Sports

MLB’s Move to “Elevate” the Negro Leagues Risks Diminishing Them

The numbers going into the record books don’t tell the whole truth.

Josh Gibson slides into home, kicking up a cloud of dust at home plate, wincing
Josh Gibson of the East team slides into home after being put out on the play by catcher Ted Radcliffe of the West team in the fourth inning of the 12th annual East-West All-Star Game of the Negro Leagues at Comiskey Park in Chicago on Aug. 13, 1944. The West defeated the East, 7–4. Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

Trivia question: How old was Satchel Paige when he debuted in the major leagues? Until last week, the answer was 41, Paige’s age when he began a remarkable five-year run in the newly integrated league with a scoreless two-inning relief appearance in Cleveland in July 1948. Last Wednesday, Major League Baseball designated seven Negro Leagues as part of the majors. With that, Paige’s debut happened 21 years and 1,524 strikeouts earlier, for the Birmingham Black Barons of the National Negro League.

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Along with the 1920 to 1931 seasons of that league, 37 seasons across six other leagues will be incorporated into the major league record books, retroactively adding more than 3,400 Black players who played from 1920 to 1948 to MLB’s official statistical record. Among them are legends Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, and Cool Papa Bell, as well as isolated seasons from Hall of Famers, like Willie Mays and Larry Doby, who played the bulk of their years in the integrated major leagues.

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This pronouncement is expected to make Gibson the new single-season batting average champion, with a .441 mark in 1943, edging out MLB’s Hugh Duffy, who hit .440 for the National League’s Boston Beaneaters in 1894. No other major record is likely to be threatened when the Elias Sports Bureau publishes official statistics for the era. However, unlike today, when the speed and direction of every pitch and batted ball are recorded and immediately published, records from the Negro Leagues—while impressively documented—were not kept up as completely by the white news media of the day as MLB’s were. That failure means the records don’t have the same level of fidelity as MLB statistics. The Negro Leagues’ incomplete numbers make the sort of cross-generation analysis that statistics typically offer a challenging and caveat-filled enterprise. If we simply say that Josh Gibson and the Yankees’ Tony Lazzeri each hit 18 homers in 1933, we erase both whatever Gibson homers were not recorded and the institutionalized segregation that kept the two from playing on the same fields against the same players. Meanwhile, it’s easier to trust Lazzeri’s total. The danger of adding the Negro Leagues to the major league statistical history is that the official record becomes the skeleton on which our understanding of that time rests.

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To add these records to its books, MLB will impose hard definitions on a porous time, when leagues would rise and fall like startups, and players might play in multiple leagues in a single year. The additions will exclude exhibition and “barnstorming” games, which included at least one traveling team that had no fixed home or even a fixed league.

“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”

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While a “backdrop” suggests flat scenery that quickly fades from the viewer’s attention, the institutionalized racism that spawned the Negro Leagues makes the record-keeping MLB is attempting a fraught exercise. Excluding barnstorming teams and years prior to 1920 makes this accounting definitionally incomplete. Even for players who seem well documented, bucketing their records along with the rest of the major leagues struggles to capture the objective history people seek in statistics. Ironically, deeming certain incomplete numbers “official” puts a stamp of certainty on these stats that can’t possibly exist, and it risks diminishing mythic heroes like Gibson in the process.

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Nevertheless, the move was praised by many with close connections to the Negro Leagues, including Gibson’s great-grandson Sean Gibson, executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, who saw it as an important first step in acknowledging and appreciating the Negro Leagues.* With thousands of players entering the record, it’s worth considering some of the most notable statistical achievements entering MLB’s official records and what their sudden inclusion might mean for the history books.

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MLB’s choice of a 1920 start date for Negro Leagues records wipes out the first five years of Hall of Fame Negro League great Oscar Charleston’s career, removing more than 250 officially recorded games from his ledger. Still, Charleston stands out as one of the best to ever play. He batted over .400 five different times (in seasons shorter than those played today), hit 211 home runs, and stole 367 bases while getting caught only three times—though failed steal attempts were not recorded in every season. His career batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage line of .350/.430/.573, alongside allegedly stellar defense roaming centerfield, compare favorably to that of this century’s best player, Mike Trout, who clocks in at .304/.418/.582 in 300 fewer games. Joe Posnanski of the Athletic listed Charleston as the fifth greatest player of all time, sandwiched between Henry Aaron and Ted Williams.

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Charleston was an excellent base stealer, but not as good as his contemporary, Cool Papa Bell. Paige liked telling reporters that Bell could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room went dark, a boast Muhammad Ali later adopted for himself and made much more famous. According to the stats we have available, Bell stole 345 bases and wasn’t caught a single time. Stearnes, while not as fast as Charleston, had a comparable career hitting line of .348/.415/.617.

