At Banished to the Pen I wrote a series of articles on the Negro Leagues. I’m continuing that series on this site. There won’t be any special titles or sub-headings. Expect to see more Negro League articles though, those leagues and players are a passion of mine and I am happy to bring my work on that era to this site. Most, if not all, stats are from the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.
A lot has been written over the years about the best major league team to ever take the field. Is if the 1927 New York Yankees with their Murderers Row and Hall of Famers aplenty? How about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds who were truly the Big Red Machine? The 1907 Chicago Cubs set the standard for defensive excellence. There are a number of other teams that belong in the discussion, but, no, none of those teams are the best major league team ever. That honor belongs to a team that played at Gus Greenlee Field.
The 1935 iteration of the Pittsburgh Crawfords is the best baseball team to ever take the field, major leagues or otherwise. Within the community of Negro League historians and researchers, it has long been accepted that the Crawfords of the mid-1930s were par excellence. It was tempting to pick the 1933 version of the team, but ultimately though the loss of Satchel Paige is a big one the 1935 version of the Crawfords is a team that can’t be beaten. I say that as a Homestead Grays fan, so you know it hurts me a little to admit the ‘35 squad was better than any of the 1920s Grays teams.
By the time the 1935 Negro National League season ended the Crawfords had left no doubt that they were the best team. It was truly a team effort, as the Crawfords hit, pitched, and fielded at an elite level. They had a tremendous coaching staff and an owner in Gus Greenlee who was willing to spend to win. All of the ingredients were present for the Crawfords to put their mark on the world of baseball and they did just that.
The regular starting lineup for the Crawfords looked like this,
C: Josh Gibson
1B: Oscar Charleston
2B: Pat Patterson
3B: Judy Johnson
SS: Chester Williams
LF: Sam Bankhead
CF: Cool Papa Bell
RF: Jimmie Crutchfield
There are four members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in that lineup (Gibson, Charleston, Johnson, and Bell). Patterson had a career year, he’d never come close to replicating his 153 OPS+. Bankhead was as talented as they come, slashing .338/.412/.507 with 8 stolen bases and 8 triples. Williams and Crutchfield were really the only weak links on the team, with OPS+’s of 49 and 70 respectively. However, the Crawfords had depth in the form of Curtis Harris. In 115 plate appearances, he put up a wOBA of .434 and an ISO of .192.
The Hall of Famers mostly performed at a level you would expect them to perform. Gibson slaughtered the ball, posting an ISO of .292 and an OPS+ of 176. Bell fueled his 137 OPS+ with a wOBA of .418, a BB% of 13.2, and a K% of 0.9. Oh, he also stole 12 bases, that we know of, and played the best center field baseball many have ever seen. Johnson struggled somewhat, as did Charleston. Both were nearing the end of their careers and turned in decidedly average seasons. Charleston made up for his offensive shortcomings with stellar defense at first base, as shown in his RF of 10.53.
All in all the Crawfords brought a balanced approach to the plate. They had a top of the order that was contact and speed-oriented, and the remainder of the order was full of power hitters that truly packed a wallop. They could play small ball with the best of them, or if a given day saw them really be on the Crawfords would bludgeon you with extra-base hits until you cried for mercy.
The starting rotation the Crawfords used all year consisted of:
Bill Harvey also pitched a decent number of innings, but the three remaining guys to be handed a baseball were mainly used in mop-up duty or extreme situations. Matlock was the staff ace, the lefty was known for having a devastating curveball. In 71.0 innings of work, Matlock accrued a 1.52 ERA, 13.6 K%, and 1.000 WHIP to give him an unbelievable ERA+ of 331. Carter managed an ERA+ of 164 while Davis wasn’t that far behind at 160. Hunter was the worst of all the regulars with an ERA+ of 101, and that only made him average, not bad. Heck, Harvey had an ERA+ of 120 and only allowed opponents to hit .242 off of him.
The Crawfords’ pitchers were an eclectic mix of youngsters and veterans. They had power arms and guys who threw all kinds of wonky offspeed stuff. They threw a lot of strikes and didn’t walk many hitters. They developed a reputation for pitching inside quite often, but that was pretty much the reputation of the entire NNL at the time. Very rarely do box scores reveal the staff of the ‘35 Crawfords getting roughed up because even the bottom of their staff was good at keeping the team in games.
In terms of star power, the Crawfords pitchers come up well short of their hitters. Star power doesn’t really determine the winning and losing of ball games. That is all up to talent, and in that regard, the Crawfords pitchers were a dominant force who controlled opposing hitters game after game. Matlock didn’t have the longevity of other top pitchers from this era, but at his peak, he was among the very best. He anchored a rotation that gave opponents fits and kept the Crawfords in every single game.
Player-manager Charleston guided the Crawfords to a 48-23-3 record in 1935. They followed up their regular-season dominance with a 4-3 NNL Championship Series win over the New York Cubans. There was no Negro World Series in 1935, the NNL was the only Negro major league in existence that year. Gus Greenlee wanted a winner and that’s exactly what Charleston delivered.
The winners of the ‘35 World Series were the American League champion Detroit Tigers. They were a great team, but they weren’t the Crawfords. All I can do is speculate, but my speculation leads me to believe that the Crawfords would be the far superior team. That’s because not only were the Crawfords better that year, but the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords are the best baseball team there ever was. Next time you engage in any sort of discussion about the best baseball teams of all time, keep this Crawfords team in mind, they were that great.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown