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Splash and cash: The legend of old-school baller Cumberland Posey

The only man in both the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame

Cumberland Posey caught the ball more than 20 feet from the basket, squared up, and let it fly.

It was March 9, 1912. Less than three minutes remained in the contest for bragging rights as the best black basketball team in America. Posey’s Monticello Athletic Association clung to a 20-19 lead over Howard University. More than a thousand well-dressed spectators surrounded the tiny court inside the Washington Park Fieldhouse in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, cheering for the hometown Monticello squad.

The 21-year-old Posey, son of the richest black man in town, had been a city high school champion and the first black basketball player at Penn State. At 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, Posey was known for both a ferocious edge and wily tricks. He had set up this game against defending national champion Howard, and his Monticello club collected the gate receipts to cover the event’s expenses.

Long-range shots were discouraged in this slow-paced era, just 21 years after James Naismith invented the game. The 3-point line was six decades in the future. Jump balls took place after every score, and many games were played under Naismith’s original YMCA rules, which did not allow players to shoot off the dribble. “Scientific basketball,” as the favorite strategy of the day was called, relied on close-range shots. But Posey was one of the first players in history to embrace the long ball.

Posey’s bomb hit nothing but net, according to a story in the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers. The final score was 24-19, with Posey tallying 15 points. Thus began his reign, in the words of legendary Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith, as “the outstanding athlete of the Negro race.”

Posey went on to battle the best black and white basketball teams in the country, leading his Pittsburgh squads to four more black championships. Just as importantly, his business acumen was a driving force in the elevation of basketball from pastime to profession, helping build a foundation for the establishment of the National Basketball Association in 1946. Posey also played for and then owned the Homestead Grays baseball franchise, which some consider the greatest Negro League team.

Already a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Posey will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday alongside such modern stars as Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal. That makes Posey the only person to be enshrined in both the baseball and basketball halls of fame.

“I would certainly want people to remember his achievements as an athlete and a businessman,” said Posey’s granddaughter, Nancy Boxill, a college professor and former county commissioner in Atlanta for 23 years. “We don’t always remember those from long ago. We tend to more focus on athletes and businessmen and women in today’s time. But there’s a trajectory. It started somewhere.”

Homestead, Pennsylvania, was a flourishing, integrated steel town in the late 1800s, just across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. Posey’s father, Cumberland Willis Posey Sr., lived in a huge house on East 13th Street. The son of former slaves, Posey Senior was born in Virginia in 1858 and grew up in Maryland. He began sweeping ship decks as a youngster and developed an interest in how ship engines worked. After years of studying naval construction, he became what is believed to have been the nation’s first African-American licensed as a chief engineer, according to several historical records.

Posey and his wife, Angelina, a schoolteacher, moved to Homestead in 1892, where enormous fortunes were being made in steel and coal. Posey worked at the shipyards building boats, then supervised their construction, then started his own ship-building company. After investing in coal businesses, the elder Posey, known as “Captain” or “Cap,” founded the Diamond Coke and Coal Co., which mined, transported and supplied raw materials to make steel. Employing about a thousand men, Posey dealt with industry barons such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie, and stood atop Pittsburgh’s black social scene with leadership roles from the church to the Courier.

Cap Posey had a tough demeanor forged in his journey from the bottom levels of river life to the pinnacle of the business world, said Claude Johnson, founder of the Black Fives Foundation, which researches and promotes the history of pre-NBA black basketball. His youngest son, born in 1890, always loved sports. “Cum” Posey Jr. won that city basketball championship with Homestead High School in 1908, played two years at Penn State, then attended the University of Pittsburgh. He began playing baseball for the Homestead Grays around this time, and organized his Monticello basketball team, named after a local street.

Basketball had not yet developed into distinct leagues. “Games brought together teams from disparate settings, as semipro, collegiate, and social club quintets clashed on a match-by-match basis, mixing most of the nation’s basketball in an interracial concoction in which the best teams played their way to the top,” wrote Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh history professor, in his book Sandlot Seasons: Sports in Black Pittsburgh.

Sports in this era helped black America forge an identity beyond white control, Ruck said in an interview. At a game between local teams, a hat might be passed, with the players divvying up the proceeds. In a clash with an out-of-town squad featuring famous athletes, the black owners of the teams controlled the gate receipts and paid their players.

This was the genesis of African-American professional sports. Posey was a pioneer in every aspect, in both basketball and baseball.

Johnson urged the basketball Hall of Fame for years to induct Posey. He said that besides being the best player of his time and the game’s first long-distance ace – “easily the grandfather of Stephen Curry” – Posey was remarkably tough and shrewd. His personality developed in the hardscrabble sporting life on the city’s streets, alleys, and vacant lots. Pittsburgh did not have a public playground until 1908, and its few gymnasiums were whites-only, so an elaborate, integrated sandlot culture evolved, where only the scrappiest athletes rose to the top, Johnson said.

“He was extremely rugged. He would literally just charge anybody and punch them in the face,” Johnson said. He recalled one of Posey’s descendants saying that as Posey once visited the county jail, one of the inmates suddenly reached through the bars – and Posey broke the inmate’s arm.

