Wrestling With MLB’s Move To Designate Negro Leagues as Majors

The year 2020 has not been filled with good news as far as baseball is concerned, but on Wednesday, some arrived. After lengthy study, Major League Baseball announced that it will officially recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948 as major leagues. For as overdue as the decision is, it’s first and foremost an official acknowledgement — as if one was needed — that the baseball played in those leagues at a time when MLB’s shameful color line was in effect was of comparable quality.

“In the minds of baseball fans worldwide, this serves as historical validation for those who had been shunned from the Major Leagues and had the foresight and courage to create their own league that helped change the game and our country too,” said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, via MLB’s press release. “This acknowledgement is a meritorious nod to the courageous owners and players who helped build this exceptional enterprise and shines a welcomed spotlight on the immense talent that called the Negro Leagues home.”

Accordingly, the move will make the statistics and accomplishments of some 3,400 players part of the major league record, meaning that it has the potential to alter familiar career totals, slash stats, and distinctions, some of which will inevitably make their way into Hall of Fame deliberations.

The decision is the culmination of MLB’s centennial celebration 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, “the first successful, organized professional Black Baseball League that provided a playing field for African-American and Hispanic baseball players to showcase their world-class baseball abilities,” to use the NLBM’s description.

The centennial, which included festivities on August 16 where players, coaches, managers, and umpires wore a special Negro Leagues 100th anniversary logo patch on their uniforms, took place against the backdrop of the widespread protests against police brutality and structural racism that followed in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Those protests have spurred changes that have included the retirement of corporate names and logos based on racial stereotypes, an effort that spilled over into the sports sphere via commitments to rename the NFL’s Washington franchise and MLB’s Cleveland team, which have made for some bumpy rides, to say the least.

If there’s a common thread here, it’s that handling these moves with the appropriate sensitivity and humility is sometimes beyond the entities forced to confront the need to do the right thing, however belatedly. MLB being MLB, Wednesday’s announcement was not handled in the most adept manner. The aforementioned press release got off on the wrong foot when it trumpeted “officially elevating” the Negro Leagues, implying that the latter was lesser:

“Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred, Jr. announced today that Major League Baseball is correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history by officially elevating the Negro Leagues to “Major League” status.”

Not great, Rob, but thankfully it does get better. Leaving the issue of tone aside for the moment, here are the nuts and bolts:

“This long overdue recognition is the product of evaluation throughout this year, which included consideration of: discussions with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and other baseball entities; the previous and ongoing studies of baseball authors and researchers; the 2006 study by the National Baseball Hall of Fame (the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group); and an overall historical record that has expanded in recent years. In particular, MLB commends the work of Gary Ashwill, Scott Simkus, Mike Lynch, and Kevin Johnson, who drove the construction of the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, and Larry Lester, whose decades-long research underlies and adds to their work. MLB credits all of the baseball research community for discovering additional facts, statistics, and context that exceed the criteria used by the Special Committee on Baseball Records in 1969 to identify six “Major Leagues” since 1876. It is MLB’s view that the Committee’s 1969 omission of the Negro Leagues from consideration was clearly an error that demands today’s designation.

…”MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau have begun a review process to determine the full scope of this designation’s ramifications on statistics and records. MLB and Elias will work with historians and other experts in the field to evaluate the relevant issues and reach conclusions upon the completion of that process.”

The seven leagues to which the statement refers are the first and second versions of the Negro National League (1920-31 and ’33-48, respectively) plus the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), and the Negro American League (1937-48). Other leagues preceded and followed those, but their records aren’t subject to this decision, which means, for example, that Oscar Charleston’s play with the Indianapolis ABCs in the Western Independent Clubs circuit from 1915-19 doesn’t count in this context. Likewise with regards to the time that some well-known players spent in the Negro American League from 1949 through ’62, as the quality of its play was eroded by integration. Ernie Banks played for the NAL’s Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 before being signed by the Cubs, and Hank Aaron with the Indianapolis Clowns in ’52 before joining the Braves. Three women — Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Connie Morgan, and Toni Stone — played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 and ’54.

On the other hand, Jackie Robinson‘s time with the Monarchs in 1945, and Willie Mays‘ time with the Birmingham Black Barons in ’48 (but not ’49) will count, thus altering their career totals and rate stats, though currently, their numbers are incomplete. Via The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh, Ashwill said that the Seamheads archive “currently includes 9,137 of 12,525 known Negro Leagues games from 1920-48, or 73 percent, ranging from close to 100 percent in the 1920s to roughly 50 percent in the 1940s, when newspapers printed fewer box scores. It also encompasses 3,448 players.”

Those totals change as researchers track down more box scores; one containing a known home run by Mays with the Black Barons has yet to surface, which for now means his home run total will continue to be reported as 660. The 17 hits from his 21 recorded games with the Black Barons in 1948, when he was 17 years old and only allowed to play in weekend home games while he continued high school, will boost his total from 3,283 to 3,300, assuming the data passes muster with MLB and Elias.

Lindbergh helped to set the wheels for this most recent reconsideration in motion this past summer (again, following on the heels of decades of work by historians and researchers including those named in the commissioner’s statement), when in response to an inquiry from The Ringer, the league began to study the case for a major league designation and what that would entail. In his August 14 piece, he highlighted the 1968 decision by MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee to classify six leagues as major (the existing National and American Leagues, and the bygone Federal League, American Association, Players League, and Union Association) for the purposes of record keeping. That body, which included officials from the AL and NL, the commissioner’s office, the Hall of Fame, and the BBWAA — all of them white men, of course — did not discuss including the Negro Leagues within that classification, according to both John Thorn, MLB’s current official historian, and David Neft, the statistician and researcher who headed the effort to create The Baseball Encyclopedia, MacMillan’s 1969 tome.

“The Special Baseball Records Committee never considered the Negro Leagues as possible contenders for MLB status,” Thorn told Lindbergh in August. “The National Association of the 1870s, which had been viewed as a major league to that point, was demoted by the SBRC ruling that its schedule and procedures were erratic. Not so long ago, I mentioned at a SABR conference that MLB would not view the Negro Leagues as majors for these very reasons. I no longer believe that to be so.”

The National Association, which operated from 1871-75, is recognized as baseball’s first professional league, but MLB and Elias don’t count its stats. Thus, for example, it regards Hall of Fame pitcher Pud Galvin‘s win total as 361, while Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs credit him with 365 including his four NA wins. The accounting is similar when it comes to his NA peers including Cap Anson (to hell with that guy anyway). Here it should be pointed out that MLB/Elias and B-Ref/FanGraphs also differ on numbers that have nothing to do with the NA, such as Ty Cobb’s career hit total, which is 4,191 via MLB/Elias, and 4,189 via B-Ref/FanGraph, the latter total reflecting diligent research to correct past errors.

In MLB’s press release, Thorn suggested that the Negro Leagues were being subjected to double jeopardy:

“The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates prior to Satchel Paige’s induction in 1971. Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”

Kendrick told Lindbergh, “In my eyes, the only thing that has ever separated the Negro Leagues and the major leagues, beyond the color barrier, was finances. The major leagues had more money, so they had their own stadiums… When you start to talk about talent, there is no difference.”

It’s important to note that not everybody is on board with this decision given its tardiness; in finally doing the right thing, an apology