Yesterday, Baseball Reference rolled out arguably its most ambitious project since, well, the very first day the website included statistics for every player in the history of the National and American Leagues. It was a project that at once feels long overdue but also like such a research challenge that demanding such a free and comprehensive project would be greedy.
In 2020, Major League Baseball officially recognized seven different leagues comprehensively labeled the Negro Major Leagues as “major leagues”. The Negro Major Leagues played formally from 1920 through 1948, formed in the aftermath of increasing popularity of barnstorming teams comprised of players unofficially barred from Major League Baseball due to the color of their skin, and waning in popularity once the National and American Leagues finally came to their senses and began to open its doors to the greatest players in the sport regardless of ancestry. And Baseball Reference has diligently compiled the statistics for 29 years of what is now, properly, regarded as Major League Baseball.
For years, it was popularly accepted that Negro League records were simply too scattershot to compile an accurate historical record. And while this is certainly true of the barnstorming, pre-organized league teams, the Negro Leagues were sometimes portrayed as amateurish in ways that, as Baseball Reference proved, were absolutely not the case. While the records of the National and American Leagues by the 1920s through 1940s were a bit more comprehensive, 19th century baseball has historical records littered with inconsistencies and incompletions far more egregious than the records of the Negro Leagues, and those numbers are still valued because they are still a part of baseball’s history. The Negro Leagues should be the same.
Competing in the Negro National League, the St. Louis Giants, who would become the St. Louis Stars in 1922, were charter members of the league in 1920 and remained in it until the league’s dissolution in 1931. Over their twelve seasons, the St. Louis Stars compiled a 580-388 record–a 97-win pace in a 162-game schedule season over the course of a dozen years–and won three league pennants. Along with the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, the Stars were among the league’s top tier. I really don’t have a great answer for how to compare the exploits of the 1920-1931 St. Louis Stars to, say, the 1920-1931 Cardinals or Browns. But these players did matter and anybody who cares about professional baseball in St. Louis ought to know at least a little bit about the Stars. While there were a handful of very short-lived Negro League teams subsequently called the St. Louis Stars, I am focusing entirely on what is by far the most successful of the teams.
One thing I didn’t dare dream to come from the Baseball Reference Negro Leagues project was a Wins Above Replacement calculation. Because the Negro Leagues tended to have considerably shorter seasons than the National League or American League, the WAR totals never quite reach the lofty heights being reached at the time by Rogers Hornsby or George Sisler, but there are some truly premier players in there. And below is a look at the ten greatest players in St. Louis Stars history, as judged by Wins Above Replacement.
10. Willie Bobo–As is often the case for Negro League players, the biographical information available is somewhat scant. We know he was born in 1902, though we do not have a birth date. He died on February 22, 1931 in San Diego, though I couldn’t find a cause of death from anything approaching a reliable source. But we do know Willie Bobo was a St. Louis Star from 1924 through 1928 and that the first baseman was one of the most feared hitters in the Stars lineup. In 1925, his best season, Bobo had a 1.068 OPS in 391 plate appearances, with his walk rate and solid contact abilities bringing his OPS+ to a staggering 184, heights achieved by Albert Pujols, Mark McGwire, and no other St. Louis first basemen. He never again reached quite those heights, but he remained a solid hitter for the remainder of his Stars career.
9. Ted Trent–As was often the case in the white Major Leagues of the 1920s, the most valuable player on many teams was an outstanding starting pitcher. And from 1927 through 1931, Trent was a stalwart atop the Stars’ rotation. In his debut season, as a 23 year-old, Trent went 15-10 with a 2.93 ERA, leading the league in strikeouts. His sophomore season was his best, with a league-best 19 wins and a 2.21 ERA in guiding the Stars to a pennant. The tall, slender Floridian did suffer a drop in production starting in 1929, but particularly for his first two seasons, he is regarded as one of the best pitchers in Stars history.
8. Charlie Blackwell–A holdover from the St. Louis Giants barnstorming days, Blackwell was the team’s first true star in the Negro National League. Blackwell rotated around the Giants/Stars outfield, but was primarily in right field in 1921 when he had one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of the team–in 1921, in 342 plate appearances, Blackwell batted .405 with a .478 on-base percentage and, aided a career-high 20 doubles, 11 triples, and 12 home runs, a .670 slugging percentage. With an OPS+ of 222, Blackwell even managed to eclipse the dominance of the city’s great National League slugger, Rogers Hornsby (Hornsby would equal Blackwell’s 222 mark in 1924). His OPS steadily declined from 1.148 to 1.002 to .881 to .740, ending his Stars career a roughly league-average hitter, but his peaks were among the highest peaks in the history of the organization.
7. Wilson Redus–Nicknamed “Frog”, Wilson Redus was one of the most tenured Stars players, ranking 5th in games played with the organization, and the outfielder, while not having quite the highest highs among the team, was a model of consistency of being a regularly terrifying offensive force. In his five full seasons with the Stars, from 1925 through 1929, Redus never had a batting average under .300 and was a consistent power hitter, belting 22 home runs with a league-best 82 runs batted in in 1928. Arguably his finest season came in 1925, when Redus had a career-best .372 batting average and .453 on-base percentage.
6. Dewey Creacy–A third baseman for most of his career, Creacy was never one of the biggest bats on the Stars, but he was a valuable member of the team from 1924 through the dissolution of the Negro National League. An above-average hitter in six of his eight seasons, Creacy’s peak with the Stars came in 1926, a banner year for baseball in St. Louis, when he notched a career-high 23 home runs and amassed an OPS+ of 159. Although regularly overlooked by flashier players, Creacy was one of the stalwarts of the team, finishing fourth in Stars history in plate appearances.
5. Logan Hensley–Hensley is both the highest-ranked full-time pitcher and the highest-ranked native of the St. Louis area on this list, having been born in 1900 in Pacific, Missouri. Very undersized by modern pitcher standards, the 5’9″, 168 pound Hensley was not an overpowering pitcher but he was a consistent innings-eater, leading the NNL in innings and wins in both 1926 and 1930. Like nearly all prominent pitchers of the era, Hensley was first and foremost a starter, but he would also dabble in the bullpen in games in which he was not starting. Hensley led the Stars in career innings and wins, and he earned wins in both NNL championship series victories for the team.
4. Branch Russell–A World War I veteran who was later buried in St. Louis’s Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Russell was primarily a right fielder but with material playing time at second base, third base, and shortstop. Statistically, he was a bit of a proto-sabermetric darling, never hitting for a ton of power but being a highly productive offensive weapon on the strength of his ability to draw walks, a category in which he led the NNL in both 1926 and 1929. But more than anything, Russell was a case of longevity. He joined the Stars in 1922 and remained there until 1931, notching more plate appearances in the history of the St. Louis Stars than any other player.
3. Mule Suttles–A considerable portion of Negro Leagues folklore is built around charismatic, entertaining talents (see #2 if that’s what you’re seeking), but the heartbeat of the sport, just as Babe Ruth was the heartbeat of the white Major Leagues, were mammoth dudes who just crushed baseballs, and few encapsulated that better than George “Mule” Suttles (it seems appropriate that the Stars’ answer to Ruth was a guy named George who went by a nickname more befitting of a hulking animal). Joining the Stars in 1926, the 6’3″, 215 pound first baseman immediately made an impact, leading the NNL in hits, triples, and home runs (32 in 397 plate appearances) en route to a 1.349 OPS (241 OPS+), the second-highest mark in Stars history (the leader, Oscar Charleston, is a Negro Leagues super-legend, but one who only spent one season in St. Louis). The leader in the NNL in OPS+ in 1926, 1928, and 1930, Suttles ranks second in Stars history in home runs, in addition to his OPS+ lead.
2. Cool Papa Bell–James “Cool Papa” Bell is probably the most famous player in St. Louis Stars history, and indeed he is one of the greatest. Although his mythic speed, mostly perpetuated by Satchel Paige, makes Bell seem like an impossible figure, the number back up his greatness. The Stars’ all-time leader in plate appearances, Bell, who had moved to St. Louis in high school, spent ten seasons with the Stars, and unsurprisingly for anybody even tangentially familiar with his mythology, he is easily the team’s all-time leader in stolen bases, having led the league five times during his Stars tenure. But Bell was also a fundamentally sound hitter, ranking first in both singles and doubles, third in walks, fourth in triples, and sixth in home runs. And although mostly known as a center fielder, Bell put Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani to shame by serving as a full-time pitcher for his first 2 1/2 seasons in St. Louis while then playing center field on a full-time basis on his off-days.
- Willie Wells–St. Louis baseball teams have hosted Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Bobby Wallace, and yet the greatest shortstop in the history of the city is almost certainly Willie Wells. Debuting in 1924 and remaining with the Stars throughout the remainder of the team’s existence, the slick-fielding shortstop (he is by far the team’s all-time leader in Defensive Wins Above Replacement) was also the team’s greatest offensive force, leading in Offensive WAR by a healthy margin as well. The black ink on his Baseball Reference page is overflowing: he led the NNL in runs four times, hits and doubles three times apiece, home runs three times, RBI twice, stolen bases once, walks twice, and total bases four times. The only parallel to Wells in the American or National League I can even imagine is pre-New York Yankees Álex Rodríguez, but Rodríguez can’t boast being a Hall of Famer in three different countries (Cuba, Mexico, United States) and being the widely credited inventor of the modern batting helmet. He is a true baseball legend and a worthy leader of this list.
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