A look at the elite African-American players in Major League Baseball history reads like a who’s who of the upper rungs of Cooperstown. These are pioneering stars not only on the diamond but also in the advancement of African-American culture in the country. With that, let’s look back at both the African-American greats of MLB's past and also those who were not permitted into its ranks yet still achieved legendary status in the sport in the many black baseball leagues during segregation.
In honor of Black History Month (and the days within it), here is a look at the best African-American players of all time. In addition, we added a special look at a pair of pioneers who opened new doors along the way.
A 25-time All-Star, Aaron endures as one of the most accomplished players in the history of the sport. "The Hammer" holds the all-time records for runs batted in, extra-base hits, and total bases. However, his most famous accomplishment remains passing Babe Ruth atop baseball’s all-time career home runs list, an effort he reached amid great turmoil, criticism, and often racially motivated peril. His record of 755 homers stood for 33 years.
After beginning his career as a teenager with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, Banks would go on to become the greatest Chicago Cub of all time. Known for his effervescent personality, Banks was a devastating hitter at the plate, becoming the first shortstop in history to hit 40 home runs in a season and 500 in a career. Banks also is the first National Leaguer to win consecutive Most Valuable Player Awards, which he did in 1958 and 1959.
James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell was the pre-eminent speedster in Negro League play and is argued by many to be the fastest player in baseball history, period. He often would steal both second and third base following a single, which happened often in his three seasons of winning batting titles in 1928, 1930, and 1931. He spent much of his career with the St. Louis Stars and is currently honored in both the Baseball Hall of Fame and by a statue outside of Busch Stadium, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals.
One of the greatest all-around players in history, Bonds was a seven-time MVP in his 22-year career spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants. Bonds owns 17 different MLB all-time records, including career home runs (762), home runs in a season (73), and intentional walks in a season (120). As further testament to his comprehensive brilliance, he picked up eight Gold Glove Awards and is the only player in history to hit 500 home runs while also stealing 500 bases.
The "Base Burglar" stood as the catalyst for World Series championship teams in 1964 and 1967 for the St. Louis Cardinals. His .391 career World Series batting average is the highest ever for a player with more than 20 games of Series play. Brock compiled 3,023 hits in his career while leading the National League in stolen bases in eight seasons. In 1977 he passed Ty Cobb for the all-time career stolen base lead and finished his career with 938 total swipes.
The Hall of Fame catcher began his career at age 16 when he joined the Washington Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues. He then became the first African-American to ever professionally manage white players in 1946, when he stepped in during a minor league game after his manager, Walter Alston, was ejected. Campanella joined the Brooklyn Dodgers the year following Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, and he later was named National League MVP three times.
A native of Indianapolis, Charleston was one of the most devastating all-around players in the history of segregated baseball. His well-traveled career throughout the ranks of black and Cuban baseball leagues began in 1919 and ended in 1941. The five-tool sensation played center field and hit .363 for one of baseball’s greatest teams ever assembled, the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords, alongside Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. Following his retirement, Charleston played an integral part in recruiting talent from the Negro Leagues toward the MLB.
A two-time Cy Young Award winner and NL MVP in 1968, Gibson was one of the most intimidating and intense competitors in baseball history. He owns several of the most dominant pitching performances ever witnessed, including his modern record 1.12 ERA in 1968, a World Series-record 17 strikeouts in 1968, and three complete-game victories during the 1967 Series. For a time early in his career, he was signed to both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Harlem Globetrotters simultaneously.
Gibson stands among the most damaging power hitters of all time, by many accounts surpassing even his contemporary MLB slugger, Babe Ruth. Although Gibson’s exact numbers are lost to time due to inconsistent statistical reporting of the various leagues he played in, his accounted-for career batting average sits at .351, and he connected for a home run every 10.6 at-bats. All in all, his career total is believed to be close to 800 home runs, which would still sit as the MLB all-time record.
There may never have been a more enjoyable player to watch apply his craft than Griffey. One of the most popular and marketable superstars of the 1990s, Griffey led his league in home runs four times and hit 630 total in his career. A daring defender in center field, his habit of leaping outfield walls to bring back would-be home runs helped him to 10 Gold Glove Awards as well. His Hall of Fame vote total of 99.3 percent in 2016 is the highest in history for a positional player.
