The City’s Greatest Champion: The Legend of Cumberland Posey, Jr.

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten. 

Posey's stellar play and later management of the Homestead Grays Negro League team eventually garnered him admission in Baseball's Hall of Fame. PHOTO CREDIT - Darryl B. Daisey, 2010

It was a sunny July day in Cooperstown, New York and many were gathered to see what was about to transpire.  Major League Baseball had decided to recognize the efforts of 17 Negro League Baseball players by inducting them into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  As Buck O’Neil, the former first baseman and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, stepped up to the podium everyone paused to listen.  He began, “These people helped build the bridge across the chasm of prejudice …” O’Neil’s words rang out across the Hall’s lawn as he sang the praises of the men and woman being inducted into the Hall.   He specifically hailed the contributions of Cumberland Posey Jr. of the Homestead Grays.  Posey was not present at the ceremony because it was 2006 and Posey had passed away 60 years prior.  Nonetheless, after nearly 70 years of being ignored, Posey and 16 others were being recognized for their contributions to the game of baseball; contributions that had been previously ignored because of their skin color.  If Cumberland Posey Jr. could have lived to see that day, he would have been proud of how far baseball has come.  More than that, he may have been a little shocked at his own induction.  After all, he was being honored at a Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown when baseball was not even his best sport.1

Cumberland Willis Posey, Jr., or Cum Posey as his contemporaries knew him, was born on June 20, 1890 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the borough of Homestead.  He was born the youngest of the three children to Cumberland Willis, Sr. and Anna Stevens Posey. The Posey’s were one of the richest black families in Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Sr. serving as the General Manager for the Delta Coal Company.   Posey’s mother Anna was the first black graduate of Ohio State University.  She was also the first black teacher there. Cumberland, Jr. grew up in a very affluent family that placed high priority on education and entrepreneurship.   Posey’s passion, however, was for athletics.2

In the early 1900s, basketball was still a young game.  While the sport had begun to establish itself in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., in the city of Pittsburgh, basketball was an infant.   Growing up, Posey played basketball in the streets and grew to love the game.  As he matured, he excelled a number of sports – most notably baseball, football, golf, and basketball.  Though Posey only grew to be 5’4” tall and weigh 140 pounds, he was a truculent athlete.  For the high school’s baseball team, he was a power-hitting right fielder.  On the school’s football team, he was a star fullback.  For the Homestead High School basketball team, he was a dominant guard. He was absolutely incredible.  On the court he was incredibly quick and played the game with an astuteness that was unrivaled. The only criticism that Posey drew as a player is that he did not play what coaches at the time called “scientific basketball” which was a style of play that stressed lay-ups and below the basket shots.  Posey was one of the game’s first perimeter shooters.   In 1908, young Posey led Homestead High School to the Pittsburgh City Championship title.3

Upon his graduation from high school, Posey decided to pursue a college education.  He first enrolled at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.  He studied chemistry and pharmacy.  He was very intelligent but he ignored his studies to focus on sports.  He was an exceptional basketball player.  In 1910, Posey made the varsity as a sophomore (freshman players could not be on varsity collegiate squads at this time) and became the first black intercollegiate athlete in the history of Penn State.2 Posey’s grades began to slip as he gave more of his attention to basketball.  Eventually the Nittany Lions threw him off the team for academic reasons.  After two years of playing basketball and attending Penn State, Posey dropped out.4 Posey decided to give school another go in 1913 and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh.  While at Pittsburgh, Posey was considered one of the best basketball players in the country.  He had a brief stint playing basketball there as well and exhausted his eligibility before dropping out of that institution as well. In 1915, Posey enrolled at Holy Ghost (present-day Duquesne University).  Posey had always been noted as having light skin and hazel eyes and so at Holy Ghost, for the sake of athletic eligibility, he passed himself off as a white player by the name of Charles Cumbert.  At Holy Ghost, he was the basketball team’s leading scorer and the captain of the golf team.   Eventually, he dropped out of Holy Ghost as well.  In spite of his intelligence, Posey never graduated from college.  By the third time Posey dropped out of college around 1916, he had already established himself as a great athlete. 3

In 1909, after graduating high school, Cumberland had teamed up with his brother Seward “See” Posey to establish the Monticello Athletic Club – a semi-professional black basketball team – in Homestead, Pennsylvania.3 The name Monticello was taken from the street where Posey had grown up.  With the Cum Posey at the helm as the coach and starting right guard and coupled with his brother See Posey, James Dorsey, Sell Hall, and Walter Clark, the Monticello Delaney Rifles were a strong semi-pro squad.  They held their practices in the crowded Washington Field House, during the four hours a week that blacks were allowed inside, and played every possible opponent that they could.  Until a game in 1912, the Delaneys went largely unnoticed.5