The unregulated business of sports, where large amounts of cash changed hands at games, also was full of street characters and often financed by numbers runners. One needed a strong arm to prosper.

Poseywould walk around with a blackjack in the outer lapel pocket of his suit jacket. Partly for show, and partly for actual usage,” Johnson said. “He carried it with the handle ominously hanging out.”

He also sought every edge on the playing field. Before the Monticellos challenged Howard to the 1912 game, there were hardly any indoor courts in Pittsburgh available for black players. Posey trained his team away from spying eyes at the whites-only Phipps Gymnasium, where one of his players worked as a janitor and let the players in on Sundays. They also practiced under both the YMCA and the more modern “collegiate” rules. Against Howard, Posey unveiled what would become a trademark tactic, negotiating a switch at halftime to rules that favored his long-distance marksmanship.

Posey knew that beating Howard would provide enough national attention to take his team on the road for lucrative games against famous black teams from New York and Washington, D.C., plus the best white teams such as the New York Celtics. After the victory, Posey’s squad defeated all challengers the rest of the year. According to Johnson, the term “Colored Basketball World’s Champions” was coined by Lester Walton, sports editor of the New York Age, an influential black newspaper. This championship was bestowed by consensus of the leading black sportswriters. After Monticello’s dominant 1912 performance, they earned the title of best black team in America.

And Posey was their best player, not to mention a stellar center fielder for the Grays. He eventually became manager of the Grays, then bought the team with help from his father. From 1919 to 1923, playing with his new basketball team, the Loendi Big Five, named after a prominent black social club, Posey won four consecutive black championships. His long-distance shooting eventually took root with the New York Renaissance, who deployed several accurate shooters during their run atop the sport in the late ’20s and ’30s. Along with football star Paul Robeson, shortstop John Henry Lloyd and center fielder Oscar Charleston, Posey vied for recognition as the nation’s finest black athlete.

“Giants crumpled and quit before the fragile-looking Posey,” wrote W. Rollo Wilson in the Courier. “He was at once a ghost, a buzz saw, and a ‘shooting fool.’ The word ‘quit’ has never been translated for him.”

From 1916-1919, Posey was enrolled under the name “Charles Cumbert” at the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost, now called Duquesne University. He led the basketball team in scoring and was captain of the golf team. He always cared more about sports than scholastics, attended classes sporadically, and did not earn a degree from any of the three colleges he attended. At Duquesne, Posey’s alias was probably a nod to the fact that he earned money playing ball, Ruck said, rather than a serious effort to hide what everyone knew was the famous athlete’s real name. Everyone involved looked the other way, even until this day: Duquesne has inducted Posey into its hall of fame and endowed a million-dollar scholarship fund for minority students in Posey’s real name.

During this time, Posey’s exploits as an athlete and businessman caught the attention of Art Rooney, future founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who attended Duquesne’s prep school. Rooney, 11 years younger than Posey and an outstanding athlete despite his 5-foot-7 height, “idolized” the older man, Ruck said. Like Posey, Rooney went from playing semipro ball – football was Rooney’s best game – to owning the team. The two became such close friends that Rooney would serve as an honorary pallbearer at Posey’s funeral.

“They play the same position, point guard, both leadoff batters and center fielders, both of them are incredibly tough,” Ruck said. “Art models his game after Posey. He learns how to be a promoter after Posey. That’s what Art’s real genius was. Art was the best all-around white ballplayer in those years. He’s the white clone of Posey, off and on the field.”

As he approached age 40, Posey left basketball to focus on the Grays, which he developed into an athletic and financial juggernaut featuring some of the best baseball players ever, such as Charleston, catcher Josh Gibson and pitcher “Smokey” Joe Williams. Posey’s sharp business mind, relentless recruiting and infamous hardball negotiations made the Grays, and the black leagues Posey helped administer, into a template for American sporting success.

Boxill said her grandfather also made important contributions to his community beyond sports, including his service on the Homestead school board.

“Two stories about my grandfather stand out,” said Boxill, who was born after his death. “One, he never missed paying his players during the Depression. The other is, there was a letter he wrote to my mother when she was in college. One of the things he said was, ‘Winning is more than a score. It’s choosing friends wisely, and being thoughtful about your mistakes.’ ”

Johnson, of the Black Fives Foundation, said that Posey is the ancestor not only of little men with big shots like Curry, but players-turned-moguls such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Above all, though, Posey “made Pittsburgh into the City of Champions,” Johnson said. “Before Franco Harris, before Willie Stargell, before [the cult classic film] The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh – which by the way, they should do a remake – before all of those, there was Cumberland Posey.”

Posey died of lung cancer at age 55, in 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Posey had been talking with Dodgers president Branch Rickey about the best way to integrate the game, Boxill said. Robinson’s milestone signaled the end of the nation’s great black-owned sports teams, and consigned pioneers like Posey to relative obscurity. But everyone who defines Pittsburgh as a city of excellence is paying their respects, knowingly or not, to the athlete and entrepreneur whose basketball and baseball teams won 16 championships.

That’s one more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pirates and Steelers combined.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Cumberland Posey was the youngest son in his family, not the only son.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.