The Day Negro Leagues Statistics Met the Major League Record Books

Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team

Wednesday was a big day in the world of baseball statistics, albeit a more complicated one than initially met the eye. Major League Baseball announced that the statistics from seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948 have been officially incorporated into its database, the culmination of a process that began in late 2020, when MLB first recognized those circuits as major leagues. As a result, several longstanding seasonal and career records have officially changed hands; most prominently, Josh Gibson is now the single-season and all-time leader in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS, supplanting Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth in the career categories. The grassroots effort to gather and audit the Negro Leagues data that made this possible has been laudable, even heroic. But while we can never do enough to acknowledge the greatness of Gibson and his peers — along with the pain and injustice that they faced both within and outside baseball — MLB’s announcement and the dissemination of the news did strike a few sour notes, just as in 2020.

To be clear, this is not a quibble with the concept of compiling these statistics — the result of decades of diligent, painstaking research that has included the manual entry of thousands of box scores into spreadsheets and databases — which illustrate the extent to which legendary players such as Gibson and less renowned ones such as Charlie “Chino” Smith rightfully belong alongside the Cobbs and Ruths of baseball history. The efforts of expert researchers such as Larry Lester and the Seamheads group to set the record straight, and to validate the careers of some 2,300 Negro Leagues players as major league, are tremendously important; in listening to Lester and MLB official historian John Thorn describing this work on Wednesday’s Effectively Wild podcast, one can hear their pride and joy with regard to this occasion. Instead, this is an issue of semantics and nuance, because words and language matter. The wrong ones can obscure the important distinctions in play, particularly when it comes to MLB’s culpability in creating and reinforcing the conditions that made the Negro Leagues necessary.

Particularly with regard to Tuesday’s leaked news of MLB’s impending announcement and the league’s own explanation, the word “integration” was used in cavalier fashion to describe the merging of data from the National League, American League and four bygone white leagues with that of the seven Negro Leagues now recognized as major leagues. This feels like a poor choice, since the implementation and maintenance of the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” — codified nowhere, but understood among the game’s power brokers — kept the major leagues segregated from the mid-1880s to 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Gibson, fellow stars such as Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and Bullet Rogan, and thousands of other players were barred from playing in the NL, AL, and other major leagues after 1884, when the Walker brothers, Fleet and Welday, were forced out of the American Association after playing briefly for its Toledo franchise. Instead those thousands of players played professionally at the highest level available to them, both within structured leagues and, out of economic necessity, outside of them via exhibitions — sometimes doing both in the same day. They demonstrated skills on par with their white contemporaries, and thankfully we have quantifiable evidence of their accomplishments to go with the stories and legends.

However, it is a mistake to confuse the provenance of those accomplishments as belonging to MLB, and a misrepresentation to brand them as such. As Shakeia Taylor, deputy senior content editor at the Chicago Tribune and host of the historically-focused Society for American Baseball Research podcast Ballpark Figures, succinctly put it on Twitter, “[I]t’s really as simple as referring to [Gibson] as the ‘major-league record holder’ instead of ‘MLB record holder.’ These two things are not the same.”

Again, the semantics and nuances matter. Major League Baseball (MLB) in its capitalized form refers to the corporate and legal entity created by the 2000 merger of the AL and NL, whose histories and records it subsumed, warts and all. Part of their histories is the systemic racism that excluded Black players within the aforementioned period, and so it should not simply call those records part of MLB, for however well-intentioned the gesture may be. Nonetheless, Wednesday’s press release announcing the changes immediately muddied the waters (emphasis added):

Several new Major League records are now newly held by Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, who is being joined on all-time Major League leaderboards by other Negro Leagues stars, Major League Baseball announced today. Gibson is now MLB’s all-time career leader in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage, and he holds the all-time single-season records in all three of those categories. These historic changes to long-held baseball records follow an evaluation by the independent Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, whose public report is now available (and accompanies this message as an attachment).

Not great. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement was worth a raised eyebrow or two as well:

“We are proud that the official historical record now includes the players of the Negro Leagues. 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.”

