All-State Tournament: Pennsylvania vs. Indiana
When Indiana captain Oscar Charleston found out that JoeBlogs readers voted the 10th-seeded Hoosier State the biggest underdog in the Final Eight — even bigger underdogs than 14-seed Louisiana against No. 6 Alabama — he shrugged.
“I’ve dealt with doubters my whole life,” he said. “I don’t mean any disrespect to those Pennsylvania boys. But I feel pretty good about what we have over here.”
One of the players he felt particularly good about was his shortstop, Ted Strong. Not many people — even people who have spent some time studying the Negro leagues — know much about Ted Strong.
Buck O’Neil used to say that Strong was a lot like Cal Ripken Jr. … only bigger. Strong was officially listed at 6-foot-3 — an inch shorter than Ripken* — but Buck used to say he had to be at least seven feet tall.
*I saw Cal Ripken in Cooperstown over the weekend and I have to tell you: The guy’s absolutely massive. He’s “block out the sun” huge.
Strong was a star for the Kansas City Monarchs AND an even bigger star for the Harlem Globetrotters back when they were, for real, the best basketball team in the world. There have been other ballplayers who played for the Globetrotters — Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins among them. But Strong was the STAR of the Globetrotters, which is a different thing.
There’s so much to say about Strong as a basketball player. Abe Saperstein, owner of the Globies, used to say he had the biggest hands in basketball. He could do all the tricks — juggle three basketballs, show the ball to an opponent and then make it disappear like it was a coin, etc. But beyond that he was a truly fantastic player who could so everything on the court — sort of a smaller Jimmy Butler. I remember some years ago finding an old history of the Globetrotters, and the only thing it said about Ted Strong was that he was “probably the greatest basketball player in history.”
Strong was also a chatterbox on both the diamond and court. In basketball, he would apparently shout “Foul! Foul! Come on! Foul!” in such a high-pitched voice that the audience would break out in laughter.
And as a baseball player, he would chatter non-stop. “Satchel would say, ‘Nancy, can you make him stop talking,?’” Buck remembered. “But I never could.”
What a player, though. By the best statistics, Strong hit .329/.426/.503 against top-level Negro leagues competition and was the best player on the legendary 1942 Monarchs team that won the Negro Leagues World Series (he won the Triple Crown that year). There was some talk in the Black press of him being the first African-American player to break through the color barrier. But after World War II broke out, he joined the Navy, where he earned the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Seabee Insignia and the Philippine Liberation Medal.
He lost three full years to the war, and even though he won another batting title in 1946, he was never quite the same baseball player after that. He was still a basketball star, though.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, started Honus Wagner, often regarded as the greatest shortstop in baseball history.
“No offense to Hans,” Charleston would say, “but I’ll take our guy.”
Hans was the key figure in the opening game in Pittsburgh, driving in two runs, including the game winner in the bottom of the ninth. With the scored tied 2-2, Roy Campanella singled off the fading Three-Finger Brown. Nellie Fox drew a walk. And Wagner ended things by lashing a single to rightfield to give Pennsylvania a 1-0 series lead.
But then: It was Ted Strong’s time.