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Negro Leagues

Evaluating Negro Leagues First Basemen and Second Basemen

[All MLEs updated 7/4/18 to include (a) new 1938 and 1947 data (b) new baserunning-runs estimates(c) new, more objective playing-time estimates]

[NOTE: These MLEs were updated 12/7/17 to include an improved fielding conversion from DRA to Rfield and to correct a formula error that was adding 1 to 2 runs per season to a player’s Rrep.]

The Negro Leagues developed their fair share of outstanding catchers. Negro Leagues first basemen, haven’t gotten quite as much attention. There’s actually more depth at first base than at catcher, even though the Hall-recognized talents aren’t quite as numerous. Second base is even more obscure than first base for reasons we’ll talk about below. For today, we’ll stick with those on the right side of the infield who’ve gotten bronzed by the Halls of Fame and/or Merit, and we’ll investigate other candidates down the line. We refer you to our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters for all the gory details.

First Base

Buck Leonard

[Note: Updated 1/14/18 to include 1946 data.]

[Updated 4/3/18 for additional 1937 data.]

Buck Leonard was a quiet, educated man, much like the major leaguer he was nearly always compared to. Pick up any Negro Leagues book, and Leonard is mostly referenced in tandem with his longtime teammate Josh Gibson. Together they formed the Negro Leagues’ equivalent tandem to Ruth and Gehrig. In reality, while Gibson might well have been Blackball’s greatest hitter, Leonard didn’t hit quite enough to equate to The Iron Horse. Don’t get me wrong, the records we have indicate that Leonard could really pound the ball, but he was perhaps more like mere mortals Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews than Larrupin’ Lou. (Context is everything, and Gehrig almost doubles the Rbat of those two in the same number of plate appearances.) That’s OK, though, because Leonard’s talent and results speak for themselves. As they should.

Buck Leonard
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1933–1955
Destination: NL 1933–1950
Missing data: 1948–1950
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1933  25 NL 1B    560   27    0    0     2   - 6   23   2.6   17   40   4.6
1934  26 NL 1B    580   23    0    0     2   - 6   19   1.9   18   37   3.8
1935  27 NL 1B    570   33    0    0     2   - 6   29   2.8   18   46   4.7
1936  28 NL 1B    580   25    0    0     2   - 6   21   2.1   18   39   4.0
1937  29 NL 1B    550   37    0    0     2   - 5   34   3.4   17   51   5.2
1938  30 NL 1B    580   41    0    0     2   - 6   37   3.8   18   55   5.8
1939  31 NL 1B    580   40    0    0     2   - 6   36   3.7   18   54   5.6
1940  32 NL 1B    590   32    0    0     2   - 6   28   2.9   18   46   4.8
1941  33 NL 1B    590   31    0    0     2   - 6   27   2.9   18   45   4.9
1942  34 NL 1B    490    6    0    0     1   - 5    3   0.3   15   18   2.1
1943  35 NL 1B    590   19    0    0     2   - 6   15   1.7   18   34   3.9
1944  36 NL 1B    570   26    0    0     2   - 6   22   2.4   18   40   4.3
1945  37 NL 1B    410   24    0    0     1   - 4   21   2.2   13   34   3.6
1946  38 NL 1B    390   29    0    0     1   - 4   26   2.9   12   39   4.3
1947  39 NL 1B    330   18    0    0     1   - 3   15   1.6   10   26   2.6
1948  40 NL 1B    340   19    0    0     1   - 3   17   1.7   11   27   2.9
1949  41 NL 1B    260   14    0    0     1   - 3   13   1.3    8   21   2.2
1950  42 NL 1B    200   12    0    0     1   - 2   11   1.1    6   17   1.7
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 8760  458   -1    1    24   -85  397  41.3  273  670  71.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 56th
Rbat: 25th
WAA: 26th
WAR: 26th

Leonard appears to have been a very good fielding first baseman, with below average (but not Lombardiesque) speed. He was extremely durable (just like Gehrig), and that Rbat total ain’t exactly shabby. That said, Leonard’s MLEs probably show as well as anyone’s that when we look season-by-season, we must remember that any protocol worth using has a lot of checks and balances that move the player toward his career mean performance. If you expected a high-flying peak from Leonard, well, MLEs are designed to shave the tops off the mountains and raise the valley toward the peak. That’s because the much smaller sample sizes we have to work with can’t be taken at face value and simply prorated willy-nily out to 154 or 162 games. Trust us, you’d get an even more unrealistic view than you do here. With Leonard, you might see Eddie Murray or Rafael Palmeiro’s longevity, durability, and consistency mixed Eddie Mathews’ bat. The line graph of his career WAR values might in reality look more jagged. But it’s all OK. We accept short-term imprecision for a great sense of the span and scope of a player.