On March 8, 1912, Cum Posey and the Monticello Athletic Association faced off against the Howard University varsity team out of Washington, D.C. at the Washington Field House.   Howard had won the black collegiate national championship in 1911 led by Ed Gray and Henry Nixon.  The heavily favored Howard team faced off against the Delaney Rifles in what Posey remembered as, “the first colored game ever played in Pittsburgh.” It had been decided that the game would be played under college rules (at the time there three or four sets of established rules).  The first half was hard fought and brutal and at intermission the Delaneys were ahead 9 – 8.  In the second half, the Monticello club demanded the rest of the game be played by YMCA rules.  The Howard University team was unversed in these rules and the mid-game change in rules confused the opposing team.  Cum Posey would explain years later that Monticello did this a lot in the early days to “bewilder the opposition”.6

Cum Posey took over from there, and at game’s end had scored 15 points,6 shooting the majority of his shots from beyond the free throw line.Howard had no answer for the perimeter shooting of Cumberland Posey, Jr.  His ability to make shots from twenty feet out without the backboard was something the players from Howard had never seen.6   The Monticello team defeated the Howard Big Five 24 -19 in an upset that garnered national attention. 3 The Delaney Rifles had handed Howard only their third loss in three years.6 Cum Posey and the Monticello Athletic Association had arrived.

Posey on the Penn State Basketball Team in 1913 PHOTO CREDIT - Darryl B. Daisey, 2010

The Monticello team was able to use their newfound fame to go on the road and play a number of teams from New York and Washington.   They beat every opponent that they faced including a rout of the New York All-Stars.  At the end of the season, Monticello had been unofficially crowned as the champions.  Throughout the sports world, Cumberland Posey, Jr. was being hailed as the best player in the nation.4 Bob Kuska wrote that, “Posey stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul Robeson, Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, and other great black baseball and football players as the finest athlete of his generation.”6

The following season, Posey renamed his team the Loendi Big Five in recognition of the team’s sponsor; the Loendi Social and Literary Club of Pittsburgh.4   The Loendi Big Five had a rematch against the Howard Big Five for the championship that season on January 17, 1913.  In a game that was being played under the same YMCA rules that had handicapped Howard a year prior, Posey and the Loendi Big Five were left dazed by the quickness of Howard’s team.  The Howard team shut down Posey and picked apart the rest of the Loendi Big Five as they went on to win 33 – 15.6  The loss only proved to be a small bump in the road for Posey and his team as that year, Howard’s starting line-up all graduated and went to find other jobs.  It opened the door for a decade-long dynasty in Pittsburgh.

Today many would not think of the Steel City as a basketball town but in the 1910s and 20s, Pittsburgh had basketball’s best team in the Loendi Big Five and it’s best player in Cum Posey.  Throughout the rest of the 1910s and the 1920s, the Loendi Big Five won game after game.  Cum Posey’s brashness and ferocity made it easy for his rivals to hate him on the court but to respect his talent. From 1920 – 1923, the Loendi Big Five won an unprecedented four straight Colored World Championships.   During this run, they defeated great black teams, such as Bob Douglas’s Eastern Champion New York Spartan Braves by 20 points in 1921, and the best white teams, such as the New York Celtics.   From 1911 – 1925, no team was better than the Loendi Big Five and no player was better than Cum Posey.7   About Posey’s superiority on the court, the Interstate Tattler wrote, “The mystic wand of Posey ruled basketball with as much éclat as Rasputin dominated the Queen of all the Russias.”

In the late 20s, the Loendi Big Five began to deteriorate but the team had already made their mark on the game. Posey’s style of play and the rivalries the Loendi Big Five had with teams from New York and Washington had caused the popularity of the game to increase.  When basketball became a more widespread sport in the late 20s, it was because of the contributions of Cum Posey.   By that point however, Bob Douglas had established a new dynasty, the Harlem Renaissance, and Cum Posey had moved on to another endeavor.7

In the 1990s, basketball’s best player, Michael Jordan, left the game behind to pursue a career in baseball.  Similarly in the 1920s, Cum Posey, the best basketball player of the 1910s and 20s, left behind basketball for what he believed to be a more lucrative entrepreneurial pursuit.   Posey had not limited himself simply to basketball.  In the early 1920s he was playing semi-professional football for the Homestead Grays football team, was managing the Homestead Grays Boxing Club, and more famously, he was the owner of the Homestead Grays Negro League Baseball team.8

