Negro League Shortstops

This post details the careers of a select few Negro League shortstops who have not made the Hall of Fame.

Cuban born Pelayo Chacon was a Deaball Era shortstop noted for his superior defensive skills.  A member of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame, Pelayo came to the States in 1909 and played in the Negro Leagues because his skin color was a bit too dark for the Majors.  Chacon was an adequate offensive player better suited for the number two slot given his knack for the hit-and-run.  But it was with the glove where Pelayo excelled.  Quick and agile, he had excellent range afield and his swiftness allowed him to steal an ample amount of bases.

Grant “Homerun” Johnson was an early star of black baseball who played for the Page Fence Giants of the late 1890s and in Brooklyn and New York afterwards.  Johnson was a terrific hitter who excelled in the Deadball Era and was noted for refraining from vices and leading a humble life.  Always in terrific condition, Homerun played into his fifties–although not at the highest level.  He was widely considered to be the best shortstop in the Negro Leagues in the years before Pop Lloyd.

When the best shortstops of Negro League history are discussed, the two most prominent names are Hall of Famers Willie Wells and Pop Lloyd.  Dick Lundy is often listed as the third best.  A switch-hitter, Lundy was dubbed “King Richard” on account of his well-rounded game.  He hit for both average and power and possessed a rifle arm that allowed him to play a deep short and still retire the fleetest of runners.  Lundy played throughout the 1920s with the Bacharach Giants.  When Dick and a veteran Pop Lloyd played together in 1924, Lloyd was the skipper and he acknowledged that the younger Lundy had superior skills and thus moved himself out from shortstop to allow King Richard to play there.

 image of Dick Lundy

Bus Clarkson was an unusual shortstop in that he was a big, thick-bodied man.  Most men who excel at short are of lighter build–Aparicio and Reese come to mind–but Bus was built for blasting and didn’t look the part of a nimble middle infielder.  Clarkson had the typical slugger traits: he hit plenty homeruns but he also whiffed a lot.  He did offset his strikeouts with a higher than average amount of walks drawn however.  Bus made it to the Majors in his mid 30s but by that time he was no longer able to handle short.  He played mostly at third and since he was with the Braves, he rarely played since the legendary Eddie Mathews was entrenched there.

Like the Delahantys of the Major Leagues, the Bankhead clan sent a number of their sons to the Negro Leagues.  The best of the family was clearly shortstop Samuel Howard Bankhead.  A solid ballplayer, Sam did everything well and was a consummate team player, willing and able to play any position.  A star with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the late 1930s and the Homestead Grays of the 1940s, Sam was a bit too old to make the Majors when the color line was leveled.  His kid brother Dan however pitched briefly with the Dodgers. 

Like Bus Clarkson, John Beckwith was a large shortstop.  Beckwith was even bigger than Clarkson and was known for his prodigious homeruns.  His power was more impressive than Clarkson’s but he was a free-swinger who rarely walked and amassed high strikeout totals.  Although not a great defender he was serviceable and when he aged he was shifted to third base.  Beckwith hit for amazing power and despite his swing-at-anything approach to hitting, maintained a high batting average.  His batting kept him around even though his defense was suspect and his character unbecoming.  He had a reputation for careless, lazy play and wasn’t fond of his teammates when they offered criticism.  He once beat teammate Bill Holland unconscious after he showed disgust when Beckwith made a costly error. 

Country Jake Stephens looked the part of a shortstop.  A nimble little fellow, he had the traits of a Maranville or Rizzuto and wasn’t the brawny blaster that Clarkson and Beckwith were.  Country Jake played 17 years, mostly with the Hilldale Club, and was noted for his agile work around second base.  Although a gifted defender, breaking balls gave Stephens plenty trouble throughout his career and he never developed into a solid offensive player.  A pepperpot, Stephens resembled a lesser-hitting version of the Major League’s Rowdy Dick Bartell.

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