Rogan: Ball's best all-around player?
Kansas City Monarchs star's talent is arguably unmatched
KANSAS CITY -- For multiple historians and writers, the best player in baseball history stood 5-foot-9, weighed 180 pounds and displayed scrawny legs, a narrow waist and broad shoulders. He never played in the Major Leagues and was rarely covered by the mainstream press in his own town.
But Bullet Rogan's uncanny talent has arguably never been equaled by any player in professional baseball.
Rogan, the key ingredient in the great Kansas City Monarchs teams in the 1920s-30s, is considered by many to be the greatest dual threat in baseball history, better than even Babe Ruth and Martin Dihigo.
"I think Rogan is the greatest player to ever play the game," Negro Leagues historian Larry Lester said. "Rogan hit for power equal to Ruth and Dihigo, despite his small stature. He also had more speed on the basepaths to Ruth or Dihigo. He is the only player that I know that was the ace of the pitching staff and batted cleanup for several years."
One of the most important figures in baseball, Rogan helped kickstart the first organized Negro League and helped prove black players were equal to whites on the diamond. By some sources, he was considered the best Negro League pitcher in history, better even than Satchel Paige.
"He was probably the first superstar of the Negro Leagues," Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said. "He was incredible."
Eighty-five years ago, Rogan helped deliver a key victory for black baseball players. In a six-game series against the in-city Kansas City Blues, a team in the Minor League American Association, Rogan hit .444 and struck out nine batters in his only appearance. His exploits helped the Monarchs take five of six games -- and showed black baseball was elite.
"It changed baseball history forever," Negro League historian Phil Dixon wrote in "The Monarchs, 1920-38."
According to statistics compiled by author and historian John Holway, Rogan, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998, is the all-time Negro Leagues wins leader (151). He also finished fourth in batting average (.348) -- a number topped by only four Major Leaguers -- and hit 62 homers. Including his statistics in barnstorming games, Rogan finished with more than 350 homers and 350 stolen bases.
"The totals he put on the ledger in more than 25 years of celebrated play more than nominate him for the title of baseball's greatest all-around player," Dixon wrote.
In an historical context, he also helped the Monarchs capture the first Negro League World Series in 1924. Later in his career, Rogan became one of the most respected managers in the game and helped many young players grow in their careers.
Because of little press and record-keeping, Rogan is sometimes forgotten in the annals of baseball. However, for more than 20 years, Rogan was one of the most important figures in the game.
"For hundreds of thousands, regardless of how you kept score, Rogan was a hero," Dixon wrote. "His stardom, in spite of racism, in spite of a major misapplication by the American press, remains secure."
Rogan starts playing ball
His legendary exploits began in the Army. In the 1910s, Rogan played for the 25th Infantry team, known as the "Wreckers."
Using an extremely rare no windup delivery, Rogan baffled hitters with his famous "heavy" fastball that helped earn him his nickname. Just as important were his unique palm ball and signature drop curveball.
While the origins of the delivery and the pitches are unknown, this much is true: No one could hit him -- in the Army or in the professional ranks.
"The batters thought it was a fastball heading for them and they'd jump back from the plate, and all of a sudden, it would break sharply in for a strike," Monarchs catcher Frank Duncan said of Rogan's signature curve. "I've never seen a pitcher like him, and I've caught some of the best."
Rogan went 51-3 against Army teams in a three-year period. He also tossed 51 consecutive scoreless innings and struck out 25 hitters in one appearance.
There are several accounts that say Rogan was scouted by Casey Stengel -- the future Yankees manager and Hall of Famer -- but that story is in doubt. What is clearly known, though, is, along with several teammates, Rogan was signed by Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson in 1920, the first year of the organized Negro National League.
Rogan joins the Monarchs
Rogan made an immediate impact in his first game. After three days of traveling, Rogan debuted on July 5, 1920. The 27-year-old rookie (some reports list him at 30) dominated the Chicago American Giants, the top team in the Negro League. Rogan allowed one hit and struck out 11 Giants.
