MLB adds Negro Leagues to Official Records

The Talented Allen Ripley

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Negro League players will be considered major leaguers, and their stats will be treated as such.

Addressing what MLB described as a “long overdue recognition,” Commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday bestowed Major League status upon seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. The decision means that the approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues during this time period are officially considered Major Leaguers, with their stats and records becoming a part of Major League history.
The seven leagues are the Negro National League (I) (1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the Negro National League (II) (1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48). Those leagues combined to produce 35 Hall of Famers, and the result of MLB’s decision is that Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell have achieved the Major League status denied to them in their living years by the injustice of segregation.

The decision took into account discussions with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a 2006 study by the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group and an expanding historical record of Negro League statistics, among other factors. In its announcement, MLB specifically commended historian Larry Lester, a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, as well as Gary Ashwill, Scott Simkus, Mike Lynch and Kevin Johnson for their construction of Seamheads’ Negro Leagues Database, which has pieced together newspapers, scorebooks, photo albums and microfiche to provide the most complete statistical record of the Negro Leagues to date.

As part of the decision, MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau -- MLB’s official statistician -- have begun a review process to determine the full scope of the designation’s effect on records and statistics. Historians and other experts will be consulted as part of that process.

The Negro Leagues’ status change was applauded by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick.

“For historical merit, it is extraordinarily important,” Kendrick said. “Having been around so many of the Negro League players, they never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them. But for fans and for historical sake, this is significant, it really is. So we are extremely pleased with this announcement. And for us, it does give additional credence to how significant the Negro Leagues were, both on and off the field.”
I really don't like Rob Manfred, but kudos to him here.
 

allmanbro

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Seems like the Negro League Database is overrun at the moment - but I assume that the records are so incomplete we'll never see a Negro League player approach any actual records. For example, B-Ref has Josh Gibson with 212 career HR and a single season high of 30. Those will likely increase as people do more work, but lots of this is probably lost, which is a shame.

Edit - and yes, this is a great move. I was intrigued by the idea of Gibson replacing Bonds as the official HR king, but it will never happen.
 

DJnVa

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Seems like the Negro League Database is overrun at the moment - but I assume that the records are so incomplete we'll never see a Negro League player approach any actual records. For example, B-Ref has Josh Gibson with 212 career HR and a single season high of 30. Those will likely increase as people do more work, but lots of this is probably lost, which is a shame.
According to the article, it's not incomplete as much as things such as barnstorming stats do not count, only official games.

However, they are still wondering what to do with rate stats:

Less clear at this stage, pending the discussions between MLB and Elias, is how rate statistics such as batting average or slugging percentage will be classified. For instance, Gibson (.365), Jud Wilson (.359), Charleston (.350) and Turkey Stearnes (.348) all had at least 3,000 career plate appearances and batting averages that would rank in the top 10 all-time, according to the Seamheads database. Their inclusion on that particular list would push the legendary likes of Ted Williams (.344) and Babe Ruth (.342) out of the top 10.
 

GreenMonster49

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I was intrigued by the idea of Gibson replacing Bonds as the official HR king, but it will never happen.
If Hank Aaron hit 8 or more home runs for Indianapolis between 1951 and 1952, then at least he will regain his title.
 

Ale Xander

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Fantastic. If pre-integration MLB stats and players are included in "official records," then Negro Leagues stats and players should be included, too. Good move.
 

Kliq

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Seems like the Negro League Database is overrun at the moment - but I assume that the records are so incomplete we'll never see a Negro League player approach any actual records. For example, B-Ref has Josh Gibson with 212 career HR and a single season high of 30. Those will likely increase as people do more work, but lots of this is probably lost, which is a shame.

