Shohei Ohtani, The Bambino, and Bullet Joe

Before there was Shohei Ohtani, there were players like Martin Dihigo. (via Public Domain)

The arrival of Shohei Ohtani has triggered justifiable excitement. His combination of power and pitching is unprecedented in contemporary baseball, and his feats of two-way strength have put one name on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Babe Ruth. No article about Ohtani is complete without a mention of Ruth’s accomplishments as both ace pitcher and cleanup hitter.

This is understandable. The idea that Ohtani is doing things not done since BABE RUTH is an electrifying idea. It has already spawned a new genre of twitter factoid. After Ohtani’s home run on April 3, ELIAS was quick to point out that Ohtani was the first player since since Babe Ruth in 1921 to earn a win in one game, then homer as a non-pitcher in his next. After a magnificent first week that saw Ohtani slash .389/.421/.889 with homers homers, post an 18-2 K/BB ratio, and take a perfect game into the seventh inning on Sunday afternoon, the comparisons of Ohtani to Ruth only look to multiply.

But the singular focus on Ruth obscures a richer history. On Friday at FanGraphs, Jay Jaffe wrote a great piece, resurrecting the names of some forgotten two-way players. But his investigation produced a roundup of footnotes, gimmicks and emergency back-up plans. One might still walk away believing that Ruth was the last great two-way player. But this is not true. Long after Ruth committed full time to hitting, there remained a wealth of phenomenal two-way players accomplishing phenomenal two-way feats.

They can’t be found in the major league baseball records because they were not allowed to play major league baseball. I speak of the black and Latino stars of the Negro Leagues. And far from footnotes, gimmicks or emergency back-up plans, they were some of the greatest players in baseball history. Four in particular stand out as all time greats: Bullet Rogan, Martín Dihigo, Double-Duty Radcliffe and Leon Day. Ohtani’s arrival is the perfect opportunity to look back at their spectacular careers, both to put Ohtani’s accomplishments in more complete historical context and to celebrate the undisputed, but often forgotten, greatness of these legendary players.

Bullet Rogan

Charles Wilber Rogan was born in 1893. He joined the Army at the age of 18, and his supreme athleticism soon led to his recruitment into the 25th Infantry Wreckers, the best baseball team in the armed forces. Rogan quickly became their best player. When he left the service in 1919, Rogan joined the famous All Nations team—a barnstorming club composed of an intentionally diverse lineup featuring black, white, Native American, Hawaiian, Japanese and Latino players.

According to an oft-told legend, Rogan was recommended to All Nations owner J.L. Wilkinson by Casey Stengel, who had seen Rogan play while they briefly barnstormed together. This apocryphal story has been debunked, but Stengel later confirmed he believed Rogan was, “one of the best—if not the best—pitcher that ever lived.

When Wilkinson founded the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920, Rogan joined the team. The right-hander instantly became one of the best pitchers in the league—and he remains one of the challengers to Satchel Paige for the title of “Greatest Pitcher in Negro League History.” Rogan perfected a no-windup, sidearm delivery that kept the ball low and hitters off balance. His blazing fastball had already earned him the nickname “Bullet” or “Bullet Joe” Rogan, and he paired this fastball with a fantastic curve and array of secondary pitches to keep hitters flailing.

Longtime catcher Frank Duncan, who caught both Paige and Rogan, said: “Bullet had a little more steam on the ball than Paige—and he had a better-breaking curve. The batters thought it was a fastball heading for them and they would jump back from the plate and all of a sudden, it would break sharply for a strike.”

Teammate George Carr added that Rogan’s lethality was not based solely on raw natural talent: “He not only had an arm to pitch with, but a head to think with. Rogan was a smart pitcher with a wonderful memory. Once Rogan pitched to a batter he never forgot that batter’s weakness.” Records from the Negro Leagues are depressingly fragmented, but the indispensable Seamheads Negro Leagues Database shows that over 1,300 documented innings between 1920-1937, Rogan posted a 1.15 WHIP and a minute 2.77 ERA, calculated against league average to be a cool 145 ERA+.

