerto Rico.
Cool Papa Bell May 17, 1903–March 7, 1991
Perhaps the fastest man to ever play baseball, Cool Papa Bell could hit, not only for average,but with considerable power. An artist in the outfield, Bell distracted opposing pitchers from Pittsburgh to Santo Domingo with his uncanny base-running. Clocked circling the basepaths in 12 seconds flat, Bell was a lifetime .343 hitter, 7th all-time in Negro League homeruns, and batted over .400 several times. He hit .395 against white big leaguers and in 1940, won the Triple Crown in Mexico, leading the circuit in homeruns and RBIs along with his league-leading .437 batting average.
The Starkville, MI native worked at a creamery and played semi-pro ball before joining the Negro Leagues in 1922. He played and managed in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the United States until retiring in 1950. Tales about his speed have become legendary, the residue of fans dazzled by his instinctive flair for the game. As Satchel Paige famously quipped, “That man was so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark.” Retiring from baseball in 1951, Bell scouted for the St. Louis Browns and worked as a guard at City Hall in St. Louis. Inducted Hall of Fame: 1974.
Judy Johnson October 26, 1899— June 15, 1989
“If Judy Johnson were white,” Connie Mack once said of the Negro League’s superb third baseman, “he could write his own price.” Instead, Johnson barnstormed his way across America, encountering the lower pay, long rides through the night, and segregated restaurants that marked black baseball. Johnson’s forte was his defensive play. Steady hands, a rifle-like arm, and a heady approach to the game won Johnson acclaim throughout the Negro Leagues and Cuba.
The Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier named him black baseball’s Most Valuable Player in 1929. A key component of the great Hilldale club of the 1920s, player/manager of the 1930 Homestead Grays, and field captain of the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s, Johnson played third base at the inaugural East-West Classic. He captained the legendary 1935 Crawfords, which featured five future Hall of Famers. His Crawford teammate Ted Page later lamented that the major leagues never gained the expertise Johnson could have offered as a player and manager, although he did scout for the Athletics, Braves, and Phillies. Inducted Hall of Fame: 1975.