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Negro Leagues

Evaluating More Negro Leagues Centerfielders, Part I

[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]

And so we’ve reached centerfield. We’re ready to play. Today. Lots of depth in the Negro Leagues in centerfield, as we’ll be seeing over the next few weeks. In this outing we’ll start with a few guys who might not be household names, but are pretty good players anyway. We’ll get to some interesting names in subsequent posts. Speaking of interesting, if you love things like watching paint dry, we suggest taking a gander at Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters, after which you’ll know where our estimates come from.

Bernardo Baró

Kind of a sad story this one. Baró was a tough case, high-strung and prone to nasty, often violent, outbursts. On the field, it appears the 5’6″ lefty had doubles power, a dash of speed, and just enough range to hang in center. Maybe a lesser version of Edd Roush, if I had to put a guess on it.

Baró’s career ran into a snag in 1924. He sustained a compound fracture of his ankle while chasing down a foul fly. His speed diminished when he returned in 1925 after missing much of the previous season following surgery on his leg. He went to first base for a little while then out to right field where he finished his career.

During the 1929 season, Baró suffered a “mental collapse,” which James Riley reports included a straightjacketing. He recovered enough to return for 1930, but retired part way through the year. In June he died in his native Cuba at the age of 34. He was elected posthumously to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bernardo Baró
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1915–1930
Destination: NL 1915–1930
Missing data: 1929–1930
Honors: Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame

Year Age Lg Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos   RAA  WAA Rrep RAR  WAR
=============================================================================
1915  19  NL RF   170    2    0    - 1     - 2     0  -0.1    5    5   0.6 
1916  20  NL LF   230    8    0    - 3     - 3     3   0.4    7   10   1.3
1917  21  NL LF   530    6    1    - 6     - 6   - 5  -0.6   17   12   1.5  
1918  22  NL CF   380    2    1      0     - 2     1   0.1   12   12   1.5
1919  23  NL CF   490  - 1    1      0     - 3   - 4  -0.5   15   11   1.4
1920  24  NL CF   520   16    1      0     - 3    14   0.5   16   30   3.4
1921  25  NL CF   580   29    1      0     - 3    27   0.0   18   45   4.6
1922  26  NL CF   550   41    1      0     - 3    39   1.2   17   56   5.3
1923  27  NL CF   530   15    1      0     - 3    13   0.9   17   29   2.9
1924  28  NL 1B   140    5    0      0     - 1     4   0.4    4    8   0.8
1925  29  NL 1B   560  - 3    1      0     - 5   - 8   1.4   17   10   1.0
1926  30  NL RF   560  - 1    1    - 4     - 5   -10   1.6   17    8   0.8
1927  31  NL RF   550  - 4    1    - 4     - 5   -12   2.8   17    5   0.6
1928  32  NL RF   520    4    1    - 3     - 5   - 4   0.8   16   12   1.3
1929  33  NL RF   300    4    0    - 2     - 3     0   1.1    9    9   0.9
1930  34  NL RF   200    4    0    - 1     - 2     1   0.9    6    7   0.6
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 6810  129    9    -25     -55    58   5.6  212  270  28.5

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 166th 
Rbat: 202nd
WAA: 367th
WAR: 250th

You can really see how badly Baró’s ankle injury affected his performance. Sadly he had basically come into his own and his peak and prime likely lay ahead, but the injury shattered not only his leg but his career.

Jerry Benjamin

This little spark-plug of a player patrolled centerfield for the long Homestead Grays dynasty. Unlike, say, his teammates Josh Gibson or Buck Leonard, Benjamin’s game played up in the difficult Grays home parks of Forbes Field and Griffith Stadium. At 5’9″ and 165 pounds, Benjamin had outstanding speed, which he put to use on both sides of the ball. Playing many home games in parks known for suppressing homers and increasing triples, his speed gave him additional extra-base power and the ability cut down on opponents’ extra bases.

Benjamin didn’t excel at any one aspect of batting, but he translates as a couple runs better than average a year. His walk rate was not unusually high, and while he wasn’t a pushover at the plate, he didn’t hit a lot of homers. He appears to have picked up about a run a year above average in the field and may have had more baserunning value than batting value. He also had a knack for staying in the lineup. Altogether, it’s a good package, and a fine complementary player who ably supported the big wheels in the order and on the mound.

