With the MLB Network featuring the Negro Leagues, I thought that the best way to celebrate this month is to feature the set that asks a very important question. During Topps' 50th anniversary, even they had to wonder this as well. And in effect, a ten card set was created to honor the biggest names in the Negro Leagues. Almost all the subjects in this set (save for one) were kept out of both the National and American Leagues, just because of the color of their skin. However, even in a league all of their own, the players here dominated the game of baseball like no other player in either "major" league. The question Topps wanted to have all of us ask in 2001 was, "What Could Have Been?"
Inserted into packs of 2001 Topps Series 2 (1:25 hobby/retail, 1:5 HTA) were cards from a ten card set called 2001 Topps What could Have Been. The subjects of the ten cards were among the best players in the Negro Leagues. Their stories are legendary. Their feats and statistics boggle the mind. Because accurate statistics were never kept, many of their numbers, if real, are mythical in proportion to what was seen in either the National or American Leagues.
The players included in this 10 card set are:
- Josh Gibson
- Leroy "Satchel" Paige
- Walter "Buck" Leonard
- James "Cool Papa" Bell
- Andrew "Rube" Foster
- Martin DiHigo
- William "Judy" Johnson
- George "Mule" Suttles
- Ray Dandridge
- John Henry "Pop" Lloyd
Stories have been told about how the Major Leaguers would play exhibitions and barnstorming games against the Negro Leaguers and were just astounded by the way the Negro Leaguers played and how their pitchers could just shut them down at the plate. These guys could play. They were that good. Why aren't they playing in the majors? But then again, they were not allowed. And that's the biggest injustice these players faced. Did that faze them? Perhaps. But they kept on playing, waiting for the day that, if not them, others, would soon play in the majors.
It wasn't until 1947 that Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby finally got the chance to play for the Dodgers and Indians respectively. They had played in the Negro Leagues too, and when the opportunity came, they became the first to clear that hurdle. To become major leaguers. And because of them, the country got to see players like Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, make it to the bigs. Their legacy lives on today. And MLB makes sure that nobody forgets it.
Did it have to come to this though? The struggles just to get up there. The racial threats. The taunts from opposing players. Being told that they couldn't stay at the same hotels as their teammates. Many of us today can't imagine what that was like, let alone picture ourselves in that kind of society. But that was the reality then. And for the ten legendary figures chosen for this set, and the rest of the peers, it was sadly a way of life. That didn't stop them from playing the game. They did not allow all of that to kill their hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
The set is now eight years old. The foil used for the fronts of these cards are very fragile, and susceptible to chipping. So mint condition cards are hard to come by. If you do find these cards at your local shop, show, or online, get them. Don't hesitate. Why? You're getting a card of a legend. Who in their prime, could out slug and clearly out play the best the majors had to offer. But sadly, we will never know how they would fare if they played in either league during their peak years. All we are left with is what could have been.