Adapted from "Blackball Stars," Meckler Books, 1988.

From 1910 to 1945, Cumberland (Cum) Posey was the guiding genius who built one of the finest sports machines ever, the Washington Homestead Grays. Led by Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard -- the Ruth and Gehrig of the Negro leagues -- they won nine straight pennants, 1937-45, a record unequaled by any professional team in any sport in America (and tied only by the Tokyo Giants).

Yet many veterans say those were not the Grays' best teams. The 1926 club won 43 straight games; the 1931 team reputedly had a record of 136-17.

My own memory of the Grays goes back to a humid May night in 1944 in old green-painted, ad-studded Griffith Stadium. I was 14. The park, where Howard University hospital now stands, seemed a long bus ride from my home in Alexandria, where we changed from the segregated Virginia bus to the integrated Washington trolley.

The park was full of black fans, and here and there a pink face or two, out to watch the two greatest names in black baseball, Gibson and Satchel Paige, renew their long-standing feud.

I remember crowding against the railing beside the visiting Kansas City Monarchs' dugout with other scorecard-waving kids to watch Satchel warm up, his windmill windup reminiscent of Joe E. Brown's movie, "Elmer the Great." Across the field, Gibson, in the pinstripes of the home team, was warming up his own pitcher. Round-faced and cheery, Gibson seemed a beardless black Santa throwing his head back and chuckling at some joke.

This was black baseball two years before Jackie Robinson. Cum Posey was born in 1890, son of a well-to-do coal barge owner on the Monongahela River. He had flunked out of Pitt and Duquesne and he was considered the best black player of his day; he founded the Loendi Big Five, which played the New York Celtics and in 1919 claimed the national championship.

Cum also played center field for the Murdock Grays, who entertained steelworkers in Homestead, near Pittsburgh. He eventually took over the business end of the team as well.

The Grays played white semipro teams in the tri-state area. Their biggest star was the half-Indian, half-black Texan, Smokey Joe Williams, who once reportedly beat Walter Johnson, 1-0.

In 1926-31 they played white big leaguers, including Lefty Grove, Goose Goslin and Heinie Manush, winning nine and losing five.

Meantime, Gibson, 18, joined them in 1930 in time for a black World Series against the New York Lincoln Giants. He hit a ball over the left field roof at Yankee Stadium, though it fell against the back of the bullpen, thus technically not quite out of the park. The Grays won the series.

But the next year the championship Grays were almost killed by a twin assault. One was the Depression. The other was Gus Greenlee, flamboyant Pittsburgh numbers king and boxing promoter. Greenlee formed his own team, the Crawfords, signed Paige and bought Gibson and most of the Grays out from under Posey.

Posey was broke and almost went under. But he signed Buck Leonard for $125 a month and 60 cents a day eating money. "The team wasn't doing much," says Buck, now living in Rocky Mount, N.C., "until Rufus Jackson came in there with some fresh money."

Rufus (Sonny Man) Jackson was Greenlee's rival in the illegal numbers business, and both used their ball clubs as fronts to launder numbers profits.

Their rivalry on the field spilled over into business and in 1935 Jackson received a mysterious threat: unless he deposited a sack of money at an abandoned shack near the Homestead bridge at midnight, he would be killed. While G-men crouched inside with guns drawn, Jackson walked alone across the bridge, left the bag, then ran for cover as the police charged out, guns blazing. A fedora hat was all they found.

But the police closed Greenlee's operation, and Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo lured Gibson and his other stars to Santo Domingo. When Josh returned, Greenlee sold him back to Posey for $2,500.

"Josh just put new life into everyone," Leonard says. Thereafter, "I played with the Homestead Grays 17 years and never missed a payday."

In 1937 Posey moved his team to Washington. They split their home dates, playing in Forbes Field when the Pirates were away, and in Griffith Stadium when the Senators were on the road.

Leonard recalls:

"We would leave Pittsburgh after midnight Sunday morning to play a doubleheader in Washington. That was 263 miles over the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We would get in Washington around a quarter to 11, go out and get a sandwich, and we had to be at the ball park by 11:30. One time our bus broke down out near Hagerstown, and we had to call Washington to send three cabs to pick us up so we could start at 2 o'clock.

"We'd play a semipro team, say in Rockville, Tuesday afternoon and a league game in Griffith Stadium that night. Get maybe $75 for the day game. For the whole team! We'd make expenses in the middle of the week. Sunday was our gettin'-out-of-the-hole day. That's when we'd make enough to pay everybody's salary."

Former pitcher Wilmer Fields of Manassas recalls:

"Posey'd be up in the front seat of the bus having a fit afraid they were going to rain us out. Back in the bus leagues, if he had 20,000 people, we were going to play 4 1/2 innings of this game somehow."

In 1942, 29,000 came out to see them play Dizzy Dean's All-Stars. Thirty thousand turned out to see Paige and the Monarchs. In 1945, Leonard says, "we drew more than the Senators, and we weren't playing as many games there."

That's also the year Gibson hit six balls into Griffith Stadium's left field bleachers. The entire American League managed only one.

"One day about 1942," Leonard says, "{Senators owner} Clark Griffith sent word for me and Josh to see him in his office. He said, 'I want to talk to you fellows. You all played a good ball game today. You fellows got good size on you, and you looked like you were playing to win. Sam Lacy {sports editor of the Afro-American} and Ric Roberts {Pittsburgh Courier} have been talking about getting you fellows on the Senators. Well, let me tell you something: If we get you boys, we're going to get the best ones. It's going to break up your league. Now what do you think of that?'

"We said, 'Well, we'd be happy to play in the big leagues and believe that we could make the major leagues, but as far as clamoring for it, we'll let somebody else do that.'

He said: "Well, I just wanted to see how you fellows felt about it."

They never heard from him again.

That was good news for Posey, bad news for Senators fans. While the Grays were winning another pennant, the Senators remained the butt of jokes. Yet they had some good players -- Cecil Travis, batting champions Mickey Vernon and Buddy Myer, knuckleballer Dutch Leonard, base stealer George Case. If Griff had added Josh and Buck and some other Grays -- Cool Papa Bell, pitcher Ray Brown, and others -- he might have filled Griffith Stadium and challenged for the pennant. Who knows? The club might still be in Washington.

Says Leonard:

"I always thought the Senators might be the first to take a negro, because I figured, if half the city boycotted the games, the other half would come. But Griffith was always looking for Cuban ballplayers. He had Joe Cambria down there scouting for him. I guess he didn't have to pay them much money -- but he wouldn't have had to pay us much either; 1945 was my biggest payday, $1,100 a month. Josh and I told Posey we were going to Mexico; that's why he raised us. I got $4,500 a season."

When the unknown rookie, Jackie Robinson, was signed by the Dodgers, the big league raids began. Posey lost Luke Easter, Bob Thurman, Johnny Wright and others. Gibson, aged 35 and bitter at being passed up, dropped dead, perhaps of a drug overdose, in January 1946. Two months later, Posey was dead.

Fans deserted the black teams, traveling hundreds of miles to see Robinson and the Dodgers. "We couldn't draw flies," Leonard says.

An era had died. A new one had been born.