Edit - and yes, this is a great move. I was intrigued by the idea of Gibson replacing Bonds as the official HR king, but it will never happen.
A vast majority of games played by Negro League players were not in official Negro League games, and the Negro League seasons were often only about half the length of a regular major league season; so even players with extraordinary long careers are not going to touch a lot of the career accumulating stats. When people toss out the 800+ home run number for Gibson, they are including things like barnstorming games and seasons he spent playing in Mexico and the Caribbean. If you want to include barnstorming and exhibition games, Babe Ruth probably hit well over 800 career home runs as well.
 

ledsox

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I think this is an absolutely excellent move. Just curious, though, does this mean that Ted Williams no longer has the most recent .400 season officially?
That’s what they said on mlb now. Josh Gibson is now the last man to hit .400.

Also, Willie Mays collects 16 more hits but no more HRs, as he did not bang one out in 1948 as a Baron. He was 17 and only had 61 ABs and it seems his rate stats will take a very small drop.
 

Toe Nash

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This is great and kudos to the archivists who did all the work of finding and compiling the primary sources. Just a really neat story.

And Josh Gibson was amazing. I think he can pretty credibly (ok fine, arguably) be considered the second-best hitter ever.
 

Kliq

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This is great and kudos to the archivists who did all the work of finding and compiling the primary sources. Just a really neat story.

And Josh Gibson was amazing. I think he can pretty credibly be considered the second-best hitter ever.
We simply don't know how good Gibson was. What made Gibson a superstar was not just his power, but his all around game from the catcher's position. However, even if we acknowledge that Gibson was the best hitting catcher of all-time, it would still be unlikely that Gibson would be the second best hitter ever. The best hitting catcher in major league history is either Mike Piazza or Johnny Bench, and as good as they were, they are not considered anywhere close to being the best hitter ever. Bill James estimated in his Baseball Abstract that he thinks Gibson would have hit 500 homers in Major League Baseball; a Hall of Famer for sure and if you consider his defense and speed from the catcher's position, probably one of the 10 best players ever, but not necessarily due entirely to his bat.

There is a lot of debate about how the best power hitter in Negro League history actually was. A lot of historians think it was Turkey Stearnes, who led the NGL in home runs seven times, and holds the all-time NGL record for homers with 176. Mule Suttles, who is second all-time in homers, is also in the conversation.

Oscar Charleston is often regarded as the best Negro League player in history.
 

HriniakPosterChild

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Years ago, I recall reading (but cannot now find) an interview with Bill James who said that it was almost impossible to do league adjustments with Negro Leagues stats because at the end of the season, two teams out of contention who didn’t expect to sell many tickets would just leave their games unplayed.

Obviously, this would punish a bunch of players’ counting stats.
 

CarolinaBeerGuy

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This is problematic - it's not like major-league teams threw open the doors to all Black players once Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers.
I agree. I’m not sure what the cutoff should be, but many people feel that it should be 1951.
 

allmanbro

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A vast majority of games played by Negro League players were not in official Negro League games, and the Negro League seasons were often only about half the length of a regular major league season; so even players with extraordinary long careers are not going to touch a lot of the career accumulating stats. When people toss out the 800+ home run number for Gibson, they are including things like barnstorming games and seasons he spent playing in Mexico and the Caribbean. If you want to include barnstorming and exhibition games, Babe Ruth probably hit well over 800 career home runs as well.
I hadn't really appreciated the ratio of barnstorming vs league games, so thanks.

The Ruth comparison definitely applies (Joe Pos makes the same comparison in the article VE linked above). But I wonder about how far that goes: it seems like negro league players' baseball lives were built around barnstorming in a way that it never was for white players. So I think something greater is missed by ignoring those games for negro league players. But, of course, you need to draw a principled line about what counts and what doesn't. The whole idea of a "major" league is such a weird construct, which I presume comes out of the fact that the AL and NL really were separate entities for so long, in a way that no other major sport has had.


