by Mike Whiteman
December 28, 2020
As many have heard, Commissioner Rob Manfred recently announced the Negro Leagues will now be recognized as part of Major League Baseball, along with the American and National Leagues and the defunct Federal League, the Player’s League of 1890, and the 19th century Union and American Associations.
While there has been a number of former Negro League players enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame, the lack of Major League recognition of the leagues they played in gave an “all or nothing” feel. Hopefully now baseball fans will hear more about folks like Rap Dixon, Dick Lundy and “Cannonball Dick” Redding, accomplished Negro League players on the Hall of Fame bubble.
The decision adds about 3,400 players to the all-time Major League roster.
This decision has prompted many questions. I’ll address some of them here.
What does this mean? What has changed?
The Negro Leagues operated from 1920-1948 due to African-American players being banned from MLB play. Many Negro League players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but the leagues they played in were not considered as part of the Major Leagues. The recent MLB action puts these players and games on the same level.
Classifying the Negro Leagues as part of the Major League Baseball also puts Negro League statistics in the same realm as the MLB stats we’ve come to know and recognize.
What about the stories of Josh Gibson hitting over 1000 home runs and Satchel Paige winning over 2000 games. Does this put them at the top of the MLB leaderboards now?
These purported stats for Gibson and Paige included games from barnstorming, exhibitions and winter leagues. Only official league statistics will be part of the Major Leagues record. Gibson has 194 recorded homers in official Negro League games.
Which leagues are we talking about?
The seven Negro Leagues recognized include: 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).
Are anyone’s current MLB stats affected?
Some players will have their stats changed a bit. Monte Irvin and Larry Doby were standout players for the Newark Eagles in the 1940s before joining MLB and completing Hall-of Fame careers. Perhaps the most significant impact is that of Paige. The righthander played for Cleveland and the St. Louis Browns at the end of his career and had a 28-31 record with a 3.29 ERA, hardly Hall of Fame stuff. By adding the Negro League stats we’re aware of, his official career totals go to 140 wins and a 2.58 ERA.
Where do I find Negro League stats?
The most complete source of Negro League statistics is the Seamheads Negro League database:
Seamheads has put together what many felt impossible years ago – reliable stats for Negro League ballplayers. Their collection of games is not totally complete (about 73% of known Negro League games are documented), but it’s the best effort seen. So, as opposed to just the legends and anecdotes, we have some hard numbers to analyze these players.
The Elias Sports Bureau, the MLB’s official statistician, will need to evaluate and approve the stats before merging them with the current MLB numbers, but it’s considered likely they will rely heavily on Seamheads’ good work. So, this is a good place for readers to start in familiarizing themselves with these new MLB players and their records.
What are some of the best statistical accomplishments of the Negro League players?
The first thing that needs to be stated in looking at Negro League statistics is context. Negro League teams played anywhere from 40 to 90 games per season, and many leagues had significant variance from year to year and from team to team within the seasons.
In 1929 Charles “Chino” Smith batted .451 for the New York Lincoln Giants. This is the highest single season batting average for Negro League players with over 300 plate appearances. This would also represent the highest Major League single season batting average, besting Hugh Duffy’s .440 average in 1894.
The modern day record for season ERA is held by Dutch Leonard (0.96 in 1914) and followed by Mordecai Brown’s 1.04 season in 1906 and Bob Gibson’s famous 1.12 mark in 1968. Satchel Paige’s 1944 season beats them all, with a 0.72 ERA in 87.2 innings.
With the data on hand, Mule Suttles holds the single season Negro Leagues home run record, blasting 32 home runs for the St. Louis Stars in 1926. Cool Papa Bell stole a league high 52 bases while splitting the 1929 season with the Stars and Chicago American Giants.
Turkey Stearnes owns the career home run-record with 196, with fellow Hall of Famers Gibson (194) and Suttles (191) close behind. The discovery of more boxscores could change these rankings.
The “Cy Young” of the Negro Leagues may well be Hall of Fame lefthander Willie Foster, who led all hurlers with 150 career wins. He also holds the single-season standard with 25 victories for the Chicago American Giants in 1927.
What challenges does this change present?
Numbers and tradition are weaved through the Major League Baseball story. Numbers like 162, 154, 511, 61, 755, 56, and .406 mean something to the sport. You just to read about the uproar of Roger Maris’ 1961 season or Barry Bonds’ assault on the home run records.
How will Negro League those numbers be received in light of their short seasons?
Here’s an example of a change we’ll have to confront. If we set a minimum standard of 300 plate appearances in a season, which represents a reasonable number for the Negro League seasons, eleven .400 hitters are now added to the mix, the latest being Gibson’s .441 season of 1943. Will those numbers, as well as the possible record-breaking numbers of Smith and Paige be recognized next to their MLB counterparts who played “full” seasons?
While there are questions to be answered, count me as excited about this change. I feel this takes a step in the right direction to right the wrong of baseball’s color line. While it certainly doesn’t right the whole wrong, I’m happy for the few living Negro Leaguers and the families of those who have passed away.
I’ll be looking forward to the day that I see the Negro League stats integrated with the MLB records at baseball-reference.com!