Negro Leagues gain major league status

KANSAS CITY - 1942. Satchel Paige of the Monarchs talks with Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays before a game in Kansas City in 1941. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY - 1942. Satchel Paige of the Monarchs talks with Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays before a game in Kansas City in 1941. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

Commissioner Rob Manfred says MLB will recognize records of seven Negro Leagues

The Major League record book will undergo a substantial revision following an announcement by MLB Wednesday that it is recognizing seven Negro Leagues as major leagues.

The announcement by Commissioner Rob Manfred comes as MLB celebrates the centennial of the creation of the first recognized Negro League in 1920. That was the year a pitcher named Rube Foster organized the first Negro National League.

Foster’s league operated until his 1931 death, following which it went out of business. The six other leagues to be accorded ‘major’ status all operated between the early 1930s and 1948.

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Those leagues were the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the second Negro National League (1933-48), and the Negro American League (1937-48).

The year 1920 was chosen as a start date because prior to that date Negro League teams operated loosely and did not play organized schedules. Although Negro League teams and leagues continued to function for a decade or more after 1948, that year was chosen as a conclusion date because it corresponds with the 1947 breaking of the game’s unofficial color barrier.

After 1948, the talent that would have previously gone to the Negro Leagues found a more direct path to the American or National Leagues.

Manfred’s announcement will necessitate a re-ordering of many of the game’s official records. That is expected to take some time, the task being assigned to the Elias Sports Bureau, MLB’s partner in statistics-related matters. Elias is expected to rely heavily on work already done by Seamheads, which has created a Negro League data base.

Other leagues already recognized by MLB as having deserved ‘major’ status are the American Association (1882-1891), Union Association (1884) Players League (1890), and the Federal League (1914-15).

John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, said the change will affect up to 3,400 players. “Their families will now be able to say their records were included among white Major Leaguers of the period,” Thorn said. “There’s no distinction to be made. They were all big leaguers.”

That work of folding known Negro League records into the existing MLB database may turn out to be controversial both to the extent that it reshapes public perceptions of some Negro Leagues performers and also for the effect it has on all-time MLB leader boards.

A few examples:

Josh Gibson, a catcher who played for several Negro League teams in the 1930s and 1940s, is widely considered to have been the leagues’ best power hitter. Many viewed him on a level with Babe Ruth.

But the Seamheads database only credits Gibson with 238 career home runs, about one every 16.2 plate appearances. Because Negro League teams tended to play many exhibition or barnstorming games, it is entirely plausible that the 238 total vastly underestimates the number of home runs Gibson actually hit in his prime. But those home runs would not be part of the official record. Gibson’s total may also drop when the home runs he hit in non-recognized leagues are subtracted.

His 238 total, if finalized, would put Gibson on a level with J.D. Martinez, Earl Averill, and Ray Lankford, but far below Ruth’s 714. His rate of one home run for every 16.2 plate appearances would stand up better, putting him in a class with such modern-day players as Aaron Judge (15.9), Kyle Schwarber (17.2), Miguel Cabrera (18.7), and Albert Pujols (18.7).

Gibson’s career batting average could in theory prompt the most substantial rewriting of the record book. Seamheads credits him with 1,212 base hits in 3,319 official at bats, a .365 career average. If left as is and finalized, that would elevate him to second place on the all-time batting average list, close on the heels of Ty Cobb’s .367.

Gibson would surpass Rogers Hornsby (.359), Joe Jackson (.356), Lefty O’Doul (.343), and Ed Delahanty (.346) in the top five, and would boot Ruth (.342) out of the top 10 entirely. Three other Negro League stars, Jud Wilson (.359), Oscar Charleston (.350), and Turkey Stearnes (.348), also would land spots in the all-time batting average top 10 if the Seamheads database is adopted in full.

There are, however, hitches in the records of many Negro Leaguers, including Gibson, that may influence Elias’ consideration of their official totals. Some of their performances came with teams not in a recognized major league.  Gibson, to cite one example, played all or parts of 10 of his 17 season career in leagues unaffected by Wednesday’s change.

In 1941, to cite one example, Gibson batted .374 with 33 home runs and 124 RBIs for Veracruz of the Mexican League. The presumption is that when Elias completes its work, those numbers will be removed from Gibson’s official record, significantly reducing his number of ‘official’ home runs and also affecting his career batting average.

The impact on his batting average cannot be reliably estimated. By the time Elias completes his work, it’s possible that Gibson’s averages take a significant hit. It’s also possible that it surpasses Cobb’s .367 and is recognized as the highest of all time. It’s also possible that Gibson loses enough plate appearances that he does not qualify for consideration on the career leader board.

Satchel Paige, the most famous Negro League veteran, is another interesting case. Between the early 1920s and 1948, Paige played off and on for various teams in several of the leagues to be recognized. But he also played numerous seasons with various independent teams, and on top of that, he had a substantial barnstorming career.

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A best estimate would put the top end of the number of victories that might be added to Paige’s record at between 65 and 70, counting only games he pitched for recognized Negro major league teams. That’s far below the 115 victories Seamheads credits him with from all leagues during the Negro League time period. Paige is already credited with 28 victories and 31 losses during six seasons he played with American League teams after 1947.