It was my pleasure last night to emcee the baseball portion of the 50th anniversary celebration dinner for RFK Stadium at the D.C. Convention Center. I gave a brief overview of the Senators' 10 seasons there and the Nationals' three campaigns at the old ballpark.
When it was over, I chatted briefly with Chuck Hinton, who was the last expansion Senator to bat .300 (.310 in 1962), and had the longest home hitting streak in stadium history, 32 games that same inaugural season. I brought up the name of Buck Leonard, the great Homestead Grays first baseman who was from Rocky Mount, N.C, where Hinton grew up.
I said something to the effect that there must be something in the water in Rocky Mount, since they grow good hitters there, and Leonard's status as a Hall of Famer. Honton responded, "I might be there,too, if I had played in his league," a reference to the Negro Leagues.
Chuck wasn't bragging; he's probably right.
About 30 years ago, I was on a panel at George Washington University that dealt with the Negro Leagues. Buck Leonard was on the same panel, and we sat next to each other. Leonard - who lived to be 90, passing away in 1997 - was asked by an attendee why more Negro League players weren't given respect by the Hall of Fame. He responded that, in essence, the Negro Leagues had a handful of great players, and a whole lot of mediocre to poor players. He was quite specific that, regardless of what some people tried to represent, the Negro Leagues were not chocked full of All-Star caliber performers, that many players would not have made even low minor league clubs in organized baseball.
Hinton spent all or part of 11 seasons in the major leagues, batting .264, but with an OPS of .744, more than respectable. He came along after the game integrated, and while he never made a six-figure salary, still made a lot more than he might have made had he been born much earlier and played in the Negro Leagues. His ability to put the ball in play and hit with some power would certainly have given him better numbers against inferior pitching. No, he's not in Cooperstown, but his career was memorable nonetheless.
The lens of history can only reveal so much. We don't have much in the way of moving pictures of Negro League action. We have to rely on eyewitness accounts, but if Leonard said the number of truly great players in his league was a handful, we have to take his word for it. He had no reason to fudge the facts. It just makes sense to assume that, if the Negro Leagues were more equivalent to minor league baseball, and Hinton hit .369 and .358 in his only two full minor league seasons, maybe he would have been considered one of the all-time greats.
It's one of those things we'll never really know for certain, but baseball is full of debates like that.