Unlike Mahlon Duckett, the last surviving member of the Philadelphia Stars, I'm not a Negro Leagues expert. This list is compiled from various sources, so view it as sort of a consensus ranking of the best players in Negro Leagues history.
(A note on statistics: For the most part, I've avoided mentioning numbers here. Negro Leagues statistics are notoriously incomplete. You can find some numbers at Baseball-Reference.com, although those may differ from other published accounts.)
1. Satchel Paige, RHP
Years played: 1927-47
Comparable major leaguer: I don't think there's ever been anyone quite like Satchel Paige. He was tall (6-foot-3) and skinny and threw hard, although his command was probably his greatest asset. He was also the ultimate self-promoter and legend builder. There's a little Roy Halladay in Paige's easy motion and release point, plus the exquisite control.
Quote: "I got bloopers, loopers and droppers. I got a jump ball, a be ball, a screw ball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry-up ball, a nothin' ball and a bat dodger. My be ball is a be ball 'cause it 'be' right were I want it, high and inside. It wiggles like a worm. Some I throw with my knuckles, some with two fingers. My whips-dipsy-do is a special fork ball I throw underhand and sidearm that slithers and sinks. I keep my thumb off the ball and use three fingers. The middle finger sticks up high, like a bent fork." -- Paige on his arsenal of pitches
With Paige, you have to separate the mythology from the truth, which is difficult to do. Not everyone agrees that Paige was the greatest pitcher in Negro Leagues history. A 1952 poll of longtime Negro League players picked Smokey Joe Williams as the best pitcher. He threw as hard as, if not harder than Paige. Bullet Joe Rogan probably had a better curveball. As Bill James pointed out, however, in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," Paige is always the frame of reference, similar to how every major leaguer's fastball was once compared with Walter Johnson's.
Paige, of course, is the only Negro League legend who got to play in the major leagues, but his seasons with the Cleveland Indians shed some light on how good Paige would have been in his prime. He joined the Indians in July of 1948, when he was 42 years old, and pitched primarily in relief during his two seasons with Cleveland. Among major league pitchers with at least 150 innings, he ranked fourth in ERA those two years and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings. After not pitching in the majors in 1950, he pitched three more seasons with the hapless St. Louis Browns, making the All-Star team in 1952 and 1953 -- his age-45 and 46 seasons. He had a 3.28 ERA those two years and a strikeout rate that ranked 20th among all pitchers. Not bad for a guy who turned 47 during the 1953 season. He even made a one-game cameo with the Kansas City A's in 1965, when he was 59. It was a publicity stunt concocted by Charlie Finley ... but Paige threw three scoreless innings.
If he'd been allowed to pitch in the major leagues when he was at his best, we may have the Satchel Paige Award instead of the Cy Young Award.
2. Oscar Charleston, CF/1B
Years played: 1915-41
Comparable major leaguers: Tris Speaker, Willie Mays.
Quote: "Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since. ... He was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one." -- Former Negro Leagues player, major league coach and scout Buck O'Neil
While active, Charleston was compared to Speaker for the way he played a shallow center field and ran everything down. But he was also compared to Ruth for his power. Undoubtedly, like Mays he was a five-tool player. In James' historical abstract, he presents many quotes praising Charleston's abilities and suggestions that he was the equal of Cobb or Speaker or Ruth -- or better. James rated him the fourth-greatest player of all time, behind Ruth, Honus Wagner and Mays.
3. Josh Gibson, C
Years played: 1930-46
Comparable major leaguer: Johnny Bench, but a better hitter.
Quote: "I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson." -- Hall of Famer Monte Irvin
Gibson was Paige's batterymate for a time on the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Gibson's power was legendary and inspired many tall tales, some of them probably true. Researchers haven't been able to verify whether he hit a home run completely out of Yankee Stadium in 1930, but they did unearth contemporary accounts of a 480-foot home run -- that Gibson hit when he was just 18. Negro Leagues historian John Holway lists Gibson third all-time among players with at least 2,000 at-bats, with a .351 average and second in home runs (with 223) to Mule Suttles (237) -- although first in home runs/at-bats by a wide margin. Bill Veeck called Gibson the best hitter he ever saw. He was a good defensive catcher with a strong arm.