I think the weirdness of fitting these statistics in is a part of the fun of the whole idea of stats and history in baseball. Baseball is and always has been full of these: what if Ted hadn't gone to war, or had played with the short porch in Yankee stadium? What if Ruth had had to face black and Hispanic pitchers? What if Ty Cobb got to hit the 2019 ball? Within the AL and NL, these are not usually seen as "problems", they are seen as part of the fun, so hopefully we can get to that point with the negro league stats.
 

shaggydog2000

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I hadn't really appreciated the ratio of barnstorming vs league games, so thanks.

The Ruth comparison definitely applies (Joe Pos makes the same comparison in the article VE linked above). But I wonder about how far that goes: it seems like negro league players' baseball lives were built around barnstorming in a way that it never was for white players. So I think something greater is missed by ignoring those games for negro league players. But, of course, you need to draw a principled line about what counts and what doesn't. The whole idea of a "major" league is such a weird construct, which I presume comes out of the fact that the AL and NL really were separate entities for so long, in a way that no other major sport has had.


I think the weirdness of fitting these statistics in is a part of the fun of the whole idea of stats and history in baseball. Baseball is and always has been full of these: what if Ted hadn't gone to war, or had played with the short porch in Yankee stadium? What if Ruth had had to face black and Hispanic pitchers? What if Ty Cobb got to hit the 2019 ball? Within the AL and NL, these are not usually seen as "problems", they are seen as part of the fun, so hopefully we can get to that point with the negro league stats.
Not all of the players in the Negro League players would have been major league level talents at the time (and not all of the AL and NL players would have been major league talents if integrated leagues had existed), and the competitiveness of the games probably did vary on a sliding scale between exhibition and pro. But the MLB already includes stats from questionably talented and professional leagues that only existed for one or two years, like the Union Association, Players League, and the Federal league. The Negro leagues they want to include were the highest level of play available to many major league level talents, unfortunately, so it seems reasonable to me to include them. All stats need to be understood in context anyway, so I don't see any reason this will disturb the record books.
 

allmanbro

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Not all of the players in the Negro League players would have been major league level talents at the time (and not all of the AL and NL players would have been major league talents if integrated leagues had existed), and the competitiveness of the games probably did vary on a sliding scale between exhibition and pro. But the MLB already includes stats from questionably talented and professional leagues that only existed for one or two years, like the Union Association, Players League, and the Federal league. The Negro leagues they want to include were the highest level of play available to many major league level talents, unfortunately, so it seems reasonable to me to include them. All stats need to be understood in context anyway, so I don't see any reason this will disturb the record books.
Exactly. I think you could even go a little farther: It's only relatively recently that everyone in the AL and NL made enough money to live without having a second job, let alone actually implement serious offseason training regimens. So the level of athleticism and professionalism we associate with "major leagues" today only really goes back to, what, the 1980s? late 1970s? So these questions about how we think about strength of competition aren't limited to the non-AL/NL leagues, that's just what it is to make historical comparisons. Comparing across leagues definitely adds another dimension, but it's still the same basic issue.

Nobody here is arguing against the move by MLB, but I still think it's worth thinking about this kind of thing in order to get a sense for how all these leagues relate and how to compare stats. Along those lines, an interesting post from Seamheads on how they 'normalize' negro league stats: http://seamheads.com/blog/2020/02/13/normalizing-negro-league-statistics/
 

Awesome Fossum

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This might not be the thread for this, but as we continue to see MLB do more and more to highlight Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues while the share of black Americans in the sport continues to drop and drop ... I wonder if the constant reminders of the game's bigoted history is in some ways counterproductive?

Maybe that's totally off base. I certainly don't think it's the primary cause, and maybe the share would be dropping even faster without these efforts. And/or maybe a full embrace of history is worth whatever friction it might introduce in the present. But I wonder how one would go about evaluating that.
 

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NJ_Sox_Fan

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While baseball is far and away my favorite sport, the fact that 99% of players need to spend time in the minors making nothing for several years, versus other sports where you are instantly making tens of millions of dollars would certainly persuade me to go with football or basketball over baseball (you know, in this hypothetical where I am an elite athlete and could potentially be pro in any of them)