Suddenly, the Negro Leagues count …Suddenly?

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

No sport cherishes its history and its statistics more than baseball does, and on Wednesday baseball gained a whole lot new of both as Major League Baseball officially implemented an integrated statistics database to include the statistics of the 2,300 players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948.

The Special Baseball Records Committee of 1969 voted to include the American League, National League, American Association, Union Association, Federal League and Players’ League in baseball’s official history, but did not give the Negro Leagues major-league status. That would finally change as in 2020 MLB officially recognized the Negro Leagues as “major league.”

“We are proud that the official historical record now includes the players of the Negro Leagues,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “This initiative is focused on ensuring that future generations of fans have access to the statistics and milestones of all those who made the Negro Leagues possible. Their accomplishments on the field will be a gateway to broader learning about this triumph in American history and the path that led to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut.”

Former Negro League players who played in the major leagues include Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron (three months as a shortstop), Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Minnie Miñoso, Larry Doby, Elston Howard and many others, all of whom will have their Negro League statistics integrated and updated. The statistics will continue to be reviewed and updated as more data and information warrants.

The Negro Leagues statistical review committee, comprised of baseball historians, Negro League experts, former players, researchers and journalists, reviewed data, box scores, statistics and additional information uncovered by Seamheads, RetroSheet and the Elias Sports Bureau, and already there are some new names on baseball’s all-time leader board.

For instance, Negro Leagues legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson will become MLB’s single-season record holder in batting average (.466 in 1943), slugging percentage (.974 in 1937) and OPS (1.474 in 1937). Gibson, who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, also becomes MLB’s career leader in all three categories. The previous records for slugging and OPS in a season were both held by Barry Bonds.

Gibson’s career batting average of .372 passes Ty Cobb for the all-time lead, while his career slugging percentage of .718 and OPS of 1.177 take over the previous leader in both categories, Babe Ruth.

The legend of Josh Gibson, in part, is that he hit over 800 home runs in his career, but the committee did not include many of his home runs that were hit outside of what was deemed league play and wasn’t accompanied by box scores. Thus, while Gibson will have several of his accomplishments counted as MLB records, he will not be the leader in career home runs.

Naturally there are those who believe the absorption of these statistics is an attempt to gloss over the fact that the Negro Leagues even existed since the players were not allowed to play Major League Baseball until 1947. Others considered Negro Leagues stats invalid because of the irregular schedules teams played out of necessity.

That was addressed by MLB in the same statement: “The irregularity of their league schedules, established in the spring, but improvised by the summer, were not of their making but instead were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices.”

Yet when players such as Robinson, Aaron, Mays, Banks, Campanella, Doby and Monte Irvin all played in the Negro Leagues and then went to the Major Leagues they immediately became the best MLB players, so the league was absolutely on par with MLB at the time. In fact, based on historical accounts of the barnstormong tours that Negro Leaguers and Major Leaguers played against each other in the offseasons, the Negro Leagues might have even been better given the Black teams won most of those games.

Not only that, beginning in 1949 when Jackie Robinson was the National League MVP, former Negro League players were selected as National League MVP nine times in 14 years – Jackie Robinson, Campanella three times, Banks twice, Mays, Newcombe and Aaron – with Black players, Frank Robinson and Maury Wills, who did not play in the Negro Leagues, winning in 1961 and ‘62 for good measure.

This move by MLB finally highlights and recognizes authentic baseball history that for too long was ignored. The addition of Negro Leagues statistics to MLB’s historical record does not take away from MLB’s history, good or bad. It simply adds to it as the history of the game can now be told in a more complete way, as those new generations of fans that MLB dearly wants learn about the game they likely will begin to love for the rest of their lives.

Major League Baseball has finally done very well for itself here, as well as for the expansion and preservation of the history of this great game.

Perhaps the cretins of the world who are intent on banning books can learn something from this.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at mike[email protected]. Follow him on X at @MikeBurkeMDT

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