Unfortunately, Gibson also had many off-the-field issues. His wife died giving birth to twins in 1930, and Gibson suffered from health issues -- including a brain tumor that put him in a coma -- and a drinking problem. Don Newcombe told the story of Gibson hitting a double and pulling up to second base, saying he was looking for potatoes he had planted there the night before. Gibson died of a stroke (or brain hemorrhage) in 1947, at just 35 years old.
4. John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, SS
Years played: 1907-32
Comparable major leaguer: Honus Wagner.
Quote: "Baseball historians concur that Lloyd was one of the greatest black players ever, but Babe Ruth, in response to a question by announcer Graham McNamee, eliminated the color distinction when he stated that Lloyd was his choice as the greatest baseball player of all time." -- Historian James A. Riley, author of "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues"
Lloyd was often referred to as the Black Honus Wagner, a slick-fielding shortstop with speed and hitting ability from the left side. Connie Mack said you couldn't go wrong with either player. Lloyd's early years came before the Negro Leagues became organized in 1920 with the creation of the Negro National League. He remained one of the league's biggest stars into his 40s. He earned the nickname Pop later in his career, when he became a father figure and mentor to the younger players.
5. Buck Leonard, 1B
Years played: 1934-48
Comparable major leaguers: Jeff Bagwell, Lou Gehrig.
Quote: "I only wish I could have played in the big leagues when I was young enough to show what I could do. When an offer was given to me to join up, I was too old, and I knew it."
Leonard wasn't a big man -- 5-foot-11, 185 pounds -- so while Negro League fans liked to compare him to Lou Gehrig, physically he was probably more similar to a modern guy like Jeff Bagwell and, like Bagwell, was regarded as an excellent fielder. James compared his swing to a left-handed version of Henry Aaron -- a quick, easy stroke that generated a lot of power. Paige was the first Negro Leaguer inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, but Leonard was elected the following year, along with Gibson. Leonard was still alive -- he died in 1997, at age 90.
Leonard didn't actually join the Negro Leagues until he was 26; he worked as a mill hand, shoeshine boy and then for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in North Carolina. He may not have been quite Gehrig's equal at the plate, but like Gehrig, he was a respected and dignified player. In his SABR bio, Ralph Berger writes, "In the Negro National League, first basemen were often the clowns of the teams. They would make all kinds of contortions and grimaces, anything that would entertain the fans. Not Buck Leonard. He was strictly a baseball player. There was no need for him to act the clown."
6. Turkey Stearnes, OF
Years played: 1920-40
Comparable major leaguer: Carl Yastrzemski.
Quote: "Yes, he talked to his bats. Stearnes tended to think of his bats as living things, extensions of his own arms, and he would carry the best of them around in violin cases. He carried around different-size bats for different situations. After games, back at the hotel, teammates would overhear him thanking his bats for delivering big hits or admonishing them for popping up. 'If I had used you,' one teammate recalls him saying to a bigger bat, 'I would have hit a home run.' He was known to threaten a bat that slumped with an ax, and thought to sleep with a bat that had been particularly good that day. It goes without saying that he never let anyone use one of his bats." -- Writer Joe Posnanski
Bill James ranked Stearnes 25th all-time on his list, squeezed between Frank Robinson and Rickey Henderson. Recent research indicates that Stearnes hit the most home runs in Negro Leagues history, not Mule Suttles or Josh Gibson. There are also accounts that he played a great center field and that only Cool Papa Bell may have been faster. James compared his power to Mel Ott and Willie Stargell. So you have a guy with Stargell's power who played center field? Wow. Stearnes himself once said that Yastrzmeski was the guy who reminded him of himself.
As Posnanski wrote in this essay, when the Hall of Fame started inducting Negro Leaguers in 1971, Stearnes believed he'd get the call. Instead, from 1971 to 1977, the Hall of Fame elected nine players -- Paige, Leonard, Gibson, Irvin, Bell, Judy Johnson, Charleston, Lloyd and Martin Dihigo -- and Stearnes was passed up. Then from 1978 to 1995, the Hall of Fame elected only two Negro Leaguers (Rube Foster, an early pitcher and founder of the Negro National League, and Ray Dandridge). Stearnes died in 1979 and was finally elected to the Hall in 2000.
