The New York Black Yankees played in the second iteration of the Negro National League from 1936 up until the league’s disbanding in 1948. Prior to that, they played as an independent barnstorming league from 1931 through 1935 (under the name Harlem Stars in 1931). Unfortunately, what they may best be remembered for is having very little similarity to the similarly named American League powerhouse. While the team with whom they shared a name — and sometimes a stadium — won eight World Series over that stretch, The Black Yankees managed to play better than .500 ball in only three of those seasons – and twice just barely.
Yet a few future Cooperstown inductees and some of the biggest names in league history suited up for the Black Yankees over the years, even if only for a brief time in some cases (very brief in one notable case). With that in mind, it’s worth looking back at the future Hall of Famers who played for the Black Yankees. For a different kind of remembrance on the Black Yankees’ top players, I’d recommend Matt’s story from last June, but these guys were the best of the best, even if their personal best days were long behind them.
John Henry “Pop” Lloyd
Lloyd is not only considered one of the best shortstops of all-time, but some — including Babe Ruth — considered him the “greatest player anywhere.” Legendary Philadelphia A’s skipper Connie Mack claimed that Lloyd and Honus Wagner were the two best shortstops he’d ever seen.
Lloyd posted a 141 OPS+ over 27 seasons, which is the best among Negro League shortstops with at least 2,500 plate appearances, and he posted 52.5 WAR, which was good for second-best all-time in the Negro Leagues. After retiring from the NNL in 1932, he continued to play semi-professionally until he was 58 years old.
All that is to say that at age 47 as a player/manager for the Harlem Stars, Pop’s best years were behind him. Playing mostly first base by that time, Lloyd managed only a 78 OPS+ in 64 plate appearances for the Stars, who finished in seventh place among the nine independent teams in 1931. He’d play one more season in Philadelphia after leaving Harlem and would be posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
George “Mule” Suttles was one of the most powerful batters in Negro League history, posting a 165 OPS+ over 22 seasons. His 193 league home runs and his .614 career slugging percentage are both good for fourth-best in league history, while his 947 RBI rank fifth. His best season came in 1926 at age 25 when he won the NNL Triple Crown with a .425 average, 32 home runs, and a ridiculous 130 RBI in only 89 games.
Yet in 1941 at the age of 40, playing for the Black Yankees, Mule’s kick wasn’t quite as powerful anymore. As a part-time left fielder, Suttles appeared in 20 games for New York, posting a .254/.299/.317 slash line and an 84 OPS+, with only one home run. He would play three more years as a player/manager with the Newark Eagles before retiring and he’d eventually be inducted into Cooperstown in 2006, 40 years after his passing.
Willie Wells’ 61.6 WAR is fifth-highest in Negro League history and best among shortstops, while his 139 OPS+ over 25 years is second-best in league history among shortstops with at least 2,500 PA. Furthermore, among shortstops who played a minimum of 1,000 games, his WAR per 162 surpasses that of both the aforementioned Wagner and Lloyd along with every other shortstop in MLB history. On a trivial note, he and his son Willie Jr. beat the Griffey family to the punch by over four decades by playing on the same Memphis Red Sox team in 1948.
While with the Black Yankees as a part-time player/manager over the 1945 and 1946 seasons, Wells held his own despite being on the wrong side of 40 years old at the time. He managed a 98 OPS+ over what were two woeful seasons for the team, posting a .287/.357/.347 slash line. He’d only appear very sparingly for Indianapolis and Memphis over the next two seasons, retiring in 1948. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1997.
If you’ve stumbled across this article, I probably I don’t need to tell you who Satchell Paige was, but just to be clear, he was one of the best Negro League pitchers of all time — meaning he was one of the best pitchers of all time. With a career that spanned almost 40 years, Paige’s resume certainly contains many oddities that would make one raise an eyebrow while reading about them. One of the lesser-known perhaps is that he appeared in one game for the New York Black Yankees in 1941.
At the time, both the Negro National and American Leagues along with some individual teams were doing their best to get more publicity for their players, teams, and leagues. These efforts involved having the Kansas City Monarchs “lease” Paige to other teams on a very short-term basis. Under those circumstances, Paige took the mound in Yankee Stadium on Opening Day 1941 for the Black Yankees.
To the absolute surprise of no one, Paige threw a complete-game victory, allowing only two earned runs while striking out eight and walking none.
Although the New York Black Yankees will never be known for having great teams, they and New York fans were fortunate enough to see some of the best of all-time take the field for them. Even if their stays in New York were short, their name recognition alone certainly garnered some attention for a team that was otherwise nondescript (and many players who weren’t nondescript as well) in a city that loved its baseball as much as any.
*All stats were taken from Seamheads.com except for Honus Wagner’s, which I took from Baseball Reference.