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Black History Month: Ranking the top sluggers

Black History Month: Ranking the top sluggers

Black History Month: Ranking the top sluggers
In a salute to Black History Month, MLB.com posed the following question to a panel of 15 respected historians and baseball experts: Who are the top five black sluggers in the history of professional baseball?

Dave Winfield knows plenty about hitting home runs. He should, of course. A Hall of Famer who hit 465 homers in his Major League career, Winfield understands as well as anyone what the standard should be for judging who deserves to make the list.

"I would think all the home-run hitters on the list were five-tool players," said Winfield, himself a five-tool player. "Who was on the list? Aaron, Mays, Bonds."

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Winfield's guess was a good one. It would be difficult to leave Henry Aaron, Willie Mays or Barry Bonds off anybody's list of the five greatest, but it would also be difficult to ignore Josh Gibson, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks or a dozen more sluggers whose skills fell into the four- or three-tool category.

Greatness is in the eye of the beholder, which became apparent when the question about the greatest black slugger was put to the experts.

"This is an interesting project," said Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "It is something that I have studied a little bit and that I lecture on when explaining the impact of integration. Of the 25 members of the 500 home-run club, 15 of them are black or Latino."

The club, however, doesn't include players from the Negro Leagues. So how do you account for the anecdotal tales about Gibson, Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles and other sluggers from the segregated days of baseball?

Which home-run hitters belong in top five? And who should sit at the top -- Aaron, Gibson or Jackson?

Here's the result of the panel's vote:

5. Oscar Charleston, Negro Leagues
Sadaharu Oh, the great slugger from Japan, once described the home run like this: "There is nothing I know quite like meeting a ball in exactly the right spot. As the ball makes its high, long arc beyond the playing field, the diamond and the stands suddenly belong to one man."

The home run, indeed, puts the spotlight on one man, and Charleston basked in its glow. People who saw him play or chronicled his Negro Leagues career have referred to him as the "Black Babe Ruth."

Charleston is widely considered the greatest player in the history of black baseball. He was, as Winfield said, a five-tool player.

No concrete records exist on how many home runs Charleston hit, but if he was, indeed, comparable to The Babe, he hit plenty. The oral history, especially the stories told by the legendary Buck O'Neil, solidifies Charleston's place on the list, said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

"... When Buck told me that Charleston had the same kind of power as Ruth, then he needs to be on the list," Kendrick said. "His ability to do everything often overshadowed his ability to hit home runs. He led the Negro Leagues in home runs a couple of times."

Voting panel
Adrian Burgos, professor of history at the University of Illinois and writer who is an authority on Latinos and blacks in baseball.
Brian Carroll, history professor at Berry College and an authority on the Negro Leagues.
Dick Clarke, historian who has written extensively about the Negro Leagues.
Raymond Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Leslie Heaphy, history professor at Kent State who has written extensively about the Negro Leagues and women in baseball.
Chuck Johnson, veteran sports commentator and sportswriter who covered Major League Baseball for more than two decades for USA Today.
Bob Kendrick, chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Larry Lester, writer and historian who is one of the most respected sources on black baseball.
Chris Murray, veteran baseball writer and 2008 winner of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's Sam Lacy Award for his writing.
Jim Overmyer, historian who has written extensively about the Negro Leagues.
James A. Riley, one of the foremost authorities on black baseball who has written extensively about a variety of baseball topics.
Rob Ruck, lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and a historian who writes extensively about professional baseball teams from Pittsburgh.
Zach Swartz, 24-year-old graduate student in sports management at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Swartz studied baseball history at Ohio University.
John Thorn, writer and official historian for Major League Baseball.
Branson Wright, sportswriter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, a radio commentator and a fledgling documentarian.

No one turned Charleston's last name into an adjective that's becomes a part of the American lexicon, but he might well have been as "Ruthian" a figure had he been allowed to play in the Majors.

"Oscar Charleston, you look at him, he's more of a slugging percentage, extra-base hits [player] rather than just home runs," said historian James A. Riley, whose book, "The Negro Leagues Encyclopedia," might be the seminal work on black baseball. "A lot of that was because of the era. In the 1920s and '30s, there were more extra-base hits and not as many home runs."

By comparing a hitter to Babe Ruth, you know his credentials for being on this list are legitimate.

4. Barry Bonds, Pirates and Giants
The most controversial of the players selected, Bonds had a career as a slugger that made keeping him off the list impossible, said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois who is an authority on the Negro Leagues and Latin American baseball.

Bonds holds the two most sacred home-run records: most in a career (762) and most in a season (73).

What hurt him among some on the panel is his association with performance-enhancing drugs -- he was found guilty of obstruction of justice for grand-jury testimony he gave in a steroids investigation. What Bonds' legacy will be remains a question without an answer. Some believe he'll get his due; others say he won't, which is why they steered clear of putting his name on their lists.

Still, his records stand. A five-tool player early in his career, Bonds had slugging stats between 2000-04 that resembled what a fan might see in an elite softball league.

"I'm biased against the 'steroids era' and, in general, I discount what those players did," Riley said. "But Bonds' approach to hitting I compared to Ted Williams'. Bonds wasn't all artificial. He was a thinker; he knew what he was doing.

"If they hadn't walked him so much, who knows what his home-run numbers would be?"

In his best years, Bonds put more fat of a bat on fastballs than anyone in history. He was the most feared home-run threat in the game, garnering headlines and controversy everywhere. One man standing alone, as Oh put it, was a portrait of Bonds.

Was he heroic, iconic or a pariah? The question is one that historians like Riley will debate deep into the game's future.

