David Briggs: Move over Bonds and Gehrig, as Toledo’s Negro League greats reorder MLB record books – Yahoo News

Jun. 20—Anyone else catch the news last week that two former Toledo ballplayers officially joined the ranks of the best hitters in major league history?

Yep, it’s true.

If you consult Baseball Reference, no longer are the top five batters in career adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage — perhaps the best measure of offensive greatness — recorded as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, and Mike Trout (you’ll have to help me with the obscure names here).

Now, the list has been reordered, thanks to a pair of Hall of Famers from the Negro Leagues, both of whom played for clubs in Toledo. Oscar Charleston, a rubber-burning, rawhide-scalding center fielder who was Willie Mays before Willie Mays, moved past Bonds for the third-highest mark, while slugger Turkey Stearnes nudged ahead of Trout.

The update came after Major League Baseball’s welcome recent move to grant big league status to the seven professional Negro Leagues that played between 1920 and 1948. Baseball Reference, the go-to statistical database, unveiled the recalculated leaderboard on Tuesday, replete with the Glass City twist.

In fact, no two players accounted for more movement than Charleston and Stearnes, who played for the Toledo Crawfords in 1939 and the Toledo Cubs in 1945, respectively. Charleston, for instance, is now second only to Ty Cobb in career batting average (.364), fifth in on-base percentage (.449), and sixth in slugging percentage (.614).

Pretty cool, no?

“That’s fantastic,” Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said the other day. “For a baseball history and Toledo history nerd like me, it gives me another thing to brag on Toledo about.”

I bring this up today because, for one, hey, I want to brag on the city, too!

Also, in a perfect bit of timing, the new-look record books arrived just as community leaders prepared to take their own look back on Toledo’s segregation-era baseball past.

On Saturday, the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues, along with our city’s place on the famed circuits.

The event was supposed to take place last year before the pandemic had other ideas. But better late than never — the regrettable subtext of baseball history itself — the Legacy Project made sure the centennial received its proper due on Juneteenth.

In a ceremony outside the organization’s home on the corner of Dorr and Collingwood, a lineup of civic officials — including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Kapszukiewicz, and Ohio Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson — and local sports greats came together for the unveiling of a roadside marker commemorating Toledo’s three former Negro League teams.

They were: the Toledo Tigers in 1923, the Crawfords in 1939, and the Cubs in 1945.

Robert Smith, the inexhaustible founder of the nonprofit Legacy Project, said he can’t wait for the first time a curious driver sees the historic marker on Dorr Street and pulls off the road.

“I want to be there when that first person says, ‘Hey, let’s go read that marker. Hey, let’s get a picture with it,'” Smith told me. “When that happens, I will be in baseball heaven.”

What a story he’ll have to tell.

To the extent most people know of Toledo’s hardball ties to African-American history, it’s because of Moses Fleetwood Walker.

In 1884, as a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, Walker became the first Black player to play in the major leagues, breaking the color barrier 63 years before Jackie Robinson did so with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

His landmark season during Toledo’s lone year in the big leagues has gotten a lot of — and yet not nearly enough — ink.

But, of course, the Glass City’s pioneering heritage does not end there.

It also includes its ties to the Negro Leagues, and, yes, the major leagues.

See that mistake three sentences above about Toledo’s solitary season in the majors? It will be the last time we make it. Officially, Toledo’s lineage now includes three big league teams, with the Tigers and Crawfords joining the club. (Technically, the Cubs played in what was recognized at the time as a minor league.)

Not that any validation was required, one way or the other.

While the color barrier that stretched from the late 19th century through 1947 kept Black players from achieving major league fame, there was nothing minor about the Negro Leagues. Just the opposite, they were filled with many of the game’s towering talents, including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell. (You’ve heard the folklore. Bell was so fast he could flip off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark.)

“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations, and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”

And to think no shortage of these greats came through Toledo.

No season was more memorable than 1939, when none other than the renowned Pittsburgh Crawfords moved to town.

The Crawfords had once boasted a who’s who of superstars — Gibson, Paige, Bell, and Charleston, to name a few — and won Negro National League titles in ’35 and ’36. After the second championship, Gibson, Paige, and many of their teammates set off for the Dominican Republic in search of a bigger payday, heralding a plunge at the gates and the end of the franchise in Pittsburgh.

On its last legs, the club moved to Toledo for a season, then Indianapolis for another, before folding.

Still, while the team that arrived here in 1939 hardly resembled the Crawfords of yore, it’s easy to imagine the magic of that summer at Swayne Field, the double-decked park on the corner of Monroe and Detroit.

There, the hometown fans got to see Gibson, who hit some 800 career home runs and once melted a ball clear out of Yankee Stadium, visit with the Homestead Grays, and Paige pass through with a team of barnstorming all stars, to say nothing of Charleston, the most prominent link to the great Crawfords teams of the past.

By then, Charleston was the team’s 42-year-old manager. But, on occasion, he continued to suit up, batting .283 with a homer in 14 games.

You could say he added to a story that history took from there.

“As of this week, we as Toledoans can proudly know that the third-best all-around baseball player in the history of pro baseball played in Toledo, Ohio,” Kapszukiewicz told the crowd Saturday, a nod to Charleston’s career OPS. “That history is important, not because of who Oscar Charleston was or the great statistics he put forward. It’s because of what keeping his memory alive can inspire other generations to do. That’s why days like this are so important.”

First Published June 19, 2021, 6:06pm