A career .338 hitter who never dipped below .309 in a full season, Gwynn’s sweet stroke found him with eight career batting titles. Of those eight titles, three (1987-1989) and four (1994-1997) came consecutively. He is one of four players to ever hit above .350 in four consecutive seasons, averaging a .368 average from 1993 through 1997. Before embarking on his baseball career, Gwynn was a standout basketball player at San Diego State University and was drafted in the 10th round of the 1981 NBA Draft.
Baseball’s greatest leadoff hitter owned a personality as massive as his impact all around the field, which is saying a lot considering all he brought to the scorecard. Henderson led his league in stolen bases a record 12 times, is owner of the most 100-steal seasons of all time with three, and reached at least 80 in three other seasons. His career total of 1,406 steals is the best of all time by over 400, and Henderson also holds records for most leadoff home runs in history and runs scored.
Few had a flair for the big moment the way "Mr. October" did, who earned that moniker for his numerous postseason exploits. In his 21-year career, Jackson’s teams finished in first place 10 times, with him winning five World Series titles and picking up series MVP in two of those trips. Jackson’s three-homer performance in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series was a signature performance amid his 10 career World Series homers, which stood paramount among his 563 career long balls.
Jeter spent 20 years at shortstop in the Bronx, crafting a legendary tenure during which he became one of the most dependable and clutch players in baseball history. "The Captain" won five World Series with the Yankees and holds numerous all-time postseason, Yankee and MLB records, including the most hits all-time by a shortstop. In his post-playing days, Jeter has transitioned to ownership and CEO of the Miami Marlins, becoming the pre-eminent minority executive in the game.
By many, Leonard was considered the greatest first baseman of his time, which got him the nickname the "Black Lou Gehrig." However, many said it would have been more correctly applied to Gehrig being the "White Buck Leonard." He starred for the legendary Homestead Grays teams of the 1930s and '40s, earning rave reviews as one of the most feared hitters and capable defenders in all of black baseball. Leonard turned down an MLB contract in 1952 due to feeling he was too far past his prime.
When hearing that Lloyd (top row, second from left) had garnered the nickname “Black Wagner," legendary Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner said it was an "honor" to draw such praise in comparison. Thus was the extent of the abilities of Lloyd at shortstop, a man many claimed was the greatest all-around talent in the history of the Negro Leagues. Lloyd was well-traveled during his 26-year career, playing for more than 10 clubs while sporting a .343 career batting average.
There is no finer all-around player in MLB history than Mays, a 24-time All-Star who collected 660 home runs, had eight consecutive 100 RBI seasons, and earned 12 Gold Glove Awards, most ever by an outfielder. Mays' legendary, over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series endures as one of the greatest plays in MLB history. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
McCovey was one of the most feared hitters of his time, with even Bob Gibson ranking him as the “scariest hitter in baseball." A three-time National League home run champ who retired seventh all-time in homers, McCovey regularly connected for tape-measure shots into the right-field stands. Such was his legacy for connecting for remarkable distances that the water behind the right-field stands at the current home of the Giants, Oracle Park, is known as "McCovey Cove."
One of the greatest, if not the greatest, all-around second basemen in history, there was no way in which Morgan was incapable of impacting a game. He won consecutive National League MVP Awards, in 1975 and '76, while helping the Cincinnati Reds to World Series titles in both seasons. Morgan’s 689 stolen bases rank 11 th all time, and he collected five Gold Glove Awards and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting for five straight seasons, from 1972 to 1976.
One of the greatest switch-hitters of all time, Murray had 11 games with home runs from both sides of the plate. He is one of five players in history to reach both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. A run-producing machine throughout his career, Murray drove in 100 runs six times and holds the MLB record for most RBI by a switch-hitter, with 1,917. Growing up in the Oakland area, Murray was childhood friends and teammates with fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.
A three-time 20-game winner, Newcombe extended the barrier-breaking habit of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the pitching mound, becoming the first player to meet numerous milestones, including the inaugural recipient of the Cy Young Award in 1956. He would become the first (and one of only two) pitchers to win Cy Young, MVP, and Rookie of the Year honors in his career. In 1949, he became the first African-American starting pitcher in a World Series game, carrying a shutout into the ninth inning against the New York Yankees in Game 1.