The numbers also show impressive feats of athleticism from lesser-known names. The Newark Eagles’ pitcher Leon Day led the leagues in strikeouts in 1946—while hitting .379. In 1926, pitcher Willie Foster had a season for the ages, throwing 225 innings with a 1.79 ERA. Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez had seasons like that, but very few others have. The slugger Mule Suttles put up absurd numbers over a 125-game stretch covering 1926 and 1927, hitting .430 with 41 home runs and 167 RBIs. Day and Foster were added to the Hall of Fame in 1995 and 1996, and Suttles followed in 2006, amid earlier attempts to retroactively honor Negro Leagues players for their important roles in baseball history.

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To some, such as ESPN’s Howard Bryant, pouring the stats of the segregated era into the monolithic major league database does not celebrate or elevate the Negro Leagues; it erases them.

“I think, if there’s one thing we know about baseball, [it] is [that] the numbers are always sacred. And I don’t think that you can … retrofit this,” he told PBS’ John Yang.

“You’re not looking at, well, OK, from 1920 to 1948, there was the American League and the National League on the white side and then there was the Negro Leagues on the other side. That’s not what took place. What segregation did to Black players is, it destroyed them. It created a permanent inferiority that you cannot retrofit 100 years later. You had inferior conditions. You had tattered record books. You don’t know how many games guys played.”

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Gibson—a slugging catcher for the Homestead Grays who died at 35, months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier—presents perhaps the widest discrepancy between the legend and the newly official numbers. The folklore on Gibson is that he knocked nearly 800 home runs; it even says so on his Hall of Fame plaque. Where that number comes from, and whether it’s accurate, is hard to say. Whatever the source, there is an awkwardly large chasm between that legendary round figure and Gibson’s new documented mark of 238. (Ultimately, the Elias Sports Bureau will determine whether 238 or another official number will count as Gibson’s total.) That would put Gibson in a four-way tie for 264th place all time, alongside Earl Averill, Ray Lankford, and, for now, J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox.

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Baseball history enthusiasts—even many casual ones—know that Gibson sustained a Paul Bunyan–like legend. But statistics can outlast stories, and one wonders how a curious fan might view one of the 20th century’s greatest sluggers upon seeing him buried in a sea of good-not-great players on the home run list.

Babe Ruth had the called shot, but he also had jaw-dropping statistical achievements, such as in 1921, when he hit more home runs than half the teams in the league. Gibson, sometimes called the Black Babe Ruth, has a similar mythology, but the likely official stats will pale in comparison to Ruth’s—or any number of ultimately forgettable long-ballers of more recent decades.

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Did Gibson hit more than 238 home runs? Probably. Did Cool Papa Bell swipe more than 345 bags? Seems likely. Did he ever get caught? Almost certainly. But there’s meaning and fun in thinking that he was never thrown out, and there’s just no possible way for us to ever know how many times he got caught because racist institutions made it impossible. The newly authenticated stats provide a minimum baseline of truth, but not the whole truth.

So why bother doing this? Negro Leagues President Bob Kendrick called the move “extraordinarily important,” saying it gives “additional credence to how significant the Negro Leagues were, both on and off the field.” He added an important counterpoint, noting that Negro League players “never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them.”

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Bryant was less charitable.

“I don’t think that this satisfies the Black players, but I think it makes people feel good about a period that nobody feels good about,” he said.

The league was already in an awkward position when it comes to certifying other leagues. In 1969, an all-white panel representing the National and American leagues, the Baseball Writers’ Association, the Hall of Fame, and the commissioner’s office certified four leagues that existed briefly around the turn of the century—while ignoring the Negro Leagues. That panel’s certification became a sign of legitimacy, and its omission of the Negro Leagues an insult to the injury of racial exclusion.

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This context is largely forgotten, but ballplayers, league officials, and fans have the racial justice protests of this past summer, which led teams to cancel games in solidarity, very much top of mind. So too should they remain cognizant of the diminished presence of Black players in baseball today. In 2020, Black players made up just 7.8 percent of the league, which actually represented an increase over the previous season—a trend Kendrick sees as moving in the right direction. “I do think we’re seeing a total shift in interest in this sport, and that’s what gives me hope, that we start seeing a reversal of those numbers,” he said.

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MLB should hope so, too. The league’s audience is older and whiter than that of the NFL and NBA, and the 2019 season had the lowest in-game attendance of any season since 2003. Those trends won’t be reversed by certifying Josh Gibson’s batting average from 1943. The league’s intentions may be admirable and its changes may be symbolically meaningful to many, but adequately reckoning with its history of racism will require much more than putting Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and their contemporaries’ stats into the record books. Black players and fans need to feel welcome and respected by the league—not in 1921, but in 2021.

Correction, Dec. 24, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Sean Gibson as Josh Gibson’s grandson. He is Josh Gibson’s great-grandson.

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