The recently available 1947 season at the Negro Leagues Database didn’t do much to help Buck Leonard’s case. But more important, in my previous MLEs I overfit his career against the most durable first basemen in the game’s first 80 years. Leonard, it turns out, was durable but not anything like Gehrigesque. He played about 86% of his teams’ scheduled games, or at the least the ones in the NLDB. That’s the biggest reason for the drop of more than 1,000 PA and 10 WAR from my previous estimate. And here’s the reality: Leonard’s top-level career didn’t begin until at age 25. We’re not real comfortable projecting what-if seasons where there’s no data and no good sense of what the player was up to. This similarly affects Jud Wilson, among others.

Mule Suttles

[Updated 4/3/18 to with to minor updates.]

George Suttles could really hit. He’s one of three guys in the Negro Leagues database with 100+ homers (though more could emerge as more seasons come online). His slugging percentage ranks 9th in the NLDB. In all, his .317/.384/.547 slash line rolls up to a 150 OPS+ that currently ranks 19th all-time. He appears to have been pretty durable, had average speed, and wielded a very slightly above average glove.

Suttles was known for his tape-measure circuit clouts, and they got him all the way to Cooperstown and to the Hall of Merit. Our MLEs indicate that the rest of his game didn’t do much to flesh things out. His walk rates weren’t problematic but weren’t special either, and while his hitting would have made him a great infielder or centerfielder, at first base it doesn’t play up as much.

Mule Suttles
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1923–1944
Destination: NL 1923–1941
Missing data: 1926-1927, 1929, 1931
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit
Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
=======================================================================
1923  22 NL  1B  300    6    0       1   -3    5   0.4    9   14   1.4
1924  23 NL  1B  620   20    0       2   -6   17   1.7   19   36   3.7
1925  24 NL  1B  590   18    0       2   -6   14   1.4   18   33   3.1
1926  25 NL  1B  580   21    0       2   -6   18   1.8   18   36   3.7
1927  26 NL  1B  580   25    0       2   -6   21   2.1   18   39   4.0
1928  27 NL  1B  620   41    0       2   -6   37   3.7   19   57   5.7
1929  28 NL  1B  590   29    0       2   -6   26   2.3   18   44   4.0
1930  29 NL  1B  500   32    0       2   -5   29   2.5   16   45   3.9
1931  30 NL  1B  580   23    0       2   -6   20   2.0   18   38   4.0
1932  31 NL  1B  580   17    0       2   -6   14   1.4   18   32   3.3
1933  32 NL  1B  590    7    0       2   -6    3   0.3   18   21   2.5
1934  33 NL  1B  600   13    0       2   -6    9   1.0   19   28   2.9
1935  34 NL  1B  580   23    0       2   -6   20   2.0   18   38   3.8
1936  35 NL  1B  440   24    0       2   -4   21   2.1   14   35   3.5
1937  36 NL  1B  430   16    0       2   -4   13   1.3   13   26   2.8
1938  37 NL  1B  360   14    0       1   -3   12   1.2   11   23   2.4
1939  38 NL  1B  400   15    0       2   -4   12   1.3   12   25   2.6
1940  39 NL  1B  360    5    0       1   -3    3   0.3   11   14   1.5
1941  40 NL  1B  190  - 1    0       1   -2  - 2  -0.2    6    4   0.5
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
                9490  348   -1      36  -92  292  28.8  296  587  59.3

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 35th   
Rbat: 42nd
WAA: 63rd  
WAR: t-48th

Mule actually played about one-third of his games in left field, but we’ve chosen to put him at first base the whole way. He broke in as a left fielder then became a regular first baseman after just two years in the pastures. He was also a better first baseman than left fielder. In all, it matters very little, a run here or there. Forgiving the interpositional comparison, the record this MLE presents looks a great deal like Zack Wheat or Billy Williams, though each of them have advantages in other areas (fielding, DP avoidance, running, run context) that give them noticeable advantages over Suttles. Still, with several seasons missing from the very heart of Suttles’ career, while he doesn’t currently appear to be our strongest candidate, he could yet make up a great deal of ground provided his missing seasons are superior to his career average, raising his overall career average and replacing seasons estimate at that average with the real deal.

Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor’s triple-slash line of .335/.397/.463 looks worse than Mule Suttles’ at first glance. But in context, they result in a very similar 148 OPS+. Taylor played more than half his career in the deadball era. His calling cards were line-drive power that fueled a high average, deft glove work at first base, durability, and steady leadership. He was an occasionally successful player-manager in addition to his feats at first.

The Taylor baseball mirrors the Alous or Delahantys. In addition to Ben, his three brothers Steel Arm Johnny Taylor, C.I. Taylor, and Candy Jim Taylor all played in the Negro Leagues. Johnny was a pretty good pitcher, C.I. a terrible hitting infielder who managed 14 seasons and had the best record among western teams in 1915. Candy Jim also played the infield, and he could swing the bat a little, but he shone best in the dugout. Despite a .502 winning percentage, he ranks near the top of the Negro Leagues career lists in games and wins. More important, in his 21 years, he won three pennants and two titles.

But Ben’s lefty bat and glove led them all and put him in position to be honored by the Hall of Fame.

Ben Taylor
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1909–1928
Destination: NL 1910–1928
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame 

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield  Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
========================================================================
1910  21 NL  1B  270    2    0       2   - 2    2   0.2    8   10   1.1
1911  22 NL  1B  600    6    0       4   - 4    6   0.6   19   25   2.6
1912  23 NL  1B  610   29    0       4   - 4   29   2.9   19   48   4.9
1913  24 NL  1B  590   15    0       4   - 4   15   1.6   18   33   3.7
1914  25 NL  1B  610   28    0       4   - 4   28   3.2   19   47   5.5
1915  26 NL  1B  610   27    0       4   - 4   27   3.2   19   46   5.6
1916  27 NL  1B  610   18    0       4   - 4   18   2.2   19   37   4.7
1917  28 NL  1B  610   15    0       4   - 5   14   1.7   19   33   4.1
1918  29 NL  1B  510   21    0       3   - 4   20   2.4   16   36   4.4
1919  30 NL  1B  560   15    0       4   - 5   14   1.7   17   32   3.9
1920  31 NL  1B  630   23    0       4   - 5   22   2.5   20   42   4.8
1921  32 NL  1B  650   37    0       4   - 6   35   3.5   20   55   5.6
1922  33 NL  1B  610   37    0       4   - 5   35   3.3   19   54   5.2
1923  34 NL  1B  640   31    0       4   - 6   29   2.8   20   49   4.8
1924  35 NL  1B  630   19    0       4   - 6   17   1.8   20   37   3.8
1925  36 NL  1B  540    3    0       3   - 5    2   0.2   17   18   1.8
1926  37 NL  1B  430    9    0       3   - 4    7   0.7   13   20   2.1
1927  38 NL  1B  410   10    0       3   - 4    8   0.8   13   21   2.2
1928  39 NL  1B  200    3    0       1   - 2    2   0.2    6    8   0.8
------------------------------------------------------------------------
               10320  349   -2      68   -86  330  35.7  322  651  71.6

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 16th 
Rbat: 42nd 
Rfield (first base only): 5th  
WAA: 39th
WAR: 26th

Taylor gains about 10 wins on Suttles through his glove, his durability, and his longevity. In addition, first base during most of his career was more defensively important than during Mule’s career, so he also picks up about 15 runs for his position. Throw in the deadball run-scoring context making his runs worth just a little more to his teams, and that’s how he erases a gap of 30 runs of batting value and turns it into a 10-WAR advantage over Suttles.