Posey had started playing for the Homestead Grays shortly after he and his brother Seward started the Monticello Athletic Association/Loendi Big Five.   Posey had a quick bat and a strong arm and was an anchor for the team at centerfield.   After three years on the team, he was named the captain and the following year he became the manager of the Homestead Grays.  In 1919, Cumberland Posey, Jr. bought the Homestead Grays and became team owner.   Over the next twenty-five years, he built the Homestead Grays into the best team in all of the Negro Leagues, and probably American baseball in general, with stars such as Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck Leonard, and Oscar Charleston.   The Grays won multiple championships (3 titles in 5 appearances) and Posey helped cement the place of the Negro Leagues in history by establishing the Negro National League and starting a rivalry with the cross-town Pittsburgh Crawfords.  This rivalry increased the popularity of the Negro Leagues and its players.  Always a visionary in everything that he did, Posey saw the end of his baseball success coming as he foretold the integration of baseball.    On March 28, 1946, Cumberland Posey, Jr. passed away, just 13 months before Jackie Robinson would make his debut with the Dodgers.8

Posey excelled in every sport he attempted. Aside from being a Hall of Fame Baseball Player and a Hall of Fame Caliber Basketball player, he was a great football player and an excellent golfer. PHOTO CREDIT - Negro League Baseball Players' Association

It has often been said that “a jack of all trades is a master of none” but Cumberland Posey, Jr. showed that this is not always true.  Throughout his life he took on a number of athletic endeavors and not only did he excel, he was the best at everything he did.   His accomplishments on the basketball court, football field, golf course, and baseball diamond cause the exploits of famous multiple-sport athletes such as Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward, and Jim Brown to pale in comparison.  For nearly twenty years, Cumberland Posey was the best athlete in the entire country and though recognized in baseball’s Hall of Fame, his contributions extend further than just one sport.  His impact goes beyond Cooperstown.

Many affectionately call Pittsburgh the “City of Champions” as a reflection of the city’s great athletic accomplishments.   Yet, long before the Steelers won six Lombardi Trophies and the Pirates won five World Series; before the Penguins hoisted up the Stanley Cup three times – there were the Loendi Big Five basketball team and the Homestead Grays Negro Leagues franchise and their championship years of forgotten fame.   Prior to Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Danny Murtaugh, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Ben Roethlisberger, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, and all the others still to come – there was Cumberland Posey, Jr.  He was the greatest athlete of his generation – the best at basketball, the best at baseball, a star in football, and a mighty stalwart in golf.   In the City of Champions, Cum Posey was their first, their greatest.

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1 Paul Hagen, “Negro League pioneers ‘helped build bridge”, Negro League Baseball Players Association, July 30, 2006, http://www.nlbpa.com/30july2006.html.

2  James A. Riley, “Cumberland ‘Cum’ Posey”, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 1994.

3 “A Man For [Nearly] All Seasons”, FanIQ.com, February 25, 2010, http://www.faniq.com/article/A-Man-For-Nearly-All-Seasons-Cumberland-Posey-2001432.

4 John N. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman, “African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary”, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1994.

5 Rob Ruck, “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh”, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

6 Bob Kuska, “Hot Potato”, University of Virginia Press, 2006.

7  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance”, Simon & Schuster, 2007.

8 Brian McKenna, “Cum Posey”, The Baseball Biography Project, Accessed June 4, 2010, http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=2664&pid=19647.


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Remembering the Soul of Baseball

Author’s Note: I encourage you to read Buck O’Neil’s autobiography “I Was Right on Time” or Joe Posnanski’s “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America” to truly understand the greatness of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil.

There once was a light that shined brightly in Kansas City but five years has passed since it last burned so bright.  For some Kansas City is jazz; for some it’s barbeque; to others it’s art; to many, it’s baseball.  But to John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil, Kansas City was home.  If jazz and baseball are the heart of Kansas City, Buck O’Neil was it’s soul.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of  Buck O’Neil.  He lived a good long life (died just a month before his 95th birthday) but I still feel he was taken from us way too soon.  Buck O’Neil was born in Carrabelle, Florida on November 13, 1911.  He was raised in Sarasota.  Times were tough for young Buck growing up but one thing he knew as a young boy was that he loved baseball.  He got the chance to grow up watching greats like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson play the game he loved.   However Buck would tell you any day of the week that Negro Leaguers Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige were even better.  Many like to argue Ruth vs. Gibson or Paige vs. Johnson but O’Neil was one of the few in that debate who actually saw them play.  He was one of the few who had met and played against greats like these.