Jerry Benjamin
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1933–1948
Destination: NL 1933–1948
Missing data: 1934, 1948
Year Age Lg Pos  PA  Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA  WAA  Rrep RAR  WAR
================================================================================
1933  23 NL  CF   460    5     2     0     1     -1     6   0.6   14   20   2.3
1934  24 NL  CF   500    3     2     0     1     -1     4   0.4   16   20   2.0
1935  25 NL  CF   630    4     2     0     1     -2     5   0.5   20   25   2.5
1936  26 NL  CF   640    4     2     0     1     -2     6   0.6   20   26   2.6
1937  27 NL  CF   630    2     2     0     1     -2     3   0.3   20   23   2.4
1938  28 NL  CF   610    2     2     0     1     -1     3   0.4   19   22   2.4
1939  29 NL  CF   590  - 7     2     0     1     -1   - 5  -0.6   18   13   1.4
1940  30 NL  CF   590    0     2     0     1     -1     2   0.2   18   20   2.2
1941  31 NL  CF   620  - 2     2     0     1     -1     0   0.0   19   19   2.1
1942  32 NL  CF   610  - 1     2     0     1     -1     1   0.2   19   20   2.4
1943  33 NL  CF   500   10     2     0     1     -1    11   1.3   16   27   3.1
1944  34 NL  CF   440    5     2     0     1     -1     7   0.7   14   20   2.2
1945  35 NL  CF   390    5     1     0     0     -1     6   0.6   12   18   1.9
1946  36 NL  CF   310  - 2     1     0     0      0   - 1  -0.1   10    9   1.1
1947  37 NL  CF   220  - 3     1     0     0      0   - 2  -0.2    7    5   0.5
1948  38 NL  CF   140  - 1     0     0     0      0     0   0.0    4    4   0.5
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 7880   24    28     0    10    -17    46   4.9  246  291  31.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 93rd   
Rbat: t-539th
WAA: t-397th 
WAR: 224th

The structure of Benjamin’s value reminds me of a better-fielding version of Denard Span or Al Bumbry without all the planning early in his career. That’s a really nice player to have in, say, 1943 when your roster is studded with big names like Gibson and Leonard as well as first rate players such as Howard Easterling, Sam Bankhead, late-career versions of Cool Papa Bell, Jud Wilson, and Vic Harris, and a strong pitching staff that includes Ray Brown, Johnny Wright, Roy Partlow, and Edsall Walker. Truly great teams are usually great not merely because they have big-time players but also because up and down the roster, their players are average or above. Benjamin is exactly the kind of reliable, skilled player that a smart GM would put around his stars to lengthen the roster and go from good to great.

Gene Benson

In terms of how they built their value, Benson is cut from the same mold as Jerry Benjamin. But they have one key difference: They swapped baserunning for fielding. Benson doesn’t appear to be much on the bases. Then again, he played most of his career for the Philadelphia Stars whose stolen base totals are consistently underreported. Benjamin’s baserunning exploits were more frequently reported. However, the difference between Benson’s and Benjamin’s gloves almost exactly offsets the different in their legs.

Benson is usually noted for two things. First, that he showed Jackie Robinson the ropes on a winter barnstorming tour of South America, giving the integrator-to-be encouragement and confidence boosts while also helping him understand the baseball life a little better. Second, Benson’s reputation as an outstanding defensive outfielder included the basket catch, which Willie Mays would make truly famous in 1954.

As best I can tell, every source agrees that Benson retired at age 34 after the 1948 season. I don’t know precisely why. Was he injured? Had he lost a few steps? Or did Integration change his outlook on baseball? Maybe someone out there knows. I sure don’t.

Gene Benson
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1934–1948
Destination: NL 1934–1948
Missing data: 1935-1936, 1948
Year Age Lg  Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA  Rrep  RAR  WAR
===========================================================================
1934  20 NL  CF  320    1    0    0     2   - 1     2   0.2   10   12   1.2
1935  21 NL  CF  540    3  - 1    0     3   - 1     3   0.3   17   20   2.1
1936  22 NL  CF  600    2  - 1    0     3   - 2     3   0.3   19   21   2.2
1937  23 NL  CF  580  - 4  - 1    0     3   - 2   - 3  -0.3   18   15   1.6
1938  24 NL  CF  610  - 9  - 1    0     3   - 1   - 8  -0.8   19   11   1.2
1939  25 NL  CF  620  - 1  - 1    0     3   - 1     0   0.0   19   20   2.1
1940  26 NL  CF  610    1  - 1    0     3   - 1     2   0.2   19   21   2.2
1941  27 NL  CF  550    0  - 1    0     3   - 1     1   0.1   17   18   2.0
1942  28 NL  CF  590  - 7  - 1    0     3   - 1   - 5  -0.6   18   13   1.6
1943  29 NL  CF  600    5  - 1    0     3   - 1     7   0.8   19   25   2.9
1944  30 NL  CF  610    7  - 1    0     3   - 1     9   1.0   19   28   3.1
1945  31 NL  CF  600   14  - 1    0     3   - 1    16   1.6   19   34   3.6
1946  32 NL  CF  560   18  - 1    0     3   - 1    19   2.2   17   37   4.2
1947  33 NL  CF  560    9  - 1    0     3   - 1    10   1.1   17   28   2.9
1948  34 NL  CF  300    3    0    0     2   - 0     4   0.4    9   14   1.4
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                8250   42  -12    0    46   -16    60   6.4  257  317  34.2

