Editor’s note: I’m pleased to reintroduce “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” as a regular Tuesday feature here. I previously wrote the column weekly for about a year before taking a hiatus in June.
Claim to fame: Black baseball had its kingpins. First there was Rube Foster, a gifted pitcher who organized the first black professional baseball circuit in 1920. Then came Cum Posey who built the Homestead Grays into a powerhouse that won nine straight pennants in the the late ’20s and early ’30s. But Foster suffered a mental breakdown and died young, and Posey couldn’t maintain his level of success. He was unseated by Gus Greenlee, a Pittsburgh-area numbers king and nightclub owner who raided Posey’s roster for stars like Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Satchel Paige, among others. Greenlee’s resulting Pittsburgh Crawfords are perhaps the greatest team for talent in the history of black baseball.
Aside from this, Greenlee founded black baseball’s version of the All Star Game in 1933, formed the second incarnation of Foster’s Negro National League that same year, and erected the first black-built and operated ballpark, Greenlee Field. Greenlee was also a noted philanthropist and aided Major League Baseball’s integration with his help launching a black professional circuit that gave Branch Rickey his subterfuge to scout Jackie Robinson. But Greenlee differs from Foster and Posey in at least one significant respect. While Foster and Posey have both been elected to Cooperstown in recent years, Foster in 1981 and Posey in a special election in 2006, Greenlee didn’t even make the final ballot for the latter election.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Greenlee, like his bitter rival Posey was one of 94 candidates selected by a screening committee in 2005, ahead of the 2006 special election. Posey and 38 others made the final two ballots, and in February 2006, Posey and 16 others (including fellow owners J.L. Wilkinson, Alex Pompez, and Effa Manley) were enshrined. That Greenlee rated such minimal consideration seems suspect, if not outright unjust.
Why: For better or worse, Greenlee was black baseball in the 1930s, assembling the greatest black baseball team money could buy by offering more money than Posey and doing things like paying his player’s salaries during spring training, a rare feat in black baseball. Sure, some of the means to Greenlee’s ends are questionable, and he lost his spot in baseball at the end of the ’30s in part because of rumors he fixed a game in 1936. Still, the Hall of Fame has honored some nefarious characters before who did less for the game than Greenlee.
Is Greenlee’s Cooperstown candidacy anything more than a longshot? I doubt it, at least at this point. His reign at the top was probably too short, about half a decade, and baseball in general could do a better job honoring its owners, with Charlie Finley a candidate on this year’s Veterans Committee ballot and George Steinbrenner and Jacob Ruppert among others not enshrined. I’d venture, though, that all of those men have higher profiles than Greenlee, who died in 1952 and seems a largely forgotten man today. That’s a shame.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? will relaunch on a weekly basis the first Tuesday after the postseason ends.
Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Curt Flood, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly,Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Harry Dalton, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker,Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning,Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito,Roger Maris, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey,Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Tony Oliva, Will Clark