In making a case for Bonds, baseball historian Jim Overmyer said he concentrated on the statistics.

"With so many candidates, I started off with some statistical rankings, which turned out to pretty much drive the selection process, in addition to just winnowing the list," Overmyer said. "Every one of these guys has some serious anecdotes and mythology attached to his hitting, but I was looking for something more concrete."

3. Willie Mays, Giants and Mets
His "Say Hey Kid" spirit often masked his talent as a baseball slugger. But Mays hit homers aplenty in an era when pitchers held the upper hand.

For the better part of his exceptional career, Mays was arguably the best ballplayer on the planet, a five-tool performer who captivated fans with his spectacular play.

A "hot dog" ... that's what many fans called Mays for his basket catches and for his baserunning derring-do.

"As many debates in the baseball world are, I tried to settle this one by looking at stats as much as possible," said Zach Swartz, a grad student in sports management at the University of Arkansas. "Having said that, I believe that a lot of what makes a great slugger great is outside of the box score.

"Things like swagger, performance in the clutch, causing fear in opposing pitchers, the ability to make whoever is watching you on TV or at the game not want to leave their seat every time you come to the plate, length of home runs, even looks -- that all goes into it."

Swartz also took a "Next Generation" look at slugging. He sifted through statistics and put together a spreadsheet. He found numbers that meshed with the swagger side of baseball. In the 1950s and '60s, no ballplayer had more swagger and better numbers than Willie Mays.

As feared a slugger as baseball had ever seen, he finished his big league career with 660 homers, and Riley said Mays once told him he would have broken Ruth's career record of 714 homers if not for the almost two seasons he lost early in his career to military service during the Korean War.

"If you give him those two years, he probably would have broken Ruth's record," Riley said. "It depended on how quickly he matured, because in the military, he matured. You look at him as a rookie in '51 and as a superstar in '54, and in those two years, what might Mays have done?"

2. Josh Gibson, Negro Leagues
Larry Lester, one of the most respected baseball historians, considers Gibson "the most storied and most prolific slugger of his era."

"In today's power-conscious game, no player has beaten the Bronx canyon, but some say Gibson did," Lester said. "If old Yankee Stadium was the House that Ruth Built, then Gibson was certainly the landlord."

More seemingly tall tales have been told about Gibson than anyone not named Satchel Paige. Even the stories of Gibson's power are Ruthian-like.

How tall were the tales? Here's part of a story the late historian John W. Peterson wrote about Gibson in "Only the Ball Was White."

"One day during the 1930s, the Pittsburgh Crawfords were playing at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where their young catcher, Josh Gibson, hit the ball so high and so far that no one saw it come down. After scanning the sky carefully for a few minutes, the umpire deliberated and ruled it a home run. The next day the Crawfords were playing in Philadelphia, when suddenly a ball dropped out of the heavens and was caught by the startled center fielder on the opposing club. The umpire made the only possible ruling. Pointing to Gibson, he shouted, "Yer out -- yesterday in Pittsburgh!"

The folklore doesn't trump the reality, of course. But there's no question that the absence of Major League at-bats hurt Gibson's standing in the eyes of sophisticated observers.

"People like to have records that they can chew," said John Thorn, official historian for Major League Baseball. "Josh Gibson's records are largely the product of reconstructive statistics."

Reconstructive statistics, yes, but the observations of those such as O'Neil filled in the blanks.

The late Negro Leaguer, who used to crisscross the country flushing out the legacy of Gibson, Paige, Charleston and others with colorful recollections, often told audiences he heard thunder come from Gibson's bat. No slugger in the Negro Leagues drove baseballs farther than Gibson did, O'Neil said.

How powerful was he?

Lester's research put the slugging power of Gibson in perspective.

"In 1943, he gave joyrides to 10 baseballs out of the spacious Griffith Stadium in the nation's capital, more than all the American League sluggers combined for in 77 games that season," Lester said.

1. Hank Aaron, Braves and Brewers
Ask most baseball fans, and they will tell you the Major League record that matters most is the career mark for home runs.

For nearly a half-century, the mark belonged to Ruth. It was Aaron's for more than 32 years.

During his career, "Hammerin' Hank" had a hard-enough time simply getting public acceptance for his holding the record. Aaron wasn't in the word business, though. His business was the long ball.

He was a better hitter than any of the candidates. That was the consensus among the historians.

Unlike the mercurial Bonds, Aaron had no taint on his production of 755 homers. Not a hulk of a man like Winfield, Gibson, Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell, Aaron used strong, quick wrists to generate his power. He had a slim build, but he could punish a baseball with a flick of his wrists.

The reserved Aaron seemed reluctant to stand on center stage and trumpet his greatness. Perhaps that's the reason his talent is often under-appreciated.

Aaron's chase of 714 home runs thrust him into the spotlight, and in a era before 24/7 news cycles, he got more scrutiny in late 1973 and early 1974 than he had for the bulk of his career.

Aaron forced fans and observers to look at him with a more discerning eye, said Chris Murray, a sportswriter in Philadelphia and 2007 winner of The Sam Lacy Legacy Awards for his coverage of baseball. They liked what they saw. Aaron showed he was a common man with an uncommon skill: the ability to hit baseballs a long way.

"He was one of the most complete sluggers in the history of the game," Murray said. "Not only did he hit home runs, but he was a run producer."

Murray remembered a PBS series during which Hall of Famer Don Drysdale and a couple other pitchers were sitting and talking about how to get great hitters out.

"Aaron's name came out," Murray said. "There was like complete silence. Someone said, 'Just make sure no one's on base when he comes to bat.'"

Justice B. Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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