The commissioner could have phrased that better, to say the least. “All those who made the Negro Leagues possible” implies not only those leagues’ founders and players but also the people who necessitated this alternative structure by enforcing baseball’s racist policy, including Cap Anson, whose refusal to play against a team that included Black players gave rise to the Gentleman’s Agreement, and commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who maintained the ban through his 1920–1944 tenure as commissioner. “This triumph in American history” was a triumph over the obstacles created and upheld by small-minded men.

Within MLB’s release, the supportive statements of Thorn, Lester, fellow Negro Leagues expert Phil Dixon, and Elias Sports Bureau senior historian John Labombarda are thankfully much better, with Thorn pointedly acknowledging the league’s role in creating the difficult conditions in the first place. “Shortened Negro League schedules, interspersed with revenue-raising exhibition games, were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices,” he said in the statement. “To deny the best Black players of the era their rightful place among all-time leaders would be a double penalty.”

The seven-page report from the 17-member Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee (which was chaired by Thorn and included the other aforementioned parties besides Manfred) offers much more clarity and perspective. The document details the decision to incorporate Negro Leagues data and addresses many questions raised by this move. This portion of the answer to the question, “How may we view and understand Negro League statistics?” gets to the heart of the issue:

Negro Leagues statistics have not been thrown into an MLB “melting pot,” from which the identity of an individual, or team, or league may not be viewed distinctly. It is useful and necessary to comprehend these newly added records in the context of rival leagues struggling to survive and, because of their players’ skin color, being unwelcome in MLB. Resort to an underlying story is the best way to comprehend Negro Leagues statistics, but that has also been true for many seasons in what we previously understood as MLB. Consider the explanations necessary for understanding records in, for example, the statistically anomalous seasons of 2020, 1968, 1945, 1930, 1906, 1894, or 1877.

The designation of certain bygone leagues as majors dates back to 1968, when commissioner William Eckert convened a Special Baseball Records Committee. The effort was in conjunction with publisher Macmillan’s effort to produce The Baseball Encyclopedia, which would encompass the official statistics of the major leagues. The five-man committee, which consisted of officials from the AL and NL, the commissioner’s office, the Hall of Fame, and the BBWAA — all of them white men, of course — announced in 1969 that it had determined that the AL, NL and four defunct leagues met the criteria to be considered majors:

Major Leagues Recognized by the
Special Baseball Records Committee (1969)
League Abbreviation Years
National League NL 1876–present
American Association AA 1882–1891
Union Association UA 1884
Players League PL 1890
American League AL 1901–present
Federal League FL 1914–1915

The committee ruled that the National Association, which ran from 1871–1875 and which is considered baseball’s first professional league, did not meet its criteria “due to its erratic schedule and procedures.” While that distinction still holds today, SABR does consider the NA a major, it is treated as such within the databases of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, and the plaques of Hall of Famers with NA experience, such as Deacon White (who collected the league’s first hit) and Pud Galvin, list the NA teams for which they played along with those in the majors.

The SBRC did not formally consider the Negro Leagues, with Joe Reichler, who represented the commissioner’s office, saying in 1987 that the leagues’ lack of exhaustive statistics and volume of games against local semipro teams factored into that decision. “They played against whoever they could for whatever they could get,” he told Gannett News Service. “You can’t blame them, but they never played more than 40 or 50 league games. It just wasn’t a cohesive league. There’s no way that you could say they were major league.”

The year 2020 served as a catalyst for a reconsideration of that exclusion. The year coincided with various centennial celebrations of the founding of the Negro Leagues, specifically, the point when Rube Foster and seven other owners of independent Black baseball teams banded together to form the first Negro National League. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic shortened MLB’s season from 162 games to 60; it played out against the backdrop of the widespread protests against police brutality and structural racism that followed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, as well as a reckoning regarding corporate names and logos based on racial stereotypes. The soul-searching extended to baseball, leading to Landis’ name being stripped off the Most Valuable Player award, to the then Cleveland Indians formally announcing a review of their team name, and to MLB committing to studying the case for designating the Negro Leagues as major following an inquiry to MLB from The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh.

In December of that year, MLB announced its “long overdue” decision to bestow official recognition of seven professional Negro Leagues from the 1920–1948 period as major leagues. The announcement was largely well received, though MLB opened itself up to justifiable criticism 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,” which implied that the Negro Leagues were lesser.

