About a week ago, I wrote about John Montgomery Ward — Penn State’s only player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote Ward’s story first because he lived earlier and was inducted sooner, but I knew that another one needed to be told.
Within the hollowed grounds of Cooperstown, another former Penn Stater was honored for his impact on the game of baseball. Like Ward, this man was honored not only for his impressive pitching or batting records but for his ability to change the game. Let me introduce you to Cumberland “Cum” Willis Posey, who was elected posthumously as an executive to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. The Hall of Fame is made up of 306 elite players, executives, managers, and umpires — Posey is one of 33 executives.
Posey, one of Penn State’s first black athletes — some say he was the first — , only played professionally for a few years because he discovered his talent was in team management. His business skills made the Homestead Grays one of the most successful teams in Negro league history. It’s been said he had a keen eye for choosing young players to develop into star athletes, with Posey having the record to prove it. Posey’s team won nine Negro National League championships from 1937 to 1945, including two world titles.
What Posey is credited for doing is bringing excitement into the world of baseball and being one of the first to believe in integration of the sport. He had many ideas for making the game popular, including introducing night games to the Negro league before it was adopted by the white professional leagues. Fans were ecstatic to watch the talented Homestead team, which included more than 10 future Hall of Famers. While Posey managed the team, Homestead drew 25,000 to 30,000 fans to contests at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C.
“Posey’s dynamic leadership kept the Grays near the top of the talent pool, and under his guidance they became a team of major-league quality and a dominant dynasty in the Negro leagues,” wrote author James Riley.
But before he was a successful team owner and manager, Posey was simply a student at Pennsylvania State College.
Posey’s paternal grandfather was born a slave but was able to obtain his freedom, possibly through purchase. The elder Posey worked as a farmer before moving with his wife to Ohio. The couple gave birth to Cumberland Willis Sr., also known as “C.W,” who worked in the Ohio River steamboat business.
C.W. became the first African American to earn a steamboat engineer’s license. By the time C.W. was in his early twenties, he owned a commercial enterprise on the river. His wealth made his choice for a wife more acceptable in the eyes of his neighbors. C.W. married a white woman named Ann Stevens, who was educated at the Ohio State University.
The couple soon moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania. Before turning 30, C.W. was able to combine his steamboat operation with ownership of a coal company to become extrememly wealthy. It was in Homestead that Ann gave birth to “Cum” Posey on June 20, 1890.
Like most young black athletes at the time, Posey was born into privilege. Posey’s father was able to provide his son with every opportunity available, including the best schooling in Pittsburgh. Sports, particularly basketball and baseball, were already established in the city, so the young Posey was able to play on his high school teams as well as local clubs.
While a senior at Homestead High School, Posey organized one of the first all-black club teams, the Monticello club. The natural athlete excelled at every sport but his two favorites were basketball and baseball. At 5′ 9″ and 140 pounds, his teammates called him “lightning fast.”
When Posey came to the Nittany Valley in the fall of 1909, he was one of the school’s first black athletes. His skin was light enough that no issues were raised about his complexion. Posey studied chemistry, athough he would only last three full semesters at the college.
By winter, he was a freshman forward on the college’s basketball team. The team had a successful season, culminating with a 31-10 win over the sophomores. He turned to his other sport, baseball, in the spring, playing left field for the freshman team. As a sophomore, Posey made Penn State’s varsity basketball team. In the first game against Susquehanna, he scored 8 points.
Posey suddenly left the school in February of his sophomore year “when permission was refused to make a trip with the varsity squad because his studies were not up to the required minimum.” He didn’t have to wait long before finding a place that would take him in.
Immediately following his leave from Penn State, Posey enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. That spring of 1911, he was a varsity member of the Panther basketball squad. While his family name was not well known in central Pennsylvania, that was not the case in Pittsburgh.
His fair complexion did not fool those in in Pittsburgh because of his father’s successful business. Posey left the University of Pittsburgh after two on-again, off-again years. Years later in 1973, daughter Ethel Posey Maddox claimed that he had been “driven off’ the baseball team because he was black.
Even while a student at Pitt, Posey was not always allowed to play baseball and basketball for the school. His love of the game ensured he did not stop playing, however he had to turn to club teams. Posey began playing and coaching with the Monticello club basketball team. He also organized a new club team, the Leondi Big Five, that would soon be recognized as one of the best basketball squads in the country. This dominance lasted through World War I.
Basketball and schooling were never able to keep Posey from other opportunities. In 1911, a life changing offer was extended to Posey. He was asked to join the Homestead Grays baseball club, a team that would soon turn professional.
Within a year, Posey was able to play for the Homestead Grays, widely regarded as one of the best all-black clubs of all time, on top of handling the team’s scheduling and other business matters. But Posey still wanted to graduate from a college, so in the fall of 1915, he enrolled at Duquesne. He studied pharmacy on top of playing for the Homestead Grays baseball team and Leondi Big Five basketball club.
At Duquesne, because of his family’s reputation, Posey adopted the name “Charles W. Cumbert” as an alias to play varsity baseball and basketball. He played three seasons of basketball there but only one of baseball. Playing for the popular Homestead Grays presented an unforseen problem for Posey, as he was easily recognized by baseball fans in the area. It is not known whether the administration removed Posey from the baseball team or he left on his own.
According to James Riley, author of the Negro Baseball Leagues encyclopedia, Posey also served as captain of the golf team at Duquesne. If that is the case, Posey was not only one of the first black college golfers on a predominantly white team, he was also the first black captain of the sport.
While he had skills in multiple sports, Posey’s true love was always baseball. Eventually he realized he best served the Homestead Grays with his business prowess, so he retired from playing the game. Posey became field manager in 1916 and remained in the position for more than 30 years. In 1920, Posey became the owner of the Homestead Grays.
Posey decided in 1934 that the Grays would become professional by joining the Negro National League. It was a good move for Homestead because Posey’s team won nine-straight Negro National League pennants, from 1937-1945.
A great controversy arose in the early 1940s over intergration in professional baseball when Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals, a white team. Everyone, Posey included, was concerned at the beginning that if Robinson was successful, the days of the Negro National League were over.
For business reasons, a select few opportunists hoped Robinson would fail to prevent integration. Posey realized the significance of Robinson, who, obviously, did not fail, and the potential of the future of professional baseball.
“Negro baseball owners have had a very hard time building up Negro baseball into a paying business…if some clubs of the white leagues wish our players we will sell them.. in the meantime, we would advise all Negro players to do all in our power to improve their player, so if the chance ever does come to join a major league club, they will be ready,” Posey said.
Posey never saw his 37th season with the Grays through. But he did get to witness Robinson’s history-making debut on March 17, 1946 in Daytona Beach. Just nine days later, on March 28, Posey died in Pittsburgh at age 55.
His managment contributions ensured he would never be forgotten from the sport. Fans travel to Cooperstown each summer to honor baseball legends of the past; Posey is one of those influential men. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
“Some may say he crushed the weak as well as the strong on the way to the top of the ladder,” Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith once wrote of Posey. “But no matter what his critics say, they cannot deny that he was the smartest man in Negro baseball and certainly the most successful.”
Sources: University archives, National Baseball Hall of Fame, “African American Athletes at the Colleges and Universities of the Northeast, 1879-1920” by Robert E. Wells