Rawlings Sporting Goods Company and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum recently honored some of the greatest defensive players in the Negro Leagues with commemorative Gold Glove Awards at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Former Major League Baseball standouts Ozzie Smith and Frank White announced the names of nine Negro League players selected for the awards.
The nine special Gold Glove awards went to pitcher Leon Day, catcher Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, first baseman Walter “Buck” Leonard, second baseman Newton “Newt” Allen, shortstop Willie Wells, third baseman Ray Dandridge, and outfielders James “Cool Papa” Bell, Martin Dihigo and Oscar Charleston. An honorary award was presented in memory of Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil. The awards will be on permanent display at the NLBM.
Walter “Buck” Leonard
Leonard is regarded by many experts to be the greatest first baseman in baseball history. He was the steadying influence behind the great Homestead Grays teams of the ’30s and ’40s. Leonard was often called the “Black Lou Gehrig,” although most considered him a better fielder than his New York Yankee counterpart. Leonard was a smooth fielding first baseman with great range. He was sure-handed, with a strong and accurate arm and a smart ball player. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Allen was considered the best second baseman during the 1920s and early ’30s. He was the defensive glue for some great Kansas City Monarchs teams. He had great range, quick hands and a strong arm.
“Newt had a shortstop’s arm,” said Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil.
Wells dazzled with his glove at shortstop where he oftentimes made acrobatic plays look easy. After a brief stint with the San Antonio Black Aces, the Austin, Texas, native joined the St. Louis Stars in 1923 and was the catalyst behind the Star’s championships in 1928, ’29, ’30 and ’31.
Wells had great range, sure hands and an accurate arm. While other shortstops may have had a stronger arm, he compensated with a quick release and smart positioning based on his study of opposing hitters. Buck O’Neil on Wells: “He was Ozzie Smith before we knew who Ozzie Smith was.” Wells was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
“There has never been a more masterful third baseman than Ray Dandridge,” say Negro Leagues historian and author, Jim Riley. Dandridge, who played for a number of Negro League teams over his 16-year career, was a fixture at third for the Newark Eagles. Dandridge made the most difficult plays look easy. He had great range, quick hands and a powerful arm and is often regarded as “the greatest third baseman to never play in the Major Leagues.” Dandridge was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
James Thomas Bell
He is regarded as the fastest man to ever play the game. James “Cool Papa” Bell was one of the Negro Leagues marquee players. His career started in 1922 with the St. Louis Stars as a pitcher but later moved to the outfield after hurting his arm. Although Bell was known for his great speed on the base paths and giving the opposing pitchers a hard way to go with stealing bases and running out base hits, he was a tremendous defensive player. Bell played a shallow outfield and used his speed to make up for the pitcher’s mistakes. Bell was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
He was known as the “Hoosier Comet.” Charleston’s Black baseball career started with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915 and is regarded by many to be the greatest all-around player in baseball history. His combination of great range, good hands, strong arm and outstanding baseball instincts were unsurpassed. Ben Taylor, a former teammate of Charleston called Charleston “the greatest outfielder that ever lived…greatest of all colors. He can cover more ground than any man I have ever seen. His judging of fly balls borders on the uncanny.” Charleston played for the Philadelphia Stars in 1941. He also played for Hilldale in 1928 and 1929. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
Cuba’s Martin Dihigo is the most versatile player in baseball history. And, while his Gold Glove honor comes as an outfielder, Dihigo played all nine positions and played them very well. Dihigo was the only player to make the list of finalists in two positions: pitcher and outfielder. Dihigo was 6-foot-4 with great range, speed and a powerful arm. He played for a number of Negro League teams such as the Cuban Stars, New York Cubans and Hilldale Giants (1929, 1930–31). He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
Raleigh “Biz” Mackey
Mackey showcased his great catching skills for 11 teams during his three-decade Black baseball career. He possessed defensive skills that were sensational. At 6-foot-2, 220-pounds, he was a big but incredibly agile target. He masterfully handled his pitching staff but it was his powerful and extremely accurate throwing arm that was in a league of its own. As historian Jim Riley noted, “Mackey could snap a throw to second from a squatting position and get it there harder, quicker, and with more accuracy than most catchers can standing up. Mackey played for the Hilldale and Darby Daisies (1923–1931). He also played for the Philadelphia Stars (1933–35). He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Day rivaled Martin Dihigo as one of the game’s most versatile baseball players and is one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball history. Day played every position except for catcher. When he wasn’t pitching, he often played second base or centerfield. In 1941, while playing for the Newark Eagles, Day left the pitching rotation to play second base where he and Monte Irvin formed one of the Negro Leagues most formidable double play combinations. Day was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.
A special panel that included Negro Leagues legend Monte Irvin, historians, journalists and Bob Kendrick, NLBM president had the difficult task of choosing the all-time Gold Glove team.