But we wouldn’t be here if Bullet Rogan was merely one of the best pitchers of all time. His bat and natural fielding ability made his omission from the lineup unthinkable. On days he did not pitch, he roamed the outfield and crushed opposing pitching. Buck O’Neill later said, “You saw Ernie Banks hit in his prime, then you saw Rogan.”

Though he took a back seat to no one on the mound, Paige himself readily acknowledged Rogan’s superior two-way talent: “He was the onliest pitcher I ever saw, I ever heard of in my life, was pitching and hitting in the cleanup place.” For his part, Frank Duncan said: “If you had to choose between Rogan and Paige, you’d pick Rogan, because he could hit. The pitching, you’d as soon have Satchel as Rogan, understand? But Rogan’s hitting was so terrific. Get my point?”

We do. Rogan’s lifetime slash line covering 1,700 PA between 1920-1937 was .343/.405/.533, good for a 160 OPS+. Basically Rogan hit like Jose Altuve and pitched like Justin Verlander. The fact that Bullet Rogan isn’t a household name is a crime against history.

Martín Dihigo

Martín Dihigo was quite simply one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. A true star at every position, the Seamheads database logs Dihigo playing more than 150 innings at first base, second, third, shortstop, left field, center field and right field in addition to regular pitching duties.

Born in Matanzas, Cuba in 1905, Dihigo broke into the Negro Leagues with the Cuban Stars at the age of 17. When he turned 21, he finally harnessed the full potential of his huge-for-the-time 6-foot-3 frame. During that breakout year in 1926, he played primarily at first base when he wasn’t pitching. On the mound, he posted a respectable 3.86 ERA, but at the plate he demolished opposing pitchers to the tune of .375/.475/.737. It was the beginning of a legendary career that would earn Dihigo the nicknames “The Immortal” and “The Maestro.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Dihigo continued to be one of the best players in the Negro Leagues through the 1920’s and ’30’s. He was admired as a swift and graceful fielder in both the infield and outfield, while at the plate, he destroyed baseballs no matter the position he played. In 1930, he hit .369/.423/.754 with the Cuban Stars. In 1931, he hit .338/.425/.556 splitting time between the Hilldale Club and Baltimore Black Sox.

His hitting exploits were the stuff of legend. Schoolboy Johnny Taylor recalled a line drive Dihigo hit that nearly took the head off of the opposing shortstop. Never gaining or losing altitude, the ball slammed into the outfield wall before the shortstop could even raise his glove. Taylor said, “A foot lower and it would have killed the panicked infielder.”

As he emerged as an otherworldly hitter and fielder, Dihigo pitched less often in the Negro Leagues, though on the mound his numbers continued to be very good. His best overall season came in 1935 when he hit .301/.380/.509 while posting a 2.86 ERA for the New York Cubans. But while he pitched less in the Negro Leagues, Dihigo continued to be a frontline ace on other teams he played for. Like most black and Latino stars of the day, Dihigo stayed on the move during his long career—migrating between the American Negro Leagues in the summer and leagues in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic during the winter.

Dihigo also spent considerable time in Mexico. playing in the recently formed Liga Mexicana de Béisbol. He set most of the early single season records for both hitting and pitching, including throwing the first no-hitter in Mexican League history.

By the best estimates, Dihigo accumulated close to 300 pitcher wins over the course of his career, and routinely ended a season as the league leader in any number of categories: batting average, strikeouts, doubles, wins, ERA or home runs. Sometimes all at the same time. In 1938, he lead the Mexican League with a .387 average while posting a nearly perfect 0.90 ERA.

During his travels, Dihigo often played with major league and Negro League stars, all of whom sung his praises. After playing with Dihigo in 1943, Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize said, “Dihigo was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, manage, pitch, run and pinch hit.” Hall of Famer Buck Leonard said, “He was the greatest all-around player I know. I’d say he was the best ballplayer of all time, black or white. He could do it all. He is my ideal ballplayer, makes no difference what race either. If he’s not the greatest, I don’t know who is. You take your Ruths, Cobbs, and DiMaggios. Give me Dihigo and I bet I’d beat you almost every time.”