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: t-76th   
Rbat: t-444th
WAA: t-336th  
WAR: 193rd

Gene Benson appears to serve exactly the same kind of function as Jerry Benjamin on a championship roster: He’s a highly skilled supporting cast member. We show a very flat rendition of players in our MLEs. Peaks are smoothed over, runs for skills-based abilities like running and fielding are allocated evenly over time, and playing time is fairly evenly distributed as well. Bro when I look at a guy like Benson, I can’t help of think about Garry Maddox or players like him. Guys who could really go get it in centerfield, and who also could occasionally cough up a decent offensive season. If Benson turns out to be faster and a better baserunner than our current data can reveal, then Maddox with a little less glove and a little more bat would be a pretty good modern-day comp.

Irvin Brooks

Alright, now seriously. Be honest. Raise your hand if you knew anything about Irvin Brooks before you started reading this article. I see one, two hands (thank you, Gary and Kevin). Otherwise, I don’t know if I believe you. This fellow had flown completely under my personal radar (not that it’s especially well tuned), and he turns out to be one of the little discoveries that makes this project fun.

Hailing originally from Key West, Brooks eventually made his way north where at age 26, he fell into a starting role with the Brooklyn Royal Giants that would last until his early forties. Brooks could hit and appears a little above average in the field. We’re showing him as a centerfielder. DRA suggests he was a little above average in centerfield, and although he spent time in right field and elsewhere, we thought in an MLB content, he would appear at the most difficult fielding position he could handle. Which it so happens is centerfield.

Brooks had a little pop in his bat and eventually learned to take some walks. He’s a 126 OPS+ hitter according to the Negro Leagues Database and checks in with 118 Rbat from us.

Irvin Brooks is sometimes listed as Chester, which may create confusion. Irvin was his given name and Chester his middle name per the Negro Leagues Database.

Irvin Brooks
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1917–1933
Destination: NL 1917–1930
Missing data: 1927, 1929, 1932
Year Age Lg Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA  Rrep  RAR  WAR
======================================================================
1917  26 NL  CF  510  - 5    0     1   - 3   - 8  -1.0   16    8   1.0
1918  27 NL  CF  430  -12    0     1   - 2   -15  -1.8   13  - 1  -0.1
1919  28 NL  CF  480    4    0     1   - 3     2   0.2   15   17   2.1
1920  29 NL  CF  540   15  - 1     1   - 3    12   1.4   17   29   3.3
1921  30 NL  CF  550   41  - 1     1   - 3    39   3.9   17   56   5.7
1922  31 NL  CF  560   29  - 1     1   - 3    27   2.5   17   44   4.2
1923  32 NL  CF  220   12    0     0   - 1    11   1.0    7   17   1.7
1924  33 NL  CF  510   12    0     1   - 3    10   1.0   16   26   2.7
1925  34 NL  CF  450    5    0     1   - 2     3   0.3   14   17   1.6
1926  35 NL  CF  450    2    0     1   - 3     0   0.0   14   14   1.5
1927  36 NL  CF  340    5    0     1   - 2     4   0.4   11   14   1.5
1928  37 NL  CF  250    1    0     0   - 1   - 1  -0.1    8    7   0.7
1929  38 NL  CF  250    5    0     0   - 1     4   0.4    8   12   1.1
1930  39 NL  CF  110    3    0     0     0     3   0.3    3    6   0.6
----------------------------------------------------------------------
                5650  118  - 5     9   -31    91   8.5  176  267  27.5

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 294th   
Rbat: 214th
WAA: t-290th  
WAR: 263rd

Couple things. First, you can plainly see that 1923 is something of a dividing point. Brooks broke an ankle, and it’s clear that he couldn’t return to his previous level of production. Second, Brooks kicked off at 26. Supposedly Rube Foster found him in a spin down south (probably in the Florida Hotel League). I see a lot of discoveries attributed during that time to Foster. He had a strong nose for talent, which fueled the success of his teams. It’s interesting to see that Brooks had some trouble adjusting to top-level pitching after coming north. Were he a white man, Brooks would likely have been discovered long before, and the apprenticeship he served in 1917 and 1918 would have come in the white minors at ages 20 and 21 or thereabouts. It’s pretty easy to imagine three to five years of higher level play on Brooks’ resume were he on the more fortunate side of the color line.

* * *

Next week, we trot out the guy Irvin Brooks replaced in the Brooklyn lineup, a guy who may be known to readers of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, and Sam “Jet” Jethroe.

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