Broadly, this profile should feel very familiar: Long career, extreme durability, good bat, good glove, mild peak. If you said Eddie Murray and Rafael Palmeiro, you win our prize: The rest of this article. They each have an interesting third item in common: Baltimore. Murray famously played his best baseball in Charm City. Raffy spent seven seasons there and got his 3000th hit as an O. And Ben Taylor ended his career as a Baltimore Black Sox, also managing the team. He liked it so much that he made his home there, where he passed away at age 51.

Second Base

Frank Grant

Well, actually, we don’t have an MLE for Ulysses Franklin Grant. He was one of the earliest Blackball stars, and despite a showy 153 OPS+ at the Negro Leagues Database we have a total of 37 games and 169 plate appearances of data to work with. Granted they show a Nap Lajoiesque .347/.426/.490 slash line, but there’s simply too little starter dough to bake bread with. And we’d rather bake a loaf than pinch one.

What we can tell you is that Grant also played in the white minor leagues (note to readers: the picture on his BBREF page is of Fleet Walker, not Grant, himself). In the minors, his currently known record is impressive. It’s three seasons with averages of .331,  .346, and .333 in 1896, 1888, and 1890 respectively. His slugging percentages were .480, .530, and .460. He placed 4th in the 1886 international league in batting average and third in slugging (among players with 50 or more at-bats). That same year, he finished sixth in the Eastern League in hitting and sixth in slugging. In 1888, that .346 average rated sixth best in the International Association, his .530 SLG placed third. He finished second in homers and 10th in runs scored. In 1890, more of the same. He was sixth in batting and fifth in slugging in the Eastern Interstate League, leading it in homers and placing in the top ten in doubles, hits, and runs. He also pillaged and plundered the Atlantic Association. Ever heard this before? Fifth in hitting, with in slugging.

Those long-forgotten minor circuits weren’t without merit. They each featured future or former or would-again-be major leaguers (things were more fluid between the majors and minors at the time). Some of them also featured other talented blacks such as Sol White. Grant, himself, was always young for the league or on par. As blacks were increasingly unwelcome in organized baseball, he migrated to the proto-Negro Leagues and then the Negro Leagues. In all his career spanned his 1886 debut in the minors until at least 1907 when he wrapped up his known Negro Leagues career.

Grant reputedly wore wooden shinguards during some of his minor league games. As a second baseman, he was often at the site of contact with opposing baserunners, whose spikes too often came in too high. After baseball, he waited tables for 37 years.

In so far as Grant’s candidacy for the Hall of Miller and Eric is concerned, we’ll simply have to assess him through the historical narratives.

Special Guest: Jackie Robinson

With 1945 stats available now at The Negro Leagues Database we finally have all of Jackie Robinson’s seasons not only known but with all the context necessary to analyze them more fully.

You likely know already that Jackie was among the most complete players to grace the field. He did absolutely everything on the diamond well. And typically much better than well. As you’ll see just below, Robinson’s lack of experience playing high level baseball didn’t at all hamper him as he played his first professional games.

I don’t know if it’s possible, but Jackie Robinson the athlete and ballplayer may well be underrated by nearly all baseball watchers. The societal importance of his breaking the color line is so huge that it dwarfs what an amazing, multifaceted talent he was. Many people who grew up during my times consider Bo Jackson the epitome of athleticism. And Bo Jackson struggled to make himself into an average or good ballplayer. Jackie Robinson was great the moment he laced up his spikes for the 1945 season. His SABR bio provides some wider context for this argument. In high school and junior college he was a four-sport star: baseball, basketball, football, and track. At UCLA in 1940 and 1941, he was again a four-sport star. He averaged more than 11 yards per carry as a running back. With the roundball, he led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring two years straight. He won the NCAA’s national long-jump title. He also won swimming titles, nearly won tennis titles. Oh, and he played shortstop for the Bruins. By the time he picked up a glove again in 1945, he hadn’t regularly played baseball for three years and certainly not against top-level competition. The rust showed with the Kansas City Monarchs. He only managed to hit .384/.445/.606 in 111 PAs for a 207 OPS+.