Double Duty Radcliffe

Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe was born in Mobile in 1902 and grew up five houses away from his childhood friend Satchel Paige. In the 1920’s, both men moved north to pursue baseball careers, becoming frequent teammates, rivals,and businesses partners.

Radcliffe is unique among the two-way stars because he split his time not between pitching and fielding, but between pitching and catching. Radcliffe debuted with the Detroit Stars in 1928 as a full time catcher, but his arm was so strong and accurate that occasional pitching duty turned into routine pitching duty. Establishing a reputation early for jumping teams whenever a better opportunity presented itself, Radcliffe moved to the St. Louis Stars in 1930, where he spent the first half of the season as a catcher, and the second half as a full time pitcher.

In 1931, he joined Paige on the Homestead Grays and served as their starting catcher. After the season, he participated in a historic defection of talent when he, Paige, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Jud Wilson were lured en mass from the Grays to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. They were soon joined by other future Hall of Famers Judy Johnson and Cool Papa Bell, making the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords one of the greatest single teams ever assembled.

It was during the 1932 season that Radcliffe earned the nickname he celebrated for the rest of his life. In a double-header played at Yankee Stadium, Radcliffe caught a Satchel Paige shutout in the first game (hitting a grand slam to boot), then switched gloves, took the mound, and pitched his own shutout in game two. The famed writer and journalist Damon Runyon was in the stands that day and wrote, “it was worth the price of two admissions to see ‘Double Duty’ Radcliffe play.”

Despite the grand slam he hit for Runyon, Radcliffe spent most of his career as a below-average hitter—a free swinging, low-OBP machine who had just enough pop to keep pitchers on their toes. His recorded Negro League career line is a rather anemic .255/.285/.338. On the mound he also lacked the natural gifts of Paige or Rogan but made up for it by being crafty. Literally crafty. Double Duty Radcliffe was proud to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on doctoring baseballs. Whether on the mound or behind the plate, he never missed an opportunity to scuff, knick, cut or spit on a ball. Not shy about his accomplishments, Radcliffe later boasted, “I was the best Emery ball pitcher who ever lived.”

Where Radcliffe really shined, though, was behind the plate. He was considered one of the best defensive catchers in the league. Wearing a chest protector that said “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” he loved to show off his cannon of a right arm to the point of encouraging Paige to walk batters so he could throw them out.

Radcliffe was also a great game caller who could simultaneously see every at-bat from the perspective of the hitter, pitcher and catcher. Former Negro League and major league pitcher Joe Black said, “He was a great defensive catcher, one of the best ever, always talking to the hitters, distracting them, always encouraging his pitchers, never negative.”

Invested in every pitch, a skillful tactician, and keen promoter and entrepreneur, Radcliffe often added third and fourth duties to his resume, serving as a team’s manager and business agent. Though he always topped out at Very Good rather than Great, Radcliffe was good enough at both pitching and catching to earn six trips to the annual East-West All Star game: three times as a pitcher and three times as a catcher. In 1943 was voted the MVP of the Negro American League.

Past his prime by the time of integration, Radcliffe continued to play until he finally hung up his spikes for good at the age of 52. Well, almost for good. In 1999, the Schaumburg Flyers of the independent Northern League brought Radcliffe out to throw one pitch at the age of 96, making him the oldest man ever to appear in a professional baseball game. Adding one more unique record to a unique career.

Leon Day

The last of the great two-way Negro League stars was Leon Day. Born in 1916 and raised in Baltimore, Day was a fixture on local ball fields from his early teens and was signed by the Baltimore Black Sox in 1934. After a season spent as an infielder, Day headed north and joined the Brooklyn Eagles in 1935, where his powerful right arm led to a season as a full-time starting pitcher. The next year, the Eagles moved to Newark where they began as a run as one of the best Negro League teams of all time, featuring future Hall of Famers Ray Dandridge, Willie Wells and Mule Suttles. One of the fastest and best fielders on the team, Day played second base and center field on days he wasn’t pitching.