Rogan "gave an exhibition of hurling that had 10,000 fans yelping and the American Giants standing on their heads," the Chicago Defender wrote.
The next day, Rogan played right field and collected two hits. Three weeks later, his versatility in a six-game series against the Giants helped cement himself as one of the best players in baseball.
In front of thousands of fans wielding cowbells and whistles, KC won four of six games. Rogan enjoyed three extra-base hits and struck out 21 hitters in 21 innings.
"He could do it all," Buck O'Neil said in his book, "I was Right On Time."
On the mound, Rogan went 20-11 with a 2.93 ERA in 1921 -- one of several years when he won 20 or more games. During one stretch, the Monarchs even had trouble with their catching situation. Several backstops couldn't handle Rogan's pitches.
"Rogan could throw a curveball faster than most pitchers could throw a fastball," Chet Brewer added in John Holway's Blackball Stars. "He was the best pitcher I ever saw in my life, no comparison."
Hitting-wise, Rogan delivered so often in the clutch that Rube Foster, the owner of the American Giants, started to walk him in pressure situations. It didn't stop Rogan -- starting in 1922, he hit at least .330 in seven of the next nine seasons.
In addition to his masterful pitching and hitting, Rogan was also considered to be superb with the glove. O'Neil said Rogan was the greatest fielding pitcher he had ever seen.
Monarchs defeat Blues
The year 1922 marked one of the crowning moments for Rogan and the Monarchs. Dixon wrote that Rogan "surpassed Babe Ruth as the best player in baseball." Rogan also helped his team in a larger sense, helping to gain social equality on the diamond.
Rogan hit .439 with 18 homers and 20 wins -- and, more importantly, helped the Monarchs defeat the Kansas City Blues in a series. The Blues, one of the best offenses in the American Association, had taken five contests from the Monarchs in an eight-game stretch the year before.
This time, Rogan, who tossed a complete game and was one of the team's best hitters, led the Monarchs to a 5-1 series win.
While other black teams had defeated white squads in the past, this victory helped the mainstream audience understand the Monarchs' strength.
After the series, The Kansas City Star, the city's white newspaper, displayed a headline that read: "The New City Champions."
"The series has done more to boost Negro-organized baseball in this town with the white fans than anything else could have done," the Star wrote. "While they have always attended in large numbers ... they have generally believed that [the Negro Leagues] were an inferior game of ball."
"But their eyes are open now to the fact that it isn't lack of ability that keeps the Negro ballplayers off the big time -- it's color," the Star added.
The Associated Negro Press agreed and wrote The Kansas City Monarchs "outgeneraled and outplayed the KC Blues in every phase of the game."
Thomas Hickey, commissioner of the American Association, banned the Blues from ever playing the Monarchs again.
"Call it prejudice or just plain-old protectionism, the Blues weren't about to let the Monarchs create a yard stick to measure the white leagues as inferior," Dixon wrote.
Major League Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis took similar steps in the offseason. Paced by Rogan, a Negro League team defeated a white squad that included Babe Ruth.
Landis suspended Ruth for the first part of the next season and took steps to halt white teams from playing black squads.
Whites respected Rogan
But Rogan never stopped proving he was one of the best players in baseball. He finished with a career .370 average in contests against his white counterparts.
His pitching drew raves from white players, too. Brewer remembers a moment when the great Al Simmons "crawled trying to hit [Rogan's palm] ball."
Babe Herman said Rogan "was the best colored pitcher I have ever hit against. He had one of the best curveballs I ever saw ... I always said he was much better than Satchel Paige."
Hall of Famer Bob Feller went one step further -- and paid the ultimate compliment for a 5-foot-9 player who never earned the full recognition he deserved. Feller said to Wilbur Rogan, Bullet's son: "Your father was the best pitcher I ever saw."
Feller paused and finished: "That includes the white ones."
Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.