Bullet Joe Rogan was a versatile star in the negro leagues

Bullet Joe Rogan was known for his fastball and curveball during his Hall of Fame career in the negro leagues.

Bullet Joe Rogan was known for his fastball and curveball during his Hall of Fame career in the negro leagues.

Was “Bullet Joe” Rogan the black Babe Ruth? Maybe the better question is: Was Babe Ruth the white Joe Rogan?

No ballplayer of any color surpassed Rogan as a combination pitcher-slugger. A compact, powerfully built right-hander, the Hall of Famer was a fixture with the famous Kansas City Monarchs for nearly two decades, from 1920 to 1938. He compiled a sterling .704 winning percentage on the mound in the Negro Leagues and often batted in the clean-up position.

Born in 1889 in Oklahoma City, Rogan grew up in Kansas City. He spent six years in the army, starring for the famous all-black 25th Infantry team. Casey Stengel (another Kansas City product whose nickname was inspired by his hometown’s initials, K.C.) saw Rogan while on an exhibition tour in the fall of 1919. Stengel recommended Rogan and several of his army teammates to J. L. Wilkinson, then forming the Kansas City Monarchs for the inaugural Negro National League season. The following spring, 1920, Bullet Joe joined the Monarchs as 30-year-old rookie.

As his nickname suggests, the 5-foot-7, 160-pound Bullet Joe had a crackling fastball – as good as Satchell Paige’s, in the eyes of many players. What set him apart was a devastating curve that “broke straight down,” said Brooklyn outfielder Babe Herman, who played against Rogan in winter leagues.

When he wasn’t taking his turn on the mound, Rogan played the outfield or occasionally second base. In 1922, he batted .392 and hit 13 home runs, both second-best in the league, while also taking a regular turn on the mound. In 1923, he led the loop with 16 wins and batted .364. The following year he batted .395 and was 18-6 as he led the Monarchs to a victory over Hilldale of the rival Eastern Colored League in the first Colored World Series.

The following season, 1925, saw Rogan win a league-high 17 games and bat .381, third-best in the league. The Monarchs faced the St. Louis Stars in a Negro National League playoff with the winner going on to meet Hilldale in the second Colored World Series. Rogan was unstoppable against the Stars, winning three games and leading all Monarchs batters with 13 hits. Unfortunately for the Monarchs, Rogan injured himself during some roughhousing with his son and missed the World Series. Without Rogan, Kansas City lost.

In 1929, at the age of 40, Bullet Joe was in the outfield full-time, hitting .356 and stealing 26 bases in 76 games.

All told, Rogan hit .338 lifetime and compiled a career 119-50 pitching record in Negro League play, according to stats compiled by a negro leagues research committee commissioned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In 16 games against barnstorming white major leaguers, he hit .389 off the likes of Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller.

Rogan managed the Monarchs for several years before going to work for the post office in Kansas City. He passed away on his farm in 1967. For all his accomplishments, Bullet Joe didn’t get his proper due until 1998, when Cooperstown finally called.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.