There’s been a long-overdue amount of recognition paid to the Negro Leagues in recent months. Back in December, MLB announced that it would officially classify the various Negro Leagues from 1920-48 as major leagues. Then, just a few weeks ago, Baseball Reference massively increased the amount of Negro League stats available on their website.
That might not sound like a big deal, but as someone who literally goes there everyday at some point, it’s pretty big. Being able to have Oscar Charleston’s OPS+ available just as readily to check as Babe Ruth’s is important.
This means that you can also very easily check the stats for the New York Black Yankees.
Originally named the Harlem Stars, the team later known as the Black Yankees began as an independent barnstorming team in 1931 before joining the Negro National League in 1936. Most of their early years saw them play at Hinchcliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ, before eventually moving into Yankee Stadium in 1941.
While the AL Yankees were having an immense amount of success, the Black Yankees couldn’t quite replicate that in the NNL. They finished second in their first year in the league in 1936, but after 1942, they never finished higher than fifth in a league that only ever consisted of six or seven teams.
Despite those outcomes, all these players’ stories are still important. With that in mind, and according to Baseball Reference WAR, here are the five best players in the history of the New York Black Yankees.
Playing 13 years of organized ball over a 24-year period, Cannady was a Black Yankee from 1936-39. He was mostly an infielder, although in 1938 he did pretty much everything but catch, and that includes being the team’s manager. Over his four seasons in New York, he hit .311/.366/.445 (111 OPS+), while putting up OPS+’s of 132 and 133 to bookend that time.
Beyond his Black Yankees tenure, Cannady was a versatile fielder for eight different teams over his career, including often being slotted in as the cleanup hitter for the aforementioned and legendary Oscar Charleston with the Harrisburg Giants.
The Negro Leagues’ seasons being so short allows for a player like McHenry, who only spent one year as a Black Yankee, to end up as statistically one of the best players in team history. Oh, but what a season it was.
As a pitcher, McHenry put up a 3.33 ERA (146 ERA+), while being the winning pitcher in nearly a quarter of the Black Yankees’ wins in 1936. I say “as a pitcher” because that is not the only side of the ball where he excelled. In 33 plate appearances, McHenry hit .355/.375/.581, which was good for a 140 OPS+. In just 11 career games as a Black Yankee, he was worth 2.0 WAR by Baseball Reference’s measures.
3. Johnny Hayes
Hayes was a catcher for the Black Yankees for six seasons, over two stints from 1940-42 and then from 1946-48. Despite being near the end of his career, he put in some solid seasons in New York. His best probably came as 37-year-old in 1947, where he put up a 120 OPS+, and made the East-West All-Star Game, which was the midsummer classic for the Negro Leagues.
While Hayes didn’t put up a ton of great numbers at the plate other than with the Black Yankees, he did become known as one of the best game-callers for his work behind the plate.
2. Bill Holland
As part of a 1952 poll, Holland was voted as one of the best Negro League pitchers ever, making the All-Time Third Team. While playing with the New York Lincoln Giants in 1930, he became the first ever black pitcher to pitch in Yankee Stadium. A couple years later, he would become the ace of the New York Black Yankees.
Holland’s first year there was probably his best, putting up a 3.18 ERA (152 ERA+) in 1936. Over the course of his career, he was one of the best strikeout pitchers. He finished his Negro Leagues career with 1,096, fifth all-time. Nicknamed “Devil,” Holland would be a starting pitcher in the 1939 East-West All-Star Game while a member of the Black Yankees.
1. Barney Brown
Brown was a five-time All-Star, including two his three short seasons with the Black Yankees. Those mainly came for his work as a pitcher; however, he also played a decent amount of outfield over his career. It was that dual role that saw him put up an incredible season in 1937.
As a pitcher, Brown put up a 110 ERA+ in 57.1 innings. Meanwhile at the plate, he hit an incredible .410/.463/.574, which is good for a 167 OPS+.
His best pure pitching season had come the year before and combined with Holland, the Black Yankees had what would be their best ever finish in NNL history.
A small portrait of Barney Brown with the New York Black Yankees in 1937. This is one of 200+ such paintings of mine that will be on display at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the spring of 2020. pic.twitter.com/Tb6qFTMJ0R— Graig Kreindler (@GraigKreindler) November 24, 2019
Just going on pure fame, the most notable Black Yankee was probably none other than Satchel Paige. Unfortunately, his career there lasted just one game in 1941. Naturally, it was a complete-game victory where he allowed two runs.
The New York Black Yankees might not have had a long or successful history, but they still had plenty of players worthy of having their stories told.
“Negro Leagues and the Hall of Fame: The Case for Inducting 24 Overlooked Ballplayers” by Steven R. Greenes
“Muzzy Field: Tales from a Forgotten Ballpary” by Douglas S. Malan
“Blackball in the Hoosier Heartland: Unearthing the Negro Leagues Baseball History of Richmond, Indiana” by Alex Painter