Review Fix chats with Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays author Jim Overmyer, who lets us know why Cumberland Posey is more than a Negro League legend.
Review Fix: What inspired this book?
Jim Overmyer: I’ve been writing about black baseball history for about 30 years and have found the business and cultural side of it to be more and more interesting. Until 2006 there was only one Negro League owner, the inimitable Rube Foster, in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That year, though, Cumberland Posey, Jr., and three other owners were elected. As of a few years ago three of the five were the subjects of at least one biography, and a book about another was in progress. So, I thought that Posey, whose life was at least as interesting, if not more so, than the others, ought to have one, too. I had done a paper about twenty years ago on his battle with fellow owner Gus Greenlee over control of black baseball in Pittsburgh, so I had something with which to start.
Review Fix: What was the writing and editing experience like for you?
Overmyer: I have found over the years that as much as I enjoy writing, I like to do the underlying research even more. When I’m between writing projects I’ll often pitch in and do research for other black ball writers (as they do for me – we’re not a big group, but we’re incredibly cooperative). A history book should be well grounded in details about its place and time. In the case of a sports history, that includes a lot of research into games and seasons – in this case, who did Posey’s Homestead Grays play, how many games did they win, and who was on the roster as the Grays evolved from a local Pittsburgh phenomenon into one of the best black teams in the country?
Review Fix: What makes it different from other baseball books?
Overmyer: I doubt if there are too many baseball biographies with a chapter devoted to basketball. Posey had been in the Baseball Hall of Fame for several years when I began the book. But suddenly, one day in 2016 he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, an event that I didn’t see coming at all. He’s one of only two individuals with that honor – Cal Hubbard, a Green Bay Packer in the 1930s, and then an American League baseball umpire for years, is the only other one.
I had intended to give Posey’s time as one of the top black basketball players on the East Coast, and organizer of a championship-level team, some space in the book, but frankly not a lot. Instead, work on his baseball story stopped dead for a few months while I gave myself a crash course in early twentieth century black basketball. This resulted in a separate hoop chapter, one of the longest in the book.
Review Fix: Did you learn anything you weren’t expecting?
Overmyer: Well, there was all that basketball information, for one thing.
But, seriously, there were two other topics that attracted my attention, and they also didn’t have anything to do with baseball. Posey was the son of a well-off black riverboat captain on the Ohio River who also built steamboats, which were crucial to supplying the steel mills in Pittsburgh with coal. His business associates included several white men. Posey’s mother was a leading educational and social force in Pittsburgh’s African American community. Their son was well educated, dedicated to black advancement, and an extremely hard-headed businessman who could do business with the white power structure. It’s often difficult to trace a person’s attributes directly back to their parents, but in this case, he was a combination of mom and dad’s most significant strengths.
Again, looking beyond baseball, I also found out he was influential in his hometown of Homestead, a Pittsburgh suburb. He served multiple terms as the first African American on the town’s school board and helped overturn a corrupt town administration during the Depression by siding with a local reform movement. This got him assaulted and arrested twice by the opposition.
Review Fix: Why does Cumberland Posey matter today?
Overmyer: This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first Negro League. The black leagues created a place for discriminated-against players, both African Americans and Latin Americans, to play professionally and perfect the skills needed to succeed in Major League Baseball when the color line finally fell in 1947. The story of Cumberland Posey, who began to play semi-professional baseball in the Pittsburgh area in 1911 and rose to become a leading black ball figure in the following 35 years, is emblematic of both the difficulties and successes on their own terms of black sports figures, blocked from mainstream leagues by de facto segregation.
Review Fix: How do you think he’d fare in today’s MLB?
Overmyer: When professional baseball integrated (or re-integrated, to be exact, since there were blacks in pro ball, including at least two in the majors, in the nineteenth century), it turned out that the best black players were welcome, but the Negro League owners and executives by and large were not, except for a few who crossed over as scouts. Posey had all the skills one could have wanted in a baseball executive – he could find talent, he could keep his players in line, and he could keep his team in the public eye (he was a newspaper columnist for a black weekly on the side). He could easily be a key front office executive if around today. He would have been a possible candidate for an Organized Baseball job in the late 1940s, except he died of cancer in the spring of 1946, mere weeks before Jackie Robinson began playing in the minors. There’s also the question of whether he could have gone to work for someone else after three decades of running the Homestead Grays. He had business partners along the way, but always made it clear that he was in charge. He almost never publicly admitted that he was wrong about anything.
Review Fix: Who do you think he’d be compared to if he was playing today?
Overmyer: In baseball, he was the Grays regular left fielder through the early 1920s, as well as field manager and principal owner. He had speed, was a good fielder, and could get on base as a lead-off man. But he wasn’t a great hitter. As the Grays improved from a local semi-pro team to a Negro League championship squad, he gradually replaced local Pittsburgh stars with nationally-known players. One of the regulars he cut was himself.
In basketball, though, he was considered one of the best black players in the East (where most of the major black teams were located). He wasn’t very tall, but he was fast and a dead shot, particularly from outside. Steph Curry, maybe.
Review Fix: Who do you think will enjoy this book the most?
Overmyer: The obvious core audience is baseball fans of the Negro Leagues, and since this is the leagues’ centennial year, interest is up. Posey’s in the basketball as well as baseball Hall of Fame, so even though this is primarily a baseball book, hoop fans should be interested, too. But Posey was an aggressive leader in the black sports world. In the parlance of his day, he was a “race man,” an African American who could be said to be a model for blacks, and who worked to elevate their status in his field, which just happened to be professional sports. His father had done the same in the river transportation business, and his mother in local education. Sports history, as is the case for music and theater, for example, should never be confined just to the main topic. It can be a way to learn about an entire culture at a particular point in time.
Review Fix: What are your goals for this book?
Overmyer: I’d like to see interest in it extended past black baseball readers to those who like to read about sports in general. From there, I’d like to see it be read by those interested in twentieth century black history. In particular, the Pittsburgh area has several strong institutions devoted to area history, including sports history, and the Homestead Grays name is still known there. Hopefully that will be a good market.
Review Fix: What’s next for you?
Overmyer: When I finish a book manuscript, I’ve been so engrossed in it for months that I generally can’t think of what to do next. I have learned to lay back and let the next idea come to me, as I’m sure it will, in due time. In the meantime, I am an editor of Black Ball, a black baseball journal published by McFarland, and, as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, I have volunteered to look into the early history of baseball in Arizona, where I live, for a SABR project. There’s always something to do.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Overmyer: My first Negro Leagues book, published in 1993, was a biography of Effa Manley who, with her husband Abe, owned the Newark Eagles in the 1930s and ‘40s. She was elected to the Hall of Fame (as the only woman member) in 2006, the same year as Cumberland Posey. An updated second edition of the Manley book, Queen of the Negro Leagues, is coming out in April.