Book examines double HOFer Cum Posey

Editor’s note: Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey is a member of two halls of fame, but he’s always been something of an enigma, someone with a long legacy and rich life, but until now there’s never been a comprehensive biography on the man who put together arguably the greatest dynasty in baseball history.

But friend, colleague and author Jim Overmyer wrote a just-released volume on Posey, Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays: A Biography of the Negro Leagues Owner and Hall of Famer, and it not only chronicles his career as a baseball kingpin, but it also delves into his life as a basketball trailblazer. Below is a lightly-edited email interview with Overmyer about his book and about the man who shined in two sports.

Ryan Whirty: What was the impetus for the book? What are some of the new details about Posey’s life that have been uncovered?

Jim Overmyer: When I finish a book, I never seem to have a real idea of what to do next – books are a lot of work, and I’m not inclined to begin something that will eventually peter out. Instead, I work on smaller things and wait for another (hopefully enduring) brainstorm to come along.

I was in that position after the publication of my 2014 book about the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants when Gary Mitchem, my editor at McFarland & Company, asked me to peer review William A. Young’s biography of Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. It’s a fine book, the first one I know of primarily devoted to Wilkie.

I had always considered he and Posey ranked just below Rube Foster among Negro League owners, tied for second behind Rube, if you will. Like Wilkinson, Posey had never been the sole subject of a biography, even though they were both elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. I had done a paper on Posey about 20 years earlier, thought about his need for a definitive bio, and, well, here we go.

I’ve written a lot about Black baseball, and I’m hardly bored by the topic, but the two chapters that were the most fun to write were about Posey’s basketball career (he is also a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame), and his work as a leading official in his hometown of Homestead, Pa., which found him working for reform of the corrupt local government while always looking out for Homestead’s African Americans. 

RW: How challenging was pursuing the research and writing of the book? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JO: I was moving right along in doing my research and writing in 2016, even had an outline of the whole book down, when I opened my local newspaper one morning to find out Posey had been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I hadn’t even known he was on the ballot. I knew Cum had been a star in early Black basketball, and he had played in college, and I was planning on devoting a few early pages to his hoop exploits.

But now, he’s one of only two individuals who belong to two American professional sports halls of fame (the other is Cal Hubbard, in the baseball hall as an umpire and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an early Green Bay Packer). So followed a deep dive in a very short period of time into Black basketball in the 1920s, which was fascinating and produced one of the longest chapters in the book.

So far as generally researching Posey’s career, there was so much material floating out there that it’s a wonder a biography of him didn’t already exist. But there are two sources of information about him that you don’t ordinarily find when writing about older sports personalities. 

One was the years-long collection of columns he wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, the influential Black weekly newspaper that his father, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman, had helped bankroll in its early days. Posey wasn’t a stylistic writer, but he had a good, straightforward style. His columns are packed with information on current events, black sports history and, always, his opinions. It is possible that the only person Posey ever completely agreed with was the fellow he saw in the mirror each morning when he shaved.

Cum died in his mid-50s in 1946, well before Bob Peterson, John Holway, Jim Riley and the other first-wave Negro League historians interviewed the prime figures in black baseball. But Posey’s columns in large part stand in for those interviews, albeit ones in which he essentially got to ask himself the questions.

The other source was the extensive correspondence he maintained with Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles. They were both aggressive and hard-headed and had several public disagreements. But they were both good businesspeople with the best interest of the Negro Leagues at heart. Their business letters, preserved for posterity as part of the Eagles’ business files at the Newark Public Library, include many Posey observations that didn’t get into print.

Cum Posey (top row, far left) on the 1916-17 Duquesne University basketball team

RW: Much has been said and written about Cum Posey and his life in baseball, but it seems like his basketball career has kind of been overshadowed by baseball. Why do you think that is, and how would you summarize Posey’s career in basketball? Why is he so important to hoops history?

JO: It was true of all professional basketball in the early decades of the 20th century that it was a financially risky proposition for team owners. This, of course, was especially true for Black basketball. There were very good early black teams, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard, but it was never possible to organize them into a league. The national black champions were “crowned” every year by a consensus opinion among black sportswriters, who based their opinions on challenge series among the teams that held themselves out as contenders. 

Posey, using the management skills that made his Homestead Grays great in baseball, put together a basketball team in Pittsburgh sponsored by the prestigious Loendi men’s club that claimed the consensus crown for four consecutive seasons beginning in 1919-20. Cum was the team leader on the floor as well, using his speed to become a leading scorer and key defender. While his bona fides for the Baseball Hall of Fame are based entirely on his executive skills, both his playing and management abilities got him into the basketball hall.

By the time the Loendi team broke up in the mid-1920s, he was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, Black basketball players in the East. By the time Loendi’s star had begun to set, though, Posey’s team was suffering from lagging attendance and related financial shortfalls that had a lot to do with its location in Pittsburgh, which didn’t have the large core of Black fans that existed in a place such as Harlem or Washington. He downgraded his team to a local and regional one that adopted the Homestead Grays name, but never competed for a national title again.

It was also true that, just as Black basketball was on the ropes in Pittsburgh, the baseball Grays were on the verge of becoming nationally famous, so that is where his attention and resources were directed.

1930-31 Homestead Grays, with Cum Posey, standing far left

RW: How would you describe Posey’s management and ownership style in baseball? Why and how was he able to put together such a great team that was so successful for so long?

JO: From the time he first took control of the then-local Grays around 1915, Posey seemed to have a plan. John L. Clark, a Black Pittsburgh journalist who was a long-time friend, wrote when Posey died that “Cum was the first Negro I had ever known who had set out to make money out of baseball,” while others were treating it as a weekend diversion. Posey had remarkable executive abilities and a sharp eye for on-the-field talent, but what had most of all was patience. He really played the “long game” of baseball management.