Hey, look, maybe Bo Jackson was the greatest athlete ever. Real codgers might point to Jim Thorpe. Or maybe it’s someone else who’s come since. But for my money, no one tops Jackie Robinson. Was he as athletic as Bo or Thorpe? Well, physical ability is not the only thing that makes an athlete great. The smarts, the drive, the discipline to improve, and that innate something that helps people figure out how to play games well and adapt their brains and bodies to each sport are incredibly important. Jim Thorpe was a lousy baseball player. Bo Jackson was no Hall of Famer on the diamond (might have been on the gridiron, though). But Jackie was a no-doubt Hall of Famer even without his amazing contribution to American society.

Jackie Robinson
Negro Leagues Stats | Major League Stats | Minor League Stats | Bio
Career: 1945–1956
Destination: AL 1945–1956
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Hall of Stats, Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1945  26 NL  2B  570   32    3    0     8    5    48   5.0   18   66   6.9
1946  27 NL  2B  530   38    3    0     8    5    54   6.0   17   71   7.9
1947  28 NL  1B  643   13    1    0    -2   -7     6   0.6   26   31   3.1
1948  29 NL  2B  623   14    1    3     5    4    28   2.8   25   53   5.4
1949  30 NL  2B  661   48    6   -1    10    7    70   6.9   27   97   9.6
1950  31 NL  2B  614   34    2    1    10    7    53   5.1   23   76   7.5
1951  32 NL  2B  640   45    3    0    16    7    71   7.2   24   95   9.7
1952  33 NL  2B  625   40    5    0     6    7    57   6.0   24   81   8.5
1953  34 NL  LF  575   35    6    1    12   -3    51   4.8   22   73   7.0
1954  35 NL  LF  534   24    0   -2     0   -3    20   1.9   18   38   3.7
1955  36 NL  3B  446    1    5    2     5    0    13   1.1   15   28   2.6
1956  37 NL  3B  492    8    1    0    19    6    29   2.8   16   45   4.8
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                6953  332   36    4    97   36   500  50.2  255  754  76.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 157th 
Rbat: t-46th 
WAA: 18th  
WAR: 19th

Not to disrespect a guy who used fewer PA than 156 other people to pound out more value than all but 18 of them, but in any just universe, Robinson’s contributions look very different. By which I mean better. Of course, there’s the matter of his late entry into organized baseball, but setting that aside a moment, look at 1947 and 1948. Those are his worst two seasons from 1945 until 1953. Coincidence? I think not. Hard to image the unbelievable stress and grind of being the first, of enduring the hate spewed at him as well as the micro-aggressions. Without getting deep into a discussion of white privilege, as a caucasian, upper-middle-class male in 2017, I can’t imagine the background stress that African Americans face on a daily basis in my own time. Now transport all that to the wide open racial hostility of 1947, and Jackie must have aged three years for every one he lived.

It’s no stretch to say that Robinson faced a uniquely difficult situation in 1947. I tend to view the baseball world as full of highly adaptive individuals. Players aren’t robots, but one of the skills that the ladder of player development appears to select for is the ability to quiet the mind and body in high-pressure game situations. Jackie faced all of those, of course, just like everyone else. And on top of that faced a constant barrage of scrutiny and hate. Being the first means most folks are either rooting for you, waiting for you to fail, or hating on you. An entire multimillion-person bloc of society has its hopeful, expectant eyes on you. Your safety from spiking, beanballs, and other forms of foolish baseball intimidation is not guaranteed, and you must endure them and stand back up afterward and keep going. That’s not baseball in the normal sense. That’s not pressure in the normal baseball way.

So if his performance in 1947 and 1948 looks a little odd compared to the rest of his career, I think we can cut Jackie a break.

* * *

Next time out we’ll look at third base and John Beckwith, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, and Jud Wilson.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Evaluating Negro Leagues First Basemen and Second Basemen

  1. Great work guys…wanted to say rip to roy halladay but can’t find a player page, will you guys be planning a post for him? My prayers are with this family man’s extended family.

    Posted by Ryan | November 8, 2017, 8:14 am
  2. Don’t forget that Ben Taylor also pitched a little (the Database gives him 59 games with 21 starts). Also, didn’t Bud Fowler also play 2nd? He’s got the same problem as Frank Grant (playing Neolithic Baseball).
    Very nice series.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | November 8, 2017, 8:24 am

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