Negro Leagues Recognized as Major Leagues (2020)
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

From a practical standpoint, the 60-game 2020 season offered a template for the acceptance of Negro Leagues statistics, which were compiled in shorter seasons, within the context of the other major league statistics within MLB’s database. From the NLSRC’s report:

The condensed 2020 campaign provided a guide for how Negro Leagues records might be contained within the MLB database, including what minimums must be met for a Negro Leagues player to qualify for single-season or career records. The current standard for qualifying for batting titles is 3.1 plate appearances (PA) times the number of team games scheduled. For the ERA title, it’s one inning pitched (IP) per game scheduled. Both of these guidelines continue for seasonal accounting. Using a 60-game minimum as an informal guide for all-time single-season leaders, that’s a minimum of 186 plate appearances and 60 innings… The current standard for career leaders is 5,000 at bats (AB) and 2,000 IP; both equate, nearly, to ten full seasons as currently defined. Career-record eligibility for ten full seasons in the Negro Leagues equates to roughly 1,800 AB and 600 IP.

Among the 49-league-seasons within the seven major Negro Leagues, the actual season lengths range from 91 games (the 1927 Negro National League) down to 26 (the 1942 Negro American League), with a mean of 58 and a median of 59. Many 19th-century league-seasons now regarded as major were of similar length; not until 1883 did teams play more than 91 league games in a season.

Researchers have discovered box scores for roughly 75% of the games from the major Negro Leagues, primarily in Black newspapers. Statistical data from these sources has been available via the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database for several years, first at Seamheads’ own site, and subsequently licensed to Baseball Reference in June 2021 and FanGraphs in February 2023. But before including the data, MLB went through its own process of verifying the box scores with its statistical partners, Agate Type Research (formerly the Seamheads Negro Leagues group), Retrosheet, and Elias.

“Because Seamheads licensed their data en bloc to Baseball-Reference.com and subsequently to FanGraphs, we felt we were not in the position to do the very same thing of accepting into our database third-party stats unaudited,” Thorn told Effectively Wild’s Lindbergh and Meg Rowley. “So not only did we need to review the findings, we also needed to establish minimum qualifying standards for seasonal titles and for career titles into which a Josh Gibson or a Mule Suttles or Turkey Stearnes might fit.”

“What the public needs to know is that the numbers are solid. We do a lot of data integrity checks to make sure that the ledger balances between the batters and pitchers, hits by a team equal the hits [allowed] by the pitching team, runs equal runs, et cetera,” added Lester, an award-winning researcher with a long resumé that includes co-founding the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; working extensively with the Hall of Fame in its research into Black baseball; chairing SABR’s Negro Leagues Committee for over a quarter century; and helping to compile the Seamheads database.

The audited data is now considered official, while stories of exploits that lack supporting box scores or that happened outside of league games are not. With no box score, Gibson’s four-homer game from July 28, 1938 isn’t counted, nor is the lone home run hit by Willie Mays as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. If verifiable box scores turn up, those performances will be added to the record.

As we’re reminded every spring, shorter seasons lend themselves to more extreme rate stats. With the incorporation of Negro Leagues stats into the database, Gibson’s .466 batting average from his 74-game season with the 1943 Homestead Grays now tops the all-time leaderboard at MLB.com. Within the top 10, it’s joined by five other seasons by Negro Leagues players, with four NL players, three from the 19th-century with its shorter schedules and one from the 20th century, rounding out the list:

Single-Season Batting Average Leaders
Rk Player Season Team G PA AB H AVG
1 Josh Gibson 1943 HOM 74 305 249 116 .466
2 Charlie Smith 1929 NYL 67 304 246 111 .451
3 Hugh Duffy 1894 BSN 125 616 539 237 .440
4 Oscar Charleston 1921 SLG 64 272 226 98 .434
5 Charlie Blackwell 1921 SLG 69 277 236 102 .432
6 Ross Barnes 1876 CHI 66 342 322 138 .429
7 Oscar Charleston 1925 HBG 71 321 255 109 .427
8 Mule Suttles 1926 SLS 94 397 358 152 .425
9 Willie Keeler 1897 BAL 129 618 564 239 .424
10 Rogers Hornsby 1924 STL 143 640 536 227 .424
SOURCE: MLB.com