He was the Grays’ leftfielder when the growing popularity of the team around Pittsburgh hit a snag. Due to his religious beliefs the field manager refused to play on Sunday, a day that semi-pro teams could make serious money. Posey stepped into the breach and stayed there until 1946. While he had business partners over the years, it was always clear who was really in charge. When Posey took over the Grays, they were a popular local team. Then, using streetcars and local trains for transportation, they branched out to play opponents in the suburban area around Pittsburgh. In 1924 Posey sprung for a pair of touring cars, which enabled the Grays to play all around Western Pennsylvania, as well as Eastern Ohio and West Virginia. Opponents included lower-level white minor league [teams] and teams sponsored by major industries such as General Tire in Akron

By the mid-1920s Posey was shopping for Negro League-quality players who were without a team or were willing to bolt their current team to play for the independent Grays, who were not bound by league anti-roster-raiding rules. Posey picked up a lot of stars this way and boasted that he rarely lost anyone to another team in return. Until the depths of the Great Depression, he said, the Grays made money every year and could outspend other black teams.

Posey was an excellent judge of baseball ability, helped by his brother Seward, who did a lot of scouting for the team. There are 35 people in the Baseball Hall of Fame who were elected for their exploits in the Negro Leagues or independent black ball before the leagues were formed. Twenty-six of them were active as players from the mid-1920s on when the team began to expand its lineup beyond its original roster of local players. Eleven of them eventually played for teams that Posey ran. That group includes Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Smokey Joe Williams, “Cool Papa” Bell and Jud Wilson, each of whom spent several years with the Grays. 

Posey the successful baseball businessman was admired, but not necessarily beloved, by his fellow owners. He deliberately held the Grays out of the Negro Leagues until 1929, although the team’s presence in a league would have boosted the league’s credibility and attendance. By remaining independent, he could set the Grays’ schedule, which grew to at least as many games each season as a white major-league team played, just as he pleased. He didn’t have to give up games against regional semi-pro powerhouses that were likely to net more profit than playing a Negro League squad. And, staying independent enabled him to pick through league teams’ rosters to keep the Grays’ talent level high. 

The Grays enlisted in the Black leagues when the manufacturing slump that preceded the Depression began to reduce the number of really good Western Pennsylvania semi-pro teams. Now, being a league member offered [a] better financial situation. (Posey still used loopholes to go after other teams’ players, just not as blatantly.)

The Grays survived the Depression, entered the second Negro National League in 1933, and by the middle of the decade had become a powerhouse squad. They won nine straight National League pennants beginning in 1937, depending on how one views the end of the 1939 season, when they finished in first place but lost to the Baltimore Elite Giants in a Shaughnessy-style playoff among the top four finishers.

A distinctive move made in the early 1940s was to establish the Grays in two home cities, their native Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., where the team drew exceedingly well at the American League SenatorsGriffith Stadium.

Posey, as John Clark said, had set out to make money in the baseball business, and was determined to do so. He jettisoned several local players in the early ’20s (including himself, the Grays left fielder) in favor of out-of-town stars. He constantly shopped other teams’ rosters for new talent. Although he would discipline his players for fighting on the field, as a manager he was a world-class umpire baiter, and occasionally would pull the Grays off the field and forfeit a game to show his displeasure with a supposedly bad call. He didn’t care about the fallout. As he said when criticized in the Pittsburgh sports pages for the lopsided scores the Grays were running up against local competition, “fans love a winner.”

RW: What is Posey’s place in Pittsburgh history, as well as overall American history?

JO: Posey has two distinctions from his (sort of) college days. Penn State honors him as its first African-American athlete, as he started on the varsity basketball team during the 1910-11 season before leaving school. Duquesne University also considers him its first Black athlete, since he starred for its basketball team, and played on the baseball team, from 1916 through 1918. However, there’s no record of Posey, or his alter ego, Charles W. Cumbert (the name he played sports under for the Dukes) ever having actually enrolled and gone to classes there. It wasn’t unusual in those days around Pittsburgh for schools to bring in “ringers,” paid semi-pros, to bulk up their rosters. This seems to have been one of those cases.

His election to two American professional sports halls of fame is almost unique – only one other person holds that distinction. The Grays are remembered both in Pittsburgh, where the bridge over the Monongahela River connecting Homestead to the city is named the Homestead Grays Bridge, and in Washington, D.C., where five Grays Hall of Famers — Bell, Gibson, Leonard, Ray Brown and Jud Wilson — along with Posey himself, are included in the Ring of Honor of famous Washington baseball figures, at the Nationals’ park.

RW: Finally, what are some things that still need to be fleshed out about his life? What mysteries remain about the life and career of Cum Posey?

JO: It’s always risky, and probably not true, to state that a biography rounds up everything important about its subject. But the multitude of sources that were available, from comprehensive newspaper coverage of the team and Posey’s own columns, don’t leave too many stones unturned so far as the Grays are concerned.

Posey’s parents, Cumberland Sr., a highly-successful businessman, and Anna, a leader in the African-American cultural and education community, were also written about a great deal. When I first got interested in Cum, I interviewed one of his daughters, Beatrice Lee, and a grand nephew, Evan Baker, who told me a lot about Cum and the family. Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh professor who wrote the book, Sandlot Seasons, about Black sports in Pittsburgh, donated all of his interview tapes to the university archives, and they contain much about the Grays and Posey.

I suppose the one thing I would really like to find out is if Cumberland W. Posey Jr. ever admitted publicly to anyone that had ever made a mistake.