Though his bat lagged in the early years, Day’s pitching soon propelled him into the running for the title “Greatest Pitcher in Negro League History.” He threw an exceptional fastball with ridiculous movement. His speed, accuracy and deception were enhanced by a trademark no-windup sidearm delivery that had him slinging pitches as much as throwing them.

“He threw that ball more or less from his hip,” said Philadelphia Stars outfielder Gene Benson. “He didn’t rear back and come right over his shoulder. He came right from his thigh, but he would whistle the ball and make it move. He could bring it.” Describing his motion, Day said he started the ball even with his ear and just “jerked it at them. It fooled a lot of hitters.” Unfortunately, an injury suffered while slipping in a shower in Cuba would lead to a lost year in 1938 and recurrent arm injuries that would shorten his career.

Healthy and fully mature by the early 1940s, Day blossomed into a legend. He came into 1941 primarily as a pitcher, moved to center when the regular center fielder got drafted, then went back to pitcher, before finishing the year as the regular second baseman. Through all these roster gyrations he hit .320/.367/.524 while posting a 3.95 ERA. The next year he was even better, hitting .341/.396/.439 to go with a 1.73 ERA. In 1942 and 1943, the Pittsburgh Courier—one of the most respected black newspapers in the country—rated Day the best pitcher in the Negro Leagues, ahead of even Satchel Paige.

During his years in Newark, Day played with young future major league Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. Doby later said, “I didn’t see anyone in the major leagues who was better than Leon Day. If you want to compare him with Bob Gibson, Day had just as good stuff. Tremendous curveball and a fastball at least 90-95 miles an hour…I didn’t see anyone better than Day.”

Of Day’s two-way prowess, Irvin said, “There wasn’t any position he couldn’t really play…He was something to behold, on the mound or in the field.” In a bit of self-deprecating admiration, Irvin also said, “He played center field as good as, or better than, the starting center fielder did. The center fielder at that time was me.”

As with many players of his era, World War II robbed Day of two prime years. Drafted into the Army, he spent 1944 and 1945 in a segregated regiment in Europe, a tour that included dangerous missions landing supplies on Utah Beach just days after D-Day. Returning to baseball in 1946, Day discovered that his arm wasn’t right anymore thanks to a mix of the nagging injuries and two years of inactivity. But he still managed to toss an Opening Day no-hitter, and for the rest of the season he hit .379/.446/.500 while posting a 2.51 ERA.

With baseball on the verge of integration, Jackie Robinson urged Day to join him on the Montreal Royals, but Day declined. It’s unlikely Day would have ever played in the majors anyway. By 1947, his arm was dead and his career was nearing its end. Leon Day faded away just as integration arrived, leading him to languish for years in unjust obscurity.

“People don’t know what a great pitcher Leon Day was,” Monte Irvin later said. “He was as good or better than Bob Gibson. He was a better fielder, a better hitter, could run like a deer. When he pitched against Satchel, Satchel didn’t have an edge.” Reckoning Leon Day as one of the most complete athletes he ever saw, Irvin concluded: “If we had one game to win, we wanted Leon to pitch.”…

All right-thinking baseball fans hope that Shohei Ohtani becomes a two-way superstar—and given his performance in the first week of the season, that hope remains very much alive. But as we look to the past for precedents, let us never forget that after Babe Ruth, there were great two-way stars who achieved remarkable two-way feats. After all, if we get to bear witness to Ohtani being the first player to do something since not only the Great Bambino, but also Bullet Rogan or Martín Dihigo or Double-Duty Radcliffe or Leon Day, then we can consider ourselves truly blessed by the baseball gods.

References and Resources

Mike Duncan is a history podcaster best known for The History of Rome and Revolutions. He is the author of the New York Times Bestseller The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic. He is currently writing a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. In real life, he is a diehard Seattle Mariners fan who is determined to not dwell on what might have been.
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Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Thanks for a very informative article. Does no good to complain but it is sad that black players pre Jackie Robinson never got the chance to shine in the big leagues. On a tangential note, I remember the Red Sox using Earl Wilson as a pinch hitter in the 1960’s.