There is so much that I can say about Buck O’Neil and for the sake of brevity I do not even know where to begin.   This is a man who was a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the greatest baseball teams in the history of the game.   In the Negro Leagues he coached Jackie Robinson and Elston Howard.   He played on the same teams as Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell, and Oscar Charleston.  He was the first black coach in Major League history.  As a coach for the Chicago Cubs he discovered players like Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, and Lee Smith.  He was one of the best scouts in the Major Leagues for a number of years.  He was even named the Midwestern Scout of the Year by the MLB while working for the Kansas City Royals in the late 1980’s.  In 2006 (about 4 months before his death), Buck O’Neil signed a one day contract with the Kansas City T-Bones and became the oldest man in the history of professional baseball to make a plate appearance.  He was walked safely to first.  He was a great player and an even greater coach.  But for most of his life, very few knew who he was.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s when Ken Burns made his famed documentary “Baseball” for PBS that many met Buck for the first time.  He was initially brought on to provide commentary for the episode “Shadowball” about the Negro Leagues but Ken Burns soon realized how great a treasure Buck really was and interviewed him for nearly all of his segments. Burns remarked that, “[Buck] is wise, funny, self-depreciating, and absolutely sure of what he wants from life. He is my hero, my friend, and my mentor. He is like Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, what human progress is all about.”   It’s fair to say that Buck stole the show and became a national phenomenon.  Buck always liked to joke that it was “nice to be discovered at 82”. He became an even greater ambassador for the game he loved and was the driving force behind the founding of the Negro League Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine Jazz District in Kansas City.
He was the greatest ambassador that America’s greatest game has ever had and likely, will ever have.   Unfortunately for Buck, he was never really included in baseball.  The Cubs had a longstanding tradition of letting their bench coaches rotate in and out to serve as 1st base or 3rd base coach but the Cubs refused to ever let Buck step foot on that field.  Shortly before Buck died, the Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election for Negro League players.   Buck O’Neil had not wanted much from this life.  He was a simple guy with simple tastes but he wanted to be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Well the day came and went and 17 Negro Leaguers were inducted into the Hall of Fame but the MLB’s first black coach was denied entry.

The baseball community was outraged by the exclusion of Buck from the list of Hall of Famers.  New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro wrote, “They left Buck O’Neil off the list… which makes the list a complete joke.” A Detroit News editorial read, “The committee should be ashamed of itself.”  Many Hall of Famers – Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Joe Morgan among them – were up in arms over Buck’s exclusion.  Hall of Famer Bob Feller remarked upon hearing the committee had excluded Buck, “What the hell do they know about baseball?”

For those at the museum with Buck that day it was obvious that O’Neil was saddened by the news that he did not get in but his only response was,  “Seventeen huh? That’s wonderful.”

Because that’s the kind of guy Buck was.  He loved everybody and he cared more about the game of baseball and more about his friends than he ever cared about himself.  And he considered every person he met a friend.  He always took time to sign autographs for kids (even when he was battling arthritis in old age he would sign hundreds of balls a day) and never passed up the chance to talk to a girl in a red dress (one of his many rules for living).  He never held any bitterness towards anyone in spite of the raw hand he was dealt.  When induction day came around that July, it was Buck O’Neil who stood up there and introduced each and every one of them.  He talked about honor and how he had never felt more loved in the days since the 17 were inducted.   He was a class act all the way and never blamed anyone.  He loved the game and was just thankful to be a part of it.

A year after his passing the Hall of Fame decided to institute the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award to be given no more than once every three years to someone who has served as a great ambassador of the game.  There was no talk of actually inducting Buck into the Hall at the time or since.  They even constructed a statue that they placed right outside of the gallery where they store the Hall of Fame plaques.  I guess it makes sense.  The story of his life was always being just outside of the Majors, just outside of managing, just outside of the Hall – why wouldn’t his legacy be any different?

I am amazed by Buck in his lack of bitterness.  Time and time again Buck would say in regards to his career, “Waste no tears for me.  I didn’t come along too early – I was right on time.” There once was a light that burned bright in Kansas City but it’s been five years since the light has left us.  Buck may have been born right on time but he was taken from us way too soon.  Kansas City and the game of baseball are just not the same without him.