Josh Gibson: MLB’s all-time average leader?

WASHINGTON, DC - CIRCA 1940: Josh Gibson, catcher for the Negro League Homestead Grays, is approaching first base as he runs out a ground ball in Griffith Stadium circa 1940 in Washington, D.C. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - CIRCA 1940: Josh Gibson, catcher for the Negro League Homestead Grays, is approaching first base as he runs out a ground ball in Griffith Stadium circa 1940 in Washington, D.C. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images) /

Negro League star Josh Gibson could supplant Ty Cobb atop the MLB batting average list

Months from now, when the Elias Sports Bureau completes its work of melding Negro League records into the Major League record book, MLB could have a new all-time leader in batting average.

MLB officials announced Wednesday that they are recognizing seven former Negro leagues as legitimate ‘major’ leagues, the data of their players and teams to become part of the game’s official records.

Work done by a group of researchers representing Seamheads, a stat-oriented website, suggests that while the most prominent existing MLB records are not likely to change, there could be one prominent exception to that. Or not. The issue appears to hinge on how one interprets the standards for qualification in career rate-based records.

light. Related Story. Negro Leagues gain MLB status

The potential issue involves one of the game’s most hallowed records, Ty Cobb’s career .367 batting average. He leads a top 10 that also includes Rogers Hornsby (.359). Joe Jackson (.356), Lefty O’Doul (.349), Ed Delahanty (.346), Tris Speaker (.345), Billy Hamilton  and Ted Williams (both .344), Dan Brouthers (.342) and Babe Ruth (.342).

The Seamheads data base, which is expected to become the basis for Elias’ merger of the existing and new data, identifies four Negro Leaguers who could crack that top 10. The four are Josh Gibson (.365), Jud Wilson (.359), Oscar Charleston (.350) and Turkey Stearnes (.348). Were all four to be included as presented by Seamheads, Hamilton, Williams, Brouthers and Ruth all would lose their top 10 status.

Records of the four are not, however, likely to be merged whole. That’s because the Seamheads data base includes post-season and All-Star games along with some games played in leagues still not recognized by MLB as major.  In the case of Gibson’s career batting average, that’s where things get interesting.

Superficially, Gibson’s .365 average would stand second behind only Cobb. But that  .365 mark includes all teams for which Gibson played between his 1930 debut and his final season, 1946. Based on his record, it appears likely that Elias will heavily edit his performance sheet.

That editing could move Gibson ahead of  Cobb…or it could strike his name entirely from consideration.

The complicating factor is that of Gibson’s 3,850 plate appearances, 3,319 official at bats and 1,212 hits credited by Seamheads, many involved his play in post-season or all-star games, or in leagues not recognized as ‘major’ by MLB Wednesday.

When those performances – which encompass all or parts of 10 of Gibson’s 17 active seasons — are struck, he could wind up with around 807 hits in 2,162 official at bats. That’s a .373 batting average, six points better than Cobb.

For statisticians, however, the problem may lay in the 2,162 official at bats. That is a sparse total on which to bestow the status of ‘all-time leader.’ Measured in modern terms, it’s roughly equivalent to just three or four seasons worth of at bats.

Would MLB recognize Gibson as the all-time batting leader on the basis of such a thin ‘official’ resume? The arguments in both directions are interesting.

On the one hand, it seems unfair to penalize Gibson for circumstances beyond his control. It was, of course, the major league teams, not Gibson, who prevented his participation in the two recognized major leagues at the time.

Still, it also seems unfair to credit Gibson for an accomplishment that would be based on a far smaller data sample size than has been the case with other contenders. Cobb’s .367 mark was based on 11,440 official at bats, about five times Gibson’s total.

The average number of at bats by the players currently recognized as constituting the game’s top 25 batters is approximately 7,300. That’s about three times Gibson’s projected total. Among that current top 25, the fewest number of qualifying at bats belongs to No. 21, Jake Stenzel. His career .338 average was based on 3,031 at bats, nearly 1,000 more than Gibson’s likely total.

There are no particularly close numerical parallels to Gibson, largely because the careers of .373 hitters rarely end with so few at bats. Perhaps the closest involves the case of Austin McHenry, an infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals between 1918 and 1922.

During those five seasons, McHenry compiled a .302 average, topping out at .350 in 1921. Then McHenry developed a brain tumor that ended his career and, in November of 1922, his life. His career record shows 595 hits in 1,959 at bats. His career average would rank McHenry among the top 200 batters all time except record-keepers do not count him, presumably due to the brevity of his career.

Next. Remembering Charley Pride. dark

That suggests a similar fate may befall Gibson, who is likely to be credited with only about 200 more at bats than McHenry. Unless, that is, record-keepers decide that they were the cause of Gibson’s paucity of official at bats, and cut him some slack.