This post details the careers of a few Negro League center fielders who have not made the Hall of Fame.
A poor man’s Cool Papa Bell, Jerry Benjamin was the center fielder for the Homestead Grays from 1935 until the waning years of the Negro Leagues. While Jerry manned the middle pasture for the Grays, they won nine consecutive pennants. Both Benjamin and Bell played together for a time and when they did, Jerry was in center. Exceptionally swift, Benjamin was a switch-hitter with only modest offensive skills. When his numbers started to dip just before World War II, they skyrocketed during the war when many stars were in the service.
Referred to as “The Black Lloyd Waner” during his playing days, the Moberly, Missouri raised Jim Crutchfield was a gifted line-drive hitter with above average speed and determination. Noted more for his hustle than off-the-charts tools, Crutchfield started in two All-Star Games. Associated with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the 1930s, Jim was a terrific defender and a bit of a hotdog. He is often credited with catching balls behind his back when the game wasn’t a close affair.
One of the best Cuban players to have starred in the Negro Leagues, Critobal Torriente was the slugging star for Rube Foster’s American Giants dynasty after World War I. Like Yogi Berra and Vladimir Guerrero, Torriente was a famous bad-ball hitter who could put his bat on any pitch, regardless where it was thrown. Strong and compactly built, Cristobal was one of the few power threats on Foster’s club. The Cuban star wasn’t too well-liked and his temperament forced him off the American Giants and to the Kansas City Monarchs where he lasted half a season due to his less than admirable behavior. Torriente died in squalor, a penniless drunk, but was a member of the initial Cuban Hall of Fame class.
A fixture in the All-Star Game, Neil Robinson was a stellar power hitter in the years surrounding World War II. Neil played everyday throughout the 1940s as the Memphis Red Sox center fielder. Although a serviceable outfielder, Robinson earned his bread with his bat. He could club prodigious homeruns but was a free-swinger at the plate who frequently struck out. But his high total of whiffs came with the realization that he could break a game wide open with one swing of the bat.
One of the most complete stars of the Negro Leagues, Clint “Hawk” Thomas earned his nickname for two reasons: his exceptional ballhawking abilities and his supreme batting eye. Sometimes listed as the “Black Joe DiMaggio,” Thomas made his debut in the Negro Leagues well before Joltin’ Joe made the Yankees. However, while DiMaggio was establishing himself as a star with the Yankees, the veteran great Thomas was patrolling center for the Black Yankees. Born and raised in the small town of Greenup, Kentucky, Clint is credited with 367 career homeruns.
Perhaps the best Negro League player currently left out of the Hall of Fame, Spottswood Poles was often referred to as the “Black Ty Cobb.” Both men excelled during the Deadball Era by utilizing blazing speed and hitting for extremely lofty batting averages. Although he was often called a “Black Cobb,” Poles resembled Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton in that both were exceptionally swift despite their compact, almost chunky builds. Spot was an exceptional leadoffman for the Lincoln Giants during the Deadball Era who once had a three-hit game against Hall of Fame Major Leaguer Grover Alexander. Poles had an unusual appearance in that he was bowlegged and had big arms for a small man. But like the awkward looking Honus Wagner, Poles too was a great player. Outside of baseball Poles was a man of character who earned the Purple Heart during the First World War. He retired in comfort as a manager of a taxi fleet.
image of Spottswood Poles (www.mlb.com)
Quiet and unassuming off the field, the gentlemanly Chaney White had that Jekyll and Hyde complex. He was regarded as one of the dirtiest players in the Negro Leagues during the 1920s who wasn’t just unopposed to spiking the opposition but seemed to relish the opportunities. A right-handed hitter and left-handed thrower, Chaney had a large, strong build but was quite swift. White could play anywhere in the outfield and Pop Lloyd, when making out his all-time Negro League team, chose White as his left fielder.