Combining MLB and Negro League stats is long overdue in baseball. But when you see its impact, you’ll see why it gets pushed under the rug.
MLB and the Negro Leagues have both a shared and unshared connection in American History that has given us a progression of the best athletes and performers in all of the professional sports.
They played in separate leagues and cities, kept separate records, and played before white and black audiences exclusively and respectively.
The Blur Begins Between MLB And The Negro Leagues Begins
When Branch Rickey saw visions of dollars dancing in his head, he made “history” for bringing (stealing) Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs to cross the “color line” in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
A quick exile from the Negro Leagues to what many considered their just desserts in the “real” major leagues followed,
Throughout the decades of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, MLB leaderboards became dominated by black American athletes who had already made their mark in the Negro Leagues.
Since then, we’ve witnessed a gradual decline of black ballplayer participation in the sport of baseball to where MLB Players Percentage by Race breaks down to White – 57.5% Hispanic – 31.9% Black – 7.7% (Oct 6, 2020).
The reasons for this decline in interest and therefore participation in MLB today are systemic in our culture, and too vast and complex to take on here.
But I will offer this.
MLB Career Numbers Easily Skewed
In the same way that former slaves uprooted their families after the Civil War to move North to find jobs in a fledging economy led by the Industrial Revolution, former Negro League stars left everything behind (them) as well.
Prior accomplishments and most important, numbers, were “erased” and the calendar began anew with their MLB teams.
Minnie Minoso, the “Cuban Comet,” who probably should have been in the Hall of Fame long ago, retired with 1,963 hits. Or he may have thought he did because he collected 154 more for the New York Cubans from 1946-48.
Add those and the total becomes 2,117. Might that have changed some minds of the Cooperstown voters? There are more dramatic examples we’ll cite later, but we begin to see the impact of combining MLB and Negro League career stats, should MLB move in that direction.
John Thorn, MLB Historian Sees The Light
A day or so ago, I had this exchange with John Thorn, MLB’s official and noted historian.
The depth of changes in the record books of baseball, a sport we know is based sacredly on the compilation of numbers, is perhaps most profound when we look at the Home Run King of baseball.
Josh Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, and it’s right there on the plaque: “Hit almost 800 home runs in the league and independent baseball during his 17-year career.” That would put him well above Barry Bonds‘ record of 762.
Uh-Oh: What Happens Now?
No biggie, some would say because both players are black. But what happens when Gibson is tracked to his rightful place in the All-Time OPS Leaders (below), and we find that Gibson, in his Negro National League time, came in at … 200?
OPS All-Time Leaders (MLB.com)
The accumulation of Negro League stats included in the above is only the box scores for nearly 75% of known Negro League games during those 29 seasons, as amassed by Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, who have painstakingly spent years attempting to create as full a listing of Negro League stats as possible.
The obvious question then looms…by how much more would current MLB records be skewed in favor of reality if those records reached 90 or 100 percent?
Or better yet, is that the question we really want or need to ask, because is it not a simple question of fairness and clarity when it comes to a sport totally encompassed and enthralled with numbers?
MLB: The Long And Winding Road To Fairness
Take a peek at the detailed and thoughtful summary put together by Mike Petriello for MLB.com as he looks at how Negro League leaders may alter MLB boards – if added.
Without going off the political deep end here, it would seem to be an appropriate time to take a refreshed look at ways in which we can right the past, so as to present a more accurate picture of our vast and cumulative culture.
A Sidebar That Had An Impact On Me
Somewhere around 2008-09, I had the chance to visit the Negro Baseball Museum in Kansas City. It happened on a day the (then) Tampa Bay Devil Rays were in town for a night game.
A bus pulled up and first off was the first base coach for the Rays George Hendrick, leading a contingent of early risers among players for a visit to the museum.
Making myself a fly on the wall, I tagged along and was treated to a walking tour of the museum led by Hendrick, with tales and stories as we passed along the various plaques and displays.
Evan Longoria, Jeff Niemann, and B.J. Upton stood by soaking it all in, only to re-board the bus taking them back to the routine of their baseball lives, but also having absorbed knowledge as well as a deeper appreciation for the game they were privileged to play.
Hendrick reluctantly signed an autograph – and truth be told – my greatest fear at that moment would have been if he had asked me – “Do you know who I am?”
The salient point remains though.
Blending the distinct and separate cultural and historical experiences of MLB and the Negro Leagues is a complex, and probably error-prone task.
But the constant and most neutral comparison between the two is the raw numbers produced by players in either or both leagues.
MLB, Negro Leagues – All It Is Is Numbers
Repeating myself because it’s significant, baseball is and always has been a game of numbers. Bars are routinely set in each league to determine the MVP, CY Young, Rookie of the Year Awards each season. Ditto for being elected to the Hall of Fame.
Lets fans in the stands and those sitting on a barstool debate the merits of Josh Gibson, Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, or Barry Bonds as the home-run king of baseball – with the simple thought being though if Gibson’s name isn’t on the “ballot” of knowledge, he’s automatically excluded from the conversation unless some wise guy wishes, at his peril, to enter his name in the discussion.
Major League Baseball (MLB) is well aware of its – I don’t know – deficiency? with regards to its inclusion and recognition of the Negro League players.
We have “Jackie Robinson Day”, celebrated by all players wearing #42 for that day’s game, but it’s become a routine part of a baseball season and has lost its luster.
The balance is tipping the right way, but it’s not quite there yet.
Numbers have nothing to do with race, color, or creed – and for that reason, it’s beyond the appropriate time for the MLB and the Negro Leagues to be blended – with the only neutral and natural form of relevance in baseball – numbers.