We talk all the time about the greatest players, coaches, leaders, etc. What is considered great to one person may not be to another. The experience of life for all us is based on what we actually experience, with no two people being alike. If you watch the top twenty major league baseball players over a season, your framework for greatness may be different than the person watching high school games on Friday nights.
If we rewind a bit to the early 1900's, when Babe Ruth was widely considered the best baseball player of his time, greatness was spread through word of mouth, newspapers, and radio. For many people, a single experience of listening to Babe hit a towering home run was enough to crown him the greatest. Babe played in Boston and New York, two monster markets that provided extraordinary exposure to the rest of the country.
What I've always found fascinating is when the great ones have been asked, "Who is the greatest?" Some will say themselves. Others will point to peers or players that they admired growing up. Regardless, the names mentioned are always well-known.
When Babe Ruth was asked this question, he said he was the greatest to play Major League Baseball. But...he then paused, and said that the greatest baseball player of all time was John Henry Lloyd.
Who was John Henry Lloyd?
John Henry "Pop" Lloyd stands tall as one of the greatest players to have graced the diamond. Known for his exceptional skills, leadership qualities, and unwavering dedication to the game, Lloyd left an indelible mark on the sport during the era of the Negro Leagues.
Early Life and Rise to Prominence
Born on April 25, 1884, in Palatka, Florida, John Henry Lloyd discovered his passion for baseball at a young age. He honed his skills in local leagues and caught the attention of teams in the newly formed Negro Leagues, where black players showcased their immense talent. Lloyd's exceptional abilities as a shortstop quickly garnered attention, and he soon earned the nickname "Pop" for his veteran-like presence on the field.
Career in the Negro Leagues
Lloyd's professional career spanned over 27 seasons, primarily spent playing for prominent Negro League teams such as the Philadelphia Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, and Hilldale Club. Known for his graceful fielding, powerful bat, and outstanding base running, he was a true five-tool player before the term even existed. Lloyd's fielding prowess earned him comparisons to Honus Wagner, the legendary Major League shortstop, and his hitting skills were unmatched in the Negro Leagues. He consistently boasted high batting averages and displayed remarkable power, regularly hitting both for average and distance. His career batting average was .343.
Lloyd's leadership abilities were equally admired, as he often served as a player-manager, guiding his teams to numerous victories. His calm demeanor and strategic mind on the field earned him the respect of teammates and opponents alike. Lloyd's skills and leadership were instrumental in the success of the teams he played for, and he played a significant role in helping the Negro Leagues gain recognition and respect.
He also played in Barnstorming games across the country, often against the best Major Leaguers of his time (which is how he met Ruth). Major League Baseball had tried to ban barnstorming, and this article presents a fascinating history for the reasons why.
Legacy and Impact
Despite the racial segregation and barriers faced by black players during his era, John Henry Lloyd's remarkable talent could not be ignored. He became a symbol of excellence and a source of inspiration for aspiring black baseball players. Lloyd's impact extended beyond his playing career as he continued to mentor and influence young athletes, passing down his knowledge and love for the game.
Lloyd's talents finally gained wider recognition when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. His induction marked a long-overdue acknowledgement of the immense contributions and skills of Negro League players. Sadly, he had already passed thirteen years before that. Today, his legacy lives on as a testament to the resilience, skill, and passion of black baseball players who faced incredible challenges and yet persevered.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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