Similarly, Gibson and four other Negro Leagues players now rank among the top 10 in career batting average:

Career Batting Average Leaders
Rk Player G PA AB H AVG
1 Josh Gibson 653 2645 2255 838 .372
2 Ty Cobb 3034 13067 11429 4191 .367
3 Oscar Charleston 893 3736 3153 1144 .363
4 Rogers Hornsby 2259 9475 8173 2930 .358
5 Jud Wilson 955 3658 3140 1099 .350
6 Turkey Stearnes 1009 4358 3837 1334 .348
7 Ed Delahanty 1835 8394 7505 2596 .346
8 Buck Leonard 627 2709 2239 772 .345
9 Tristram Speaker 2792 11988 10195 3515 .345
10 Ted Williams 2292 9789 7706 2654 .344
11 Billy Hamilton 1591 7592 6269 2159 .344
SOURCE: MLB.com
Yellow = Negro Leagues.

Gibson additionally tops the single-season leaderboards in on-base percentage (.564 in 1943) and OPS (1.474 in 1937), and the career leaderboards in slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.177).

On the pitching side, Satchel Paige‘s 1.01 ERA in 98.1 inning for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1944 is now the third-lowest single-season mark and the lowest by a Negro Leagues pitcher, with Dave Brown’s career mark of 2.24 in 711 innings ranking as the eighth-lowest among qualifiers and the lowest of those from the Negro Leagues. Paige’s 2.74 ERA is merely 48th, and while his 7.74 strikeouts per nine is 29th, he and the sixth-ranked Sandy Koufax are the only pitchers in the top 30 whose careers began prior to the post-1960 expansion era.

“People will be, I don’t know if upset is the word, but they may be uncomfortable with some Negro League stars now on the leaderboards for career and seasons,” Lester told The Athletic’s Tyler Kepner. “Diehards may not accept the stats, but that’s OK. I welcome the conversations at the bar or the barbershop or the pool hall. That’s why we do what we do.”

The shorter schedules help Gibson and his cohorts place high on rate stats leaderboards, but they work against prominent placements when it comes to counting stats. While Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque (cast in 1972) credited him with hitting “almost 800 home runs,” and the 1994 edition of James A. Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues credited him with 972, an untold number of those were hit in exhibitions or non-league games, not to mention games like that four-homer one for which no box score has been unearthed. The official data at MLB.com credits him with 174, which is actually nine more than the version of the Seamheads database here at FanGraphs, but still no threat to the totals of Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.

Here I’ll offer a note from David Appelman regarding the new data: “FanGraphs is committed to providing Negro Leagues data. The Seamheads dataset that FanGraphs utilizes is updated on a yearly basis, and we’ll continue to publish those updates as they become available. The leagues FanGraphs currently includes as major leagues are based on the recommendations made in 2021 by the SABR Negro Leagues Task Force. We are assessing the additional inclusions by MLB and will weigh those with the forthcoming additional recommendations given by the SABR Special Negro Leagues and Teams Committee.”

If the rollout of the data and its incomplete nature makes it all sound a bit confusing and at times contentious, it’s yet another reminder that history is not static, it’s subject to reexamination as new discoveries reshape our understanding of the past. “History is not product, it’s not a bronze plaque in Cooperstown. It’s process,” as Thorn told Effectively Wild. As we’ve seen in recent years, MLB’s decision to acknowledge the Negro Leagues as major leagues may not have hit every right note, but it has stimulated new interest and scholarship in this crucial area of baseball history. It won’t ever be enough to make whole the men whose careers and lives were shaped by the injustices of segregation and racism, but by shining new light on their accomplishments and their stories, our understanding of baseball has taken several steps forward.





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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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WARonEverything
14 days ago

Thanks for this article and the added info I got from it. Also, thanks to those at Fangraphs who decided to include the ‘League’ filter on the Stats pages. It’s great to have this data, but I often like to just look at MLB (note the caps) stats and select accordingly. Other sites should do the same as I think the distinction is still there and can be useful.