top of page
file.jpg
  • Lincoln Mitchell

Josh Gibson, Ty Cobb and Rethinking Baseball Statistics

by Lincoln Mitchell

June 2024

***

NOTE - This article comes from Lincoln Mitchell's Substack page, Kibitzing with Lincoln . Please click HERE to follow Lincoln on Substack. (This was originally published on April 7, 2024.)

***

Major League Baseball recently changed its official records so that Negro League players and Negro League statistics count towards official, whatever that means, MLB records. The particularly case that has drawn the most attention is that Josh Gibson, the great Negro League slugger, is now is the all-time batting leader as his .373 lifetime batting average is higher than Ty Cobb’s .367.


The best Negro League players including Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige were among the very best players of their era. Paige may have been the greatest pitcher ever. He dominated the Negro Leagues, was a very effective American League pitcher in his 40s and even threw three shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox when he was 57-years-old.


Any discussion of the greatest position player of the pre-World War II era must include Gibson and Charleston alongside white players like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Baseball was mostly integrated in the post-war era, so the question of the greatest player since 1947 is an easier one-because the answer is Willie Mays.


Recognizing that those Negro League stars were great players and important parts of the story of both baseball in the US and African American history is essential, so anything that highlights their contributions to the game is positive.


Incorporating Negro League statistics into official MLB statistics is one way to draw attention to those great players as well as to the uglier, but no less important, side of baseball and  American history. However, recognizing these statistical accomplishments should not allow us to ignore some of the stark differences between the Negro Leagues and the white big leagues in the first half of the twentieth century.


Precisely because of the same racism that kept African American players out of the white majore leagues, the Negro Leagues struggled. League executives and team owners had a difficult time keeping teams and leagues afloat in an era when African Americans had little access to capital from conventional sources like banks and cities were not about to build facilities for African American athletes.


Negro League players confronted very difficult conditions not least because of cruel and harsh segregation in much of the country. The result of this was that the Negro Leagues were an amalgamation of some official seasons, a lot of barnstorming, some truncated seasons and some seasons or parts of the seasons in the Caribbean. Thus, Negro Leagues records are incomplete. No player had a ten or twenty year career that was as regular and scheduled as their white counterparts.


The American and National Leagues were also very different in those years from what they are today because they did not draw the best talent. In the 21st century, to a great extent, the best players in the world compete in MLB, but that was not true before 1947. Not only were African American players excluded, but dark-skinned Latinos did not play in white baseball either. Similarly, it was not until the mid-1990s that significant numbers of players from Asia entered MLB. It is also the case that many very solid players who were white and could have played in the American or National League in the 1930s and 1940s decided to stay in the west coast and continue playing in the PCL.


The inclusion of Negro League statistics, and Josh Gibson’s newest batting title raise other questions and challenges for baseball historiography. The first is that if Cobb is supplanted by Gibson as the player with the highest lifetime batting average, then we should probably revisit the question of who is the real home run king.


The home run title is already contested because Barry Bonds has the most big league home runs with 762, but many believe that because Bonds was connected with PED use, Henry Aaron’s 755 home runs is still the top mark. However, Sadaharu Oh hit 868 home runs while playing at the highest level in Japan from 1959-1980. During those years, MLB was the stronger league, but Oh had essentially no chance to play in the US, so his home runs have to be considered as well.


A more recent example is Ichiro Suzuki who had 3,089 hits in the Major Leagues and an additional 1,278 hits in Japan for a combined total of 4,367 or 111 more than Pete Rose. Ichiro’s claim at the title of all-time hit king cannot be ignored-and recognizing Josh Gibson’s extraordinarily accomplishment with the bat only makes that more evident.


All baseball statistics from before 1947, and in some cases later, are shrouded in uncertainty. Neither Gibson, Ruth, Cobb, Aaron, Oh, or even Willie Mays played against the best competition in the world. Similarly, for the Negro Leagues the line between official and unofficial games was much greyer, and the record keeping much more erratic than for the American and National Leagues during the same time period. This makes truly comprehensive and meaningful statistical comparisons across continents, oceans and racial dividing lines even more difficult than comparing Mays to Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth to Henry Aaron.


It is perhaps true that we may never know for certain who had the highest batting average, most wins or most home runs ever, but it is much more meaningful to that future baseball fans will now know more about the accomplishments of Paige, Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Charleston and so many others.

4 Comments


yankeesblog
4 days ago

I don't expect this to be a popular point of view but I disagree with the incorporation of Negro League statistics into the official MLB statistics. It's mixing apples and oranges and trying to rewrite history in a clumsy attempt to apologize for the blatant racism of the unofficial but very real color line that governed MLB until 1947. Let me be clear - the exclusion of players of color from MLB was a national disgrace that reflected the ugliest aspect of American society. If it wasn't outright criminal it should have been. But we need to face the reality that there were two separate, racially divided national baseball organizations in the pre-integration era. They did not play against each other…


Like

Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
5 days ago

I disagree about Oh and Japanese records. Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese MLB player in 1963. There was no "color line" keeping Japanese players out of American baseball, so there is no basis for integrating Japanese records into MLB records.


Contrast that with the enforced segregation in MLB until 1947. There, it is completely appropriate to integrate MLB and Negro Leagues statistic (the challenge being to verify the latters' statistics). The Law of the Land at that time under the execrable Plessy decision was "separate but equal," and indeed, before Brown, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP won a number cases where they alleged and proved that the "separate" facilities available to Blacks were "unequal." So if you wanted…


Like
Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
5 days ago
Replying to

I really have no idea what that is supposed to mean. If you have evidence of, say, Ford Frick telling Branch Rickey he couldn't sign Japanese players for the Pirates in the early '50s, please cite to it. I've never seen any stories about Murakami "breaking the Asian line" or any pushback against the Giants for signing him.

Like
dr sem.png

Start Spreading the News is the place for some of the very best analysis and insight focusing primarily on the New York Yankees.

(Please note that we are not affiliated with the Yankees and that the news, perspectives, and ideas are entirely our own.)

blog+image+2.jpeg

Have a question for the Weekly Mailbag?

Click below or e-mail:

SSTNReaderMail@gmail.com

SSTN is proudly affiliated with Wilson Sporting Goods! Check out our press release here, and support us by using the affiliate links below:

587611.jpg
583250.jpg
Scattering the Ashes.jpeg

"Scattering The Ashes has all the feels. Paul Russell Semendinger's debut novel taps into every emotion. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll reexamine those relationships that give your life meaning." — Don Burke, writer at The New York Post

The Least Among Them.png

"This charming and meticulously researched book will remind you of baseball’s power to change and enrich lives far beyond the diamond."

—Jonathan Eig, New York Times best-selling author of Luckiest Man, Opening Day, and Ali: A Life

From Compton to the Bronx.jpg

"A young man from Compton rises to the highest levels of baseball greatness.

Considered one of the classiest baseball players ever, this is Roy White's story, but it's also the story of a unique period in baseball history when the Yankees fell from grace and regained glory and the country dealt with societal changes in many ways."

foco-yankees.png

We are excited to announce our new sponsorship with FOCO for all officially licensed goods!

FOCO Featured:
carlos rodon bobblehead foco.jpg
bottom of page