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Baseball Hall of Fame Settles Some Unfinished Business

August 1, 2006
Seventeen Negro Leaguers Inducted in Cooperstown, Baltimore's Black Baseball History Well Represented

By Charlie Vascellaro

Not many people know it but on May 17, 1952 Hank Aaron hit the first two home runs of his professional career right here in Baltimore. As a member of the Negro League's Indianapolis Clowns, he was on his way to becoming baseball's all-time home run king. Five years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league racial barrier, the Negro leagues were in decline but Aaron was fortunate they existed as an avenue to the bigs.

Many of the great black players in the Negro leagues just a few years before Aaron were not as fortunate, and despite their abilities toiled in relative obscurity, their careers relegated to anonymity when their playing days were through.

James Raleigh "Biz" Mackey played for the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1938 and 1939. (Photo Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame)
More than 50 years since their careers came to a close (and at least 100 years for a select few African-Americans who played the early professional game), 17 new members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame finally received recognition at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., last weekend.

The group represents the largest induction class in Hall of Fame history. Inductees were elected from a pool of 39 nominees chosen by The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group, a body of 12 researchers and historians selected by the Hall of Fame's board of directors. Major League Baseball had presented the Hall with a $250,000 grant to conduct a comprehensive study on the history of African-Americans in baseball from 1860-1960. 
The new inductees join 18 previously-elected Negro leaguers enshrined in Cooperstown.

The Splendid Splinter's Splendid Speech
It wasn't until the Hall of Fame's induction ceremony of 1966 that recognizing the accomplishments of Negro league players came to the consciousness of the Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech that day, legendary Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams spoke on behalf of a community that he did not represent.

"Inside this building are plaques dedicated to baseball men of all generations and I'm privileged to join them," Williams said. "I hope someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great negro players that are not here, only because they were not given a chance." 

Williams' words pierced the ears of the baseball establishment and prompted the formation of the Hall of Fame's Committee on Negro League Veterans in 1971, which selected Satchel Paige as its first honoree. Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard were inducted in 1972. Monte Irvin, James "Cool Papa" Bell, William Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, and John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, were added during the next five years.

The committee disbanded and turned its responsibilities over to the Hall's Veteran's Committee, which selected pitcher and Negro League founder Rube Foster as well as third baseman Ray Dandridge in 1981. No other Negro leaguers were voted in until 1995 and seven more were selected during the six years to follow. No player from the Negro leagues had been selected since 2001 when the current committee was formed and given its mandate.

Baltimore's Best
Although no member of this year's induction class is alive to appreciate the honor, among those receiving bronze plaques to be hung in the Hall of Fame's hallowed gallery are several players and one executive who toiled for teams representing the cities of Baltimore and Washington. 

Baltimore, home of the Baltimore Black Sox from 1916-1934 and the Elite Giants from 1938-1950, was a major hub for most of Negro league history. 

Jud "Boojum" Wilson was captain of the 1931 Homestead Grays team often cited as the greatest in Negro League history. (Photo Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Powerful left-handed slugging infielder Jud "Boojum" Wilson is among this year's group of inductees. Nicknamed by legendary hurler Satchel Paige for the sound his bat made when he hit the ball, Wilson played for championship teams in Baltimore and Washington. He was the captain of the 1931 Homestead Grays team often cited as the greatest in Negro League history. Wilson led the league, hitting .373 for the Black Sox in 1923 and posting averages of .350 or better in nine of the next 14 seasons. He never dipped below .315 and hit for a career .345 clip. Paige considered Wilson one of the two best hitters in Negro league history. 

Wilson's grandniece, Sha'Ron D. Taylor, lives in Capital Heights, Md. and works for the General Services Administration (GSA). She found out about her uncle's election to the Hall while thumbing through the pages of a recent issue of Jet magazine and contacted Cooperstown.

Wilson's parents died when he and his siblings were relatively young and being the oldest of the group he raised his brothers and sisters as if they were his own children. 

"I feel privileged. I feel like royalty," Taylor said. "This is history for my family. When I read comments about him by someone like Satchel Paige, I know he must have meant something." 

James Raleigh "Biz" Mackey is another new Hall of Famer with ties to Baltimore. Mackey played for the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1938 and 1939 and is credited with serving as a mentor to future Hall of Fame catcher and pioneering major leaguer Roy Campanella. 

Equally adept at throwing out would be base-stealers as he was at the plate, Mackey hit .423 with 20 home runs and a .698 slugging percentage with Hilldale of Philadelphia in 1923 and posted averages of .337, .350, .327, .315, .327, .337, .400, and .376 from 1924-1931, during the early part of a 30-year career. Mackey led Hilldale to three straight Eastern Colored League pennants from 1923-1925, and a win over the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series of 1925.

Mackey's great nephew Ray Mackey, 41, came from Houston to represent his uncle in Cooperstown. "When I heard of the committee I felt that he was a shoo-in," Ray Mackey said. "He's arrived at the Hall of Fame where he'll rest with the great ones forever."

Despite the large number of inductees, debate brewed over who may have been overlooked and who should not have been included. Many baseball people clamored over the omission of Kansas City Monarchs player, manager, oral historian and Negro leagues ambassador Buck O'Neil, whose remarks opened this year's ceremony. In his typical dignified fashion, O'Neil rose above the perceived slight and gave the most graceful speech of the day. 

"This is outstanding," he said. "I've been a lot of places, I've done a lot of things that I really liked doing. I hit the home run, I hit the grand slam home run, I hit for the cycle. I've hit a hole-in-one in golf. I've done a lot of things I like doing... but I'd rather be right here right now representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice."

Also in attendance at this year's ceremony, though not participating, was Geraldine Day, widow of Hall of Fame Negro league hurler Leon Day. She delivered a memorable speech at Day's 1995 induction and can relate to the family members on hand for this year's ceremony.

"I was jumping for joy when I heard of this year's selections, especially for the guys Leon played with and the ones I met," Geraldine Day said. "Ben Taylor was Leon's idol. They're buried in the same cemetery in Arbutus. He (Taylor) didn't have a marker so we raised the money to put a plaque there."

Slick-fielding, hard-hitting first baseman Ben Taylor compiled a .334 lifetime batting average and also pitched, mostly for the Indianapolis ABCs during his 20-year playing career (1910-1930). He managed and coached the Baltimore Stars in 1933, serving as a mentor to future Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard.

Another one of this year's inductees, Mule Suttles, is considered among the premier power hitters of his era. Suttles hit 26 HRs with a .432 average and a 1.000 slugging percentage for the St. Louis Stars in 1926. Suttles played on championship teams in St. Louis in 1928 and 1930-1931. He developed his powerful muscles as coal miner in Birmingham, Ala., where he also played on semi-pro mining teams that would later become the foundation of the Birmingham Black Barons.

Other inductees include Effa Manley, the first woman elected to the Hall of Fame, who was co-owner of the Newark Eagles together with her husband Abe Manley and served as the team's business manager from 1936-1948. Manley was a white woman who championed the cause of the civil rights movement and fought to improve the lot of African-American ballplayers and demanded compensation from major league teams that signed Negro leagues players.

Among the founding fathers of the organized Negro leagues, owner Cum Posey's Homestead Grays team was one of the first truly successful franchises both on the field and at the gate for 35 years, serving as a model for other teams. Fielding a team that included future Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Judy Johnson, the Grays won back-to-back Negro League World Series in 1930 and 1931 and nine straight Negro National League pennants, beginning in 1937.

Issue 1.15: August 3, 2006