7. Mule Suttles, 1B/OF
Years played: 1923-44
Comparable major leaguer: Jim Thome, except that Suttles hit right-handed.
Quote: "In Havana's Tropical Park, the center-field fence is 60 feet high and more than 500 feet from the plate. Teammate Willie Wells recalled a gargantuan drive that carried over the heads of the soldiers on horseback riding crowd control duty behind the fence, a total of about 600 feet. Afterward, a marker was placed at the spot, commemorating the prodigious homer."
-- James A. Riley
Big and powerful, he hit for average as well as power and apparently wasn't afraid of striking out. He's credited with a .374 average in exhibitions against white major leaguers. Like Stearnes, he was unfairly passed over for the Hall of Fame in the initial years of elections and wasn't voted in until 2006.
8. Ray Dandridge, 3B
Years played: 1933-44
Comparable major leaguer: There really isn't a similar player. Dandridge could hit, he had speed and he was a tremendous third baseman who could have played shortstop except that he was a teammate of Hall of Famer Willie Wells. He was sort of a hybrid of Ozzie Smith and George Brett, although he didn't have Brett's power.
Quote: "Ozzie's the onliest guy I've seen who's got my style." -- Dandridge
Late in his career Dandridge signed with the New York Giants. The Giants sent him to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1949, when he was 35 years old. He hit .362/.397/.487. The next year he hit .311/.355/405 with 11 home runs and was named league MVP. In 1951, he hit .324. The next year, he hit .291. The Giants, who played three converted outfielders at third base during this time (Sid Gordon, Hank Thompson, Bobby Thomson), never called him up.
9. Cool Papa Bell, CF
Years played: 1922-46
Comparable major leaguers: Ichiro Suzuki, Kenny Lofton.
Quote: "Once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second." -- Paige
A switch-hitter with tremendous speed -- you've also heard the one about him getting up to turn off the light and being back in bed before the light went out -- Bell certainly would have been a 3,000-hit guy in the majors. The easy comparison would be Rickey Henderson because of the stolen bases, but Bell lacked Henderson's power (he's listed at 6 feet but just 155 pounds), so I envision a player more like Ichiro or Lofton.
Posnanski once wrote, "My favorite quote about Cool Papa Bell comes from my old friend Buck O’Neil, who was often asked, 'Just how fast WAS Cool Papa Bell?'
And he would always answer the same way: 'Faster than that.'"
10. Willie Wells, SS
Years played: 1924-48
Comparable major leaguers: Barry Larkin? Troy Tulowitzki?
Quote: "You should have seen Willie Wells play shortstop: as good as Ozzie Smith and a better hitter." -- Irvin
Nickname: The Devil. Actually, he received that moniker in Mexico, where he played in the winter, apparently from opposing players who quickly learned to try to avoid hitting the ball in his direction -- thus, El Diablo. His hitting records suggest a guy who hit for average and power. Apparently his only weakness was his throwing arm. At one point, he was part of the "million dollar infield" for the Newark Eagles along with Dandridge, Suttles and second baseman Dick Seay.
Honorable mention/worth considering
These guys are all Hall of Famers as well ...
Smokey Joe Williams, RHP: As mentioned, some considered him better than Paige.
Christobel Torriente, CF: A Cuban superstar who played from 1912 to 1932, he was a five-tool talent who drew a ton of walks and pushed Oscar Charleston to left field when the two were teammates.
Martin Dihigo, OF/2B/P: Another Cuban star, known as "El Inmorta" (the Immortal) back home in Cuba, he played all over the field, was a switch-hitter, had blazing speed and pitched in his spare time.
Judy Johnson, 3B: If Dandridge isn't the best third baseman in Negro Leagues history, then Johnson would be. A member of the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords -- maybe the greatest team ever -- with Paige, Gibson, Charleston and Bell.
Biz Mackey, C: A switch-hitting catcher who hit for high averages and is regarded as maybe the best defensive catcher in Negro Leagues history.
Monte Irvin, OF: Played in the majors the second half of his career, finishing third in the MVP voting for the Giants in 1952.
Leon Day, RHP: Larry Doby once said: "Day could throw as hard as anyone. 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 to 95 miles an hour. You talk about Satchel. ... I didn't see anyone better than Day."