“Some may say he crushed the weak as well as the strong on the way to the top of the ladder. But no matter what his critics say, they cannot deny that he was the smartest man in Negro baseball and certainly the most successful,” Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith once wrote of Cumberland Posey.
The only person in the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame, Posey was one of the greatest athletes of his era and a brilliant businessman. Before becoming one of the most influential men in baseball, having been a player, manager, owner, executive and league officer, he starred in basketball in college.
Born June 20, 1890, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh, Posey’s father Cumberland “Cap” Willis Posey Sr. was the son of freed slaves who rose to become the first Black licensed riverboat engineer in the U.S. and founded the Diamond Coke and Coal Company. Posey’s mother, Anna Stevens Posey, also became the first Black graduate of her high school in Athens, Ohio.
Growing up in Homestead, near the Carnegie Steel Works on the south bank of the Monongahela River, Posey began to love sports. In 1909, he became the first African American to play sports at Penn State, playing basketball there for two years. In 1915, he played basketball for the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost, which became Duquesne. He played using an alias — Charles Cumbert — and helped the team in scoring for three years.
At 5-foot-9, 145 pounds, MLB.com writes that he was described “as small, agile and quick, scoring the majority of his points in basketball around the perimeter.” He became one of the country’s best Black basketball players but had at that time already begun playing baseball for the Murdock Grays which was later renamed the Homestead Grays. Posey started playing center field for the Grays in 1911 and booked games for the club. By 1920, he had bought the team with the help of his father.
During this time, the Negro National League was formed in the Midwest but Posey was against organized baseball and believed that barnstorming was good for his team because it could bring in more money. So the Grays added games against semi-pro white teams in Ohio, West Virginia and in other places in Pennsylvania, according to History.com.
As baseballhall.org states, Posey turned the Grays “into a highly successful regional enterprise as an independent team.” In 1929, when the country was heading into the Great Depression, Posey decided that it was time to join the Negro League.
“In addition to playing for and managing the Grays, Posey built the team into a powerhouse that won nine Negro National League championships from 1937-48 and three Negro League World Series. He managed the 1931 team that, including barnstorming, finished with a 163-23 record and is considered one of baseball’s all-time best teams,” History.com writes.
A militant sportsman, Posey once pulled his team from the field in front of 10,000 fans in New York because he disagreed with a call by an umpire. He “flared up in a temperamental outburst and ordered his club from the field,” in the game that was played in July 1928, according to the Chicago Defender. All in all, Posey’s team made a lot of money.
“I read in the papers that the Cincinnati Reds lost $30,000 last year. Any time the Grays made less than $30,000 a year we considered it a poor season. That gives you some idea of the big business Negro baseball has become,” Posey told the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph in the 1940s.
The sports pioneer would die of cancer in March 1946 aged 55. Homestead schools closed for the day during his burial. An advocate for Black baseball, he had been having discussions with Dodgers president Branch Rickey about how best to integrate the game when he passed away. In 1988, Posey was enshrined in Duquesne’s Sports Hall of Fame and the university created a $1 million endowment in his name 25 years later to help minority students. In 2006, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and 10 years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Many Negro Leagues Hall of Famers played for his team, including Ray Brown, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, and Josh Gibson.