He stood no taller than 5-9, and maybe, as some contemporary accounts had it, topped out at a mere 5-4; the actual height of a man born in the late 19th century is now impossible to confirm, but it’s clear that he wasn’t someone whose stature implied elite athleticism. A newspaper of the era referred to him as “fragile-looking.” Physically, there was nothing imposing about him.
Given that, and the impossibility of measuring the relative merits of guys born a century apart, there’s no modern athlete to whom Cumberland Posey can reasonably be compared. We can only look at accolades and reputation, at what he accomplished on and off the court and field, and flip the question on its head: Is there anyone today who can reasonably be compared to Cumberland Posey?
If that sounds crazy, it’s only because you don’t know the legend.
By at least one measure, there is literally no comparison: Posey is the only person ever enshrined in both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As if that weren’t impressive enough, he’s recognized in both Springfield and Cooperstown not only for his athletic prowess, but as a coach and owner of championship teams in both sports. Imagine Stephen Curry joining the PGA tour each summer while continuing his laws-of-physics-warping NBA career, or LeBron James realizing his dream of suiting up at wideout for the Dallas Cowboys each fall, all while being majority owner of their respective teams. You can’t imagine it, of course, because it simply couldn’t happen in the 21st century. But in turn-of-the-20th-century Pittsburgh, it was possible only because Posey—the original superstar athlete-turned-mogul—made it so.
Born in 1890 to a wealthy black family in the Steel City, Posey established his winning ways early on, leading the Homestead High School basketball team to the 1908 city championship. From there, he traveled a few hours east, making history as the first African-American athlete at Penn State. He played a year of baseball and two seasons of basketball for the Nittany Lions before heading back to his hometown.
Back in the ’Burgh, Posey began showing his knack for entrepreneurship. Over the next few years, he would play for and form semi-pro or professional teams in baseball and basketball. And while he excelled in whatever sport he chose, it was on the hardwood that Posey dominated. He founded the Monticello Athletic Association in 1909, building a roster of local black talent into one of the first great teams of the Black Fives era; three years later, he led Monticello to victory in the Colored Basketball World Championships. Quick, tough, and deceptively athletic, he made his name with his outside shooting, a skill most players of the era were reluctant to even try. Call him the Chef Curry of his day; as a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, the famed black newspaper, wrote, “He was at once a ghost, a buzz saw, and a shooting fool.”
A few years later—despite never actually enrolling in school—Posey suited up for the hoop squad at Duquesne, where he appeared on the roster as “Charles Cumbert.” There’s still disagreement about whether he took the pseudonym to skirt eligibility rules (since he’d already played professionally) or to hide his race; regardless, he led the Dukes in scoring in three straight seasons, and 70 years later was inducted into the university’s athletics Hall of Fame. After college, it was back to the pro ranks, where his Monticello club took on a sponsor and was renamed the Loendi Big Five. All Posey did was lead his rechristened squad to four straight Colored Basketball World Championships, securing the crown for the most dominant black team of the era. It was only appropriate that he was considered the game’s dominant player.
For all that he achieved on the basketball court, Posey was actually better known at the time for his success on the diamond. He’s most closely associated with the famous Homestead Grays, one of the legendary teams from the old Negro leagues. He was one of the Grays’ founding players, then went on to first manage and then outright own the club that racked up Negro league pennants in the 1930s and 40s. The Baseball Hall recognized his pioneering contributions to the game with an induction in 2006.
Recognition by the Hoop Hall had to wait until 2016, when a grassroots campaign started in his hometown finally paid off. As Rob Ruck, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who helped bring Posey’s greatness to light, said at the time,“Posey and his teams showed what the African-American community was capable of achieving during some pretty hateful times when segregation and theories of racial supremacy were the norm. His teams beat all comers, white and black. They did so with athletic skill, with intelligence and dignity … Pittsburgh became Titletown, USA, and nobody was more integral to that story than Posey. His teams won more championships in two different sports than the Steelers and Pirates combined.”
Leave it to a contemporary to sum up: As the Pittsburgh Courier put it in assessing Posey’s greatness, he was nothing less than “the outstanding athlete of the Negro race.”
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Photos via Getty.