Paige was known for an ability to make up boisterous proclamations and naming his pitches on the fly, but the only thing that outdid his showmanship was his awe-inspiring talents on the hill. Massive crowds followed him wherever he went, as he became the greatest pitching attraction in baseball history. Both white and black players alike marveled at his ability on the mound, with Paige himself estimating to have won over 1,000 games in his well-traveled career. Eventually, in 1948 at age 42, Paige made his MLB debut with the Cleveland Indians, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA and helping them to a World Series title.
"Rock" was the premier leadoff hitter in the National League in the 1980s, stealing 70 or more bases in six consecutive years, from 1981 to 1986. Raines also led the NL in batting in 1986, swinging to a .334 clip. A seven-time All-Star with the Montreal Expos, Raines owns seven records for the defunct franchise. Later in his career, he won two World Series with the New York Yankees.
Robinson spent his life being a milestone-creator in Major League Baseball. A 14-time All-Star — eight times in the National League and six on the American League side — Robinson is the only player in history to win MVP in both leagues. His 586 home runs were fourth-most ever when he retired in 1976. Robinson also broke down a wall in 1975 when he became the first black manager in MLB history. He further served as vice president for on-field operations and did extensive work toward integrating Major League Baseball within inner cities around the country.
More an American icon than just a legendary baseball player, the importance of Robinson cannot be overstated. The ripple effects of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 changed American history going forward. Beyond simply his presence, Robinson was a dynamic and daring presence on the field. He was baseball’s first Rookie of the Year, in 1947, and NL MVP two years later, and he helped the Dodgers break their long championship dry spell, in 1955. Robinson became the first African-American inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1962.
Scouted as a teenager by the legendary Buck O’Neil, the towering Smith eventually became one of baseball’s pioneering relief pitchers. Smith’s leisurely journey from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound belied the swiftness he often closed games out with. Smith led his league in saves four times and retired as baseball’s all-time saves leader with 478, a record he would hold for 14 years.
A maestro with the glove, "The Wizard" raised the bar for defensive excellence during his 19-year career. Smith won 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, from 1980 to 1992, and set MLB records for most assists and double plays by a shortstop. Smith was the backbone for a St. Louis Cardinals team that reached three World Series during the 1980s. His acrobatic play (and signature flip) made him one of the game’s most exciting all-time performers.
"Pops" was one of the most beloved players of all time, as he bashed his Pittsburgh Pirates teams to a pair of World Series wins over his 21-year career. Stargell hit a total of 475 home runs, many of which were of the record-setting distance variety across the National League. But 1979 was his signature season, as he won MVP in the NLCS, World Series, and National League, becoming the only player in history to pull of that trifecta.
One of the great all-around hitters in history, the "Big Hurt" earned his nickname both physically (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and at the plate. Thomas is the only player in history to string together seven seasons of a .300 average, 20 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored, and 100 walks. He won consecutive American League MVP Awards, in 1993 and ’94, while picking up a batting title in 1997 with a .347 batting average.
One of the most remarkable all-around athletes in baseball history, Winfield compiled an impressive resume in his 22-year career. A member of the 3,000-hit club and a 12-time All-Star, Winfield used his unique blend of size and speed to hit 465 home runs and gather six Silver Slugger Awards and seven Gold Gloves. Winfield is one of six athletes to ever be drafted in the MLB, NFL, and NBA and one of three to be drafted four times (after also being selected by the ABA in addition to the NBA).
Doby is the first African-American player in American League history, joining the Cleveland Indians in July 1947. Unlike Robinson, Doby did not stop in the minors before joining the MLB, becoming the first player to ever directly jump from the Negro Leagues to the majors. He went on to be named to seven All-Star teams and win a World Series in his second season in Cleveland.
Flood was one of the best center fielders of his era, winning seven Gold Glove Awards and two World Series championships with the St. Louis Cardinals. Yet for all his ability on the field, what he stood for off it is his greatest legacy. It was Flood who challenged baseball’s reserve clause that prohibited free agency and open market financial opportunity, after refusing a trade in 1969. Flood’s case ultimately lost before the Supreme Court, and he was never signed by another MLB team. However, his act of defiance ultimately inspired the repeal of the reserve clause, thus creating both free agency and 10/5 benefits rights for players.
Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.