Las Vegas Wildcards
6 years ago

Those black players were truly great, and were definitely cheated out of the opportunity to perform at the highest level of competition before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. We can only speculate how they would have fared against the superior pitching at the MLB level, and it’s unknown how many could have withstood the racism of the pre-Robinson era, and still excelled.

6 years ago

This notion that Negro League players may not have had, or did not have the mental strength to deal with racism in the pre-Robinson era is just plain stupid, a bit racist, and historically inadequate.

If these players had the ability to live life during the brutal and violent repression that existed for Black people in America during the 20th (and 21st century)- Ku Klux Klan, legal segregation, lynchings, sundown towns and just the whole ball of wax that is a white racism, and people want to say, “well I don’t know if they could have stood up to the racism in baseball.” The racism in baseball comes from the racism of America, it’s not some special breed of racism that was groomed in the minors and came to fruition in the major leagues. It’s a racism sowed by white people to keep white people in charge, that’s true then and true now.

If those men could live under the terror of racist America what makes you think they could not deal with the racism of baseball?

It applies an exceptionalism that baseball that does not applie. baseball racists are as racist as regular white American racists. What makes you think otherwise?

6 years ago
Reply to  Victor121

The last paragraph should read as: It applies an exceptionalism to baseball racism that it does not deserve. Baseball racists are as racist as white racists outside of baseball. What makes you think otherwise?

Marc Schneider
6 years ago
Reply to  Victor121

I don’t know if it’s necessarily the same. Baseball is played in a closed arena where there is no escape from the fans. Yes, the Negro League players, as all black people, had to deal with racism pretty much everywhere, but I can see that trying to play baseball at the highest level in the face of that would be especially difficult, more so, perhaps, than dealing with a more diffuse racism in everyday life. Talking about the KKK, lynchings,etc conflates a whole lot of things that may or may not have existed in different places. Racism was everywhere in America but it was not the same everywhere. New York, for example, was undoubtedly racist, but it was different than, say Birmingham. So, I doubt that every black person in America had the exact same experience as every other. Moreover, why would you assume that every single Negro League player would have the same ability or mental toughness as every other. You certainly would not say that about white players. It’s quite possible than another Negro League player might not have been able to deal with the abuse as well as Jackie Robinson.

6 years ago

Man, baseball players used to have the best nicknames. I miss that.

6 years ago

Another name that should be brought up when talking about Ohtani is Deion Sanders. Sanders was obviously an elite, HOF football player, but at times he was also a good baseball player, most notably in 1992 with the Braves. 1992 was quite a year for Sanders, as he was a 1st team all-pro corner, accumulated 3.3 WAR in 97 games, and most importantly of all, dumped a bucket of water on Tim McCarver’s head.

He led the league in triples that year, too. I remember seeing one in Wrigley Field. He scored on an error, and when he rounded third he almost ran into the dugout, but he obvious had the speed to make up for imperfect technique.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Don’t forget Bo Jackson. And while we are expanding the concept, Jim Brown may or may not have been the greatest running back ever, but he was the greatest lacrosse player ever.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

These are both good points, but the thing about Sanders is that he was doing both at the same time (famously taking a helicopter from on to the other) at the highest professional level. I don’t think Bo Jackson ever played baseball and football at the same time (in the same week).

That’s why I thought it deserved a mention. There are a number of incredibly versatile athletes (Dave Winfield, drafted in 5th round of 1973 NBA draft, Tom Glavine drafted in 4th round of 1984 NHL draft, for example). But actually playing both sports at the same time is insane.

6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

There was some guy named Robinson who had a pretty good career in MLB, despite baseball only being his “fifth best sport”.

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

So much here I didn’t know, this is great. Dihigo is maybe the player I most wish I could have seen play, he just sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. Didn’t know anything about Leon Day, so thanks.

Anyone have a film clip of this no-windup sidearm delivery?

6 years ago

Great article, thanks so much!