Baseball Reference Launches Major Overhaul of Negro Leagues Coverage

For over two decades, Baseball Reference has served as the most direct conduit to the game’s statistical history, going beyond Major League Baseball’s gatekeeping to provide access to a fuller swath of leagues and teams dating back to the inception of the National Association in 1871. On Tuesday, the site officially launched its expanded coverage of the Negro Leagues and historical Black major league players, a monumental effort incorporating data previously available only via the Seamheads Negro League Database and accompanying it with commissioned articles by experts on Negro Leagues baseball to help place that data in perspective.

“With this change, we now present these Black major leagues as the equals of the American and National Leagues,” said Sports Reference President Sean Forman via Zoom press conference on Monday. “We have had Negro Leagues baseball stats on Baseball Reference for at least 10 years now, but we treated them as less than the statistics of the white major leagues. We will now treat them as the major leagues that they are.”

“Our decision to fix this omission is just a tiny part of the story,” continued Forman. “The main story here is the work of hundreds of researchers, activists, players, and families who did the research, made their arguments, and would not let the memories of these players and leagues fade away.”

For Monday’s event, Forman was joined by both Sean Gibson and Larry Lester as representatives of “the groups most central to this story, the players and their families and the researchers who told their stories.” Gibson is the great-grandson of Hall of Fame slugger Josh Gibson and the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, which provides athletic, academic, and mentoring programs for children in the Pittsburgh area. Lester is an award-winning researcher who co-founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; who has worked extensively with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in its research into Black baseball; who helped compile the Seamheads database; and who for over 25 years has chaired SABR’s Negro Leagues Committee.

“For many years, we’ve heard those great stories. Some of it’s folklore and some of it’s embellished truth, and those truths have long been a staple of Negro League stats and narrative,” said Lester. “But while these stories can be entertaining, now our dialogue can include quantified and qualified stats to support the authentic greatness of the great athletes like Josh Gibson. So as baseball reinvents itself, every fan should welcome this statistical reconstitution towards social reparation, as I call it.”

The expanded coverage at Baseball Reference (for which this reporter was one of more than a dozen beta-testers) follows in the wake of MLB’s December 2020 announcement that it would recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948 as major leagues:

Negro Leagues Classified as Major Leagues
League Abbreviation Years
Negro National League I NNL 1920-1931
Eastern Colored League ECL 1923-1928
American Negro League ANL 1929
East-West League EWL 1932
Negro Southern League NSL 1932
Negro National League II NN2 1933-1948
Negro American League NAL 1937-1948
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

According to Forman, Baseball Reference’s effort to enhance its Negro Leagues offerings actually predated MLB’s designation. Forman cited Ben Lindbergh’s August 14, 2020 piece at The Ringer about the effort, fueled by the centennial anniversary of the founding of the first Negro National League, to classify the Negro Leagues as major leagues, which “really kind of crystallized it for me.”

Though it lacks the “official” imprimatur of MLB, Baseball Reference has now beaten the league and the Elias Sports Bureau, its official statistician, to the punch in presenting the data to the public. “If MLB is sincere about recognizing the Negro Leagues and its associated stats, they should have Elias incorporate and honor the stats from Baseball Reference,” Lester told FanGraphs.

While MLB’s December announcement was generally received in a positive light (including here at FanGraphs), the league did receive criticism — some of it blistering — for its failure to acknowledge its own role in maintaining the color line that kept baseball segregated in the first place, and for its tone in phrases such as “officially elevating” that implied that the Negro Leagues were lesser. As Baseball Reference’s introduction states, “We are not bestowing a new status on these players or their accomplishments. The Negro Leagues have always been major leagues. We are changing our site’s presentation to properly recognize this fact.”

With that change comes B-Ref’s inclusion of around 2,400 Negro Leagues players and their statistics in seasonal and career leaderboards and in Stathead, the site’s premium search service (formerly the Play Index). Along with traditional statistics, each Negro Leagues player page now includes advanced stats such as OPS+, ERA+, and WAR for the 1920-48 period. The aforementioned introduction page offers tables highlighting updated career totals for 32 members of the Hall of Fame who played in the Negro Leagues, including four (Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Willie Mays) who were elected for their play in the white majors, and three (Satchel Paige, Willard Brown, and Monte Irvin) who spent time in the white majors later in their careers but were elected for their play in the Negro Leagues. The career totals of all of them have thus been adjusted. For example, Mays gains another 10 hits to push his total to 3,293, though no box score has surfaced to credit the home run he reportedly hit as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. Doby gains 20 home runs to push his career total to 273, Campanella 18 homers to push his total to 260, and both gain significant WAR as well (7.2 for the former, 6.0 for the latter). Robinson gains four homers in the 34 games he spent with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, and is credited with leading the Negro American League with a .449 on-base percentage, 72 total bases, and 2.1 WAR.

Another table includes the updated statistics of 40 pioneering players who crossed over from the Negro Leagues to the white majors, including oft-discussed Hall of Fame candidates such as Minnie Miñoso and Don Newcombe. Miñoso’s three seasons (1946-48) with the New York Cubans of the NN2 boost his career hit total to 2,110 — past the all-important 2,000 hit mark that has kept so many post-World War II players out — while adding another nine homers and 3.2 WAR. Newcombe’s two seasons, his age-18 and -19 campaigns, add another four wins and 1.8 WAR.

While Hall of Famers such as Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks played in the Negro Leagues as well, their stints came after 1948, when the quality of play had been eroded by integration to the point that the experts believe those leagues shouldn’t be classified as major. Banks played for the NAL’s Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 before being signed by the Cubs, and Aaron with the Indianapolis Clowns in ’52 before joining the Braves. Their major league career totals remain unchanged.

Based upon the available data and using the site’s standard cutoff of 3,000 plate appearances, Hall of Fame center fielder Oscar Charleston now ranks third in career OPS+ at 184 behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. He’s one of three Negro Leagues players now in the top 10:

Career Leaders in OPS+
Rk Player Years PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
1 Babe Ruth 1914-1935 10626 .342 .474 .690 206
2 Ted Williams 1939-1960 9792 .344 .482 .634 191
3 Oscar Charleston 1920-1941 3921 .364 .449 .615 184
4 Barry Bonds 1986-2007 12606 .298 .444 .607 182
5 Lou Gehrig 1923-1939 9665 .340 .447 .632 179
6 Turkey Stearnes 1923-1940 4281 .349 .417 .617 177
7 Mike Trout 2011-2021 5660 .305 .419 .583 176
8 Rogers Hornsby 1915-1937 9481 .358 .434 .577 175
9 Mickey Mantle 1951-1968 9910 .298 .421 .557 172
Mule Suttles 1924-1944 3651 .339 .410 .610 172
SOURCE: Baseball Reference
Minimum 3,000 plate appearances. Yellow = Negro Leagues players.

Charleston’s totals and rates don’t cover his time with Black independent teams from 1915-19 or ’30-32, which have not been classified as major league; those are contained on a separate register page without advanced statistics, paralleling the pages for players showing their time in the minors, majors, and/or other foreign leagues such as the Mexican League, Nippon Professional Baseball, or the Korea Baseball Organization.

Gibson hit for a 215 OPS+ in the league games that are accounted for, but those cover only 2,511 of his plate appearances, too few to qualify for the site’s standard cutoff, as well as only 165 of his home runs. His statistics with Black independent teams such as the 1930, ’31, and ’34 Homestead Grays, and the ’32 Pittsburgh Crawfords are still on his register page.

Gibson’s home run total offers some insight into the efforts of the Seamheads researchers and Baseball Reference, and the challenges they face. When he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, Gibson’s plaque credited him with hitting “almost 800 home runs,” and in the 1994 edition of the The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, he was credited with 972. An untold number of his homers were hit in exhibitions or non-league games, which were an economic necessity for Negro Leagues teams and players; only a quarter to half of the 150 to 200 games they played per year might count as league games, as Seamheads’ Gary Ashwill wrote in his accompanying essay, “Building the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.” Those exhibition homers aren’t included in the statistics added to Baseball Reference. As the site explains, “Player stats include league games, interleague games (against major Negro League competition), and games against select top-level independent Black Baseball teams. Player stats do not include the extensive amount of exhibitions and barnstorming games Negro League teams often played.”

Some of Gibson’s “missing” homers were hit in league games for which no box scores have been uncovered. Lester offered as an example a 1938 game in which Gibson hit four home runs, tying the record shared by many NL and AL sluggers.

“I am so frustrated in that we have not been able to find a box score in 1938, where Josh Gibson hit four home runs,” said Lester. “We have three newspaper accounts of him hitting for home runs in Zionsville, Ohio. But those four home runs are not included in the final stats, because we have to have a full box score so that the data can be balanced. We need to show what pitchers gave up those four home runs.”

According to Lester, because baseball was covered so extensively by the Black press in the 1920s, we have data from 95 to 99 percent of those games. That drops to 60 to 75 percent during the 1930s due to the Great Depression, rebounds to 90 percent in the 1940s “with World War II and a new awareness, with this country moving forward” (to use Lester’s words), but then falls off again in 1948 as the Black press focused on players such as Robinson, Doby, Brown, Hank Thompson, and other former Negro Leaguers as they joined the white majors.

Via Ashwill’s essay, “Overall, for the 1920-1948 period, our individual player statistics cover 9,135 out of 12,608 known games between major Black professional teams, or 72.45%.”

“The new data we’re presenting is groundbreaking in its scope, but it’s not complete. This may cause some concern, but I view the situation as similar to what in 1958 we would have known about the Federal League or the American Association,” said Forman, choosing a date that predated the massive research effort that yielded the first MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which was published in 1969, and noting that the data uncovered for the AL and NL is still subject to updates and refinement even for figures as prominent as Ty Cobb’s hit total.

“The statistics for the Negro Leagues have not yet seen the same level of investment,” said Forman. “The economic and societal disadvantages for these leagues were substantial, and a different system was created by the owners and players in response to these challenges. We must account for these differences as we do this work. We hope that our publication of these initial stats will spark more research. As the research is done, the accuracy and completeness of what we present on the site will only increase.”

“We didn’t get to have American Association stats because the leagues were somehow more legitimate at the time than Negro Leagues baseball, but it’s because people chose after the fact to aggregate and research the data,” Forman told FanGraphs. “We can make the choice now to do the same for NLB data.”

As the site’s updated data coverage page notes, the Negro Leagues statistics don’t yet include park factors, so all teams are assumed to have a neutral environment. As Lester wrote in his accompanying essay, “The Black Boys of Summer,” during the 1920-48 period, Negro Leagues teams played mostly on big league fields including Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Comiskey Park, and so on, “not corn fields or cow pastures, as some cynics have reported.” With further research, park factors may alter the numbers, with the potential to reshuffle the OPS+ leaders and other numbers just as revised career totals might.

But even without park factors, fuller pictures of the great players emerge. For example, we can marvel over the career of Hall of Famer Bullet Rogan, a two-way player whose total of 61.5 WAR is the highest of anyone who spent his entire career in the Negro Leagues. As a pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs, Rogan went 120-52 with a 2.65 ERA (161 ERA+) in 1,500 major league innings during the 1920-48 period, a total that doesn’t include the years that the Monarchs were an independent team. Including his additional major league time as an an outfielder and occasional infielder, he hit .338/.413/.521 in 2,376 PA, for a 152 OPS+. Roll over Babe Ruth, and tell Shohei Ohtani the news.

“The beauty of the stats are that they now humanize these folk heroes, and they’re no longer mythical figures like Paul Bunyan or the steel-driving John Henry,” said Lester. “These stats legitimize their accomplishments.”

While explaining that the shorter season lengths of 50 to 70 games for Negro Leagues teams will prevent some leaderboards from being completely upended, Lester said that with the data, “we can still quantify their greatness by showing that Satchel Paige struck out almost one batter every inning, which is very close to what Nolan Ryan and other ballplayers have done. We can show that Josh Gibson hit a home run every 13 to 14 times at bat, which is right in line with Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth.”

Asked by this reporter if the new information at Baseball Reference will help the causes of any particular Negro Leagues players swept aside in previous Hall of Fame discussions, Lester — who served on the Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, which in 2006 elected 17 players, managers, and executives — offered the names of John Beckwith, Rap Dixon, Dick Lundy, Dick “Cannonball” Redding, Charles “Chino” Smith, and manager Vic Harris.

Gibson seconded the mention of Dixon, and spoke passionately about Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords (for whom his great-grandfather starred from 1932-36). “As an owner, he was a visionary. He built his own stadium here in Pittsburgh… He did more for the public than he did for baseball. He was a very generous man in the city of Pittsburgh.”

“Gus Greenlee definitely needs to be in the Hall of Fame,” added Lester. “He created the East-West All-Star Game in 1933, which rejuvenated Black baseball right after the Great Depression. So, Hall of Famer no doubt.”

I’ll have more about the Hall of Fame ramifications of this trove of data in the not-too-distant future, including some ideas about how (or whether) to apply JAWS to these stats, but that’s hardly the most important aspect of Baseball Reference’s update. Alongside their data (which, it should be noted, FanGraphs is planning to add as well) is a set of essays written by experts such as Ashwill and Lester, Negro Leagues Museum President Bob Kendrick, and others. One particularly intriguing essay, “Negro Leagues = Major Leagues,” by Todd Peterson, takes inventory of Negro Leagues teams’ head-to-head success against white major league teams (individual and All-Star teams), minor league teams, college teams, semi-pro teams, and so on, while also offering comparisons of league-wide batting and pitching statistics to illustrate that the caliber of play and the scale of the numbers were on the level of the white majors.

The suite of offerings is more than can be digested in a single sitting, its ramifications almost dizzying. Forman and the diligent researchers at Seamheads deserve credit for doing a first-rate job in realizing this project. Hopefully, it will spur more research into the Negro Leagues, and more interest in telling the stories of the men who were wronged by baseball’s shameful color line. They were major leaguers all along, and it’s past time for the rest of the world to find that out.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Cave Dameron
1 year ago

Thank you MLB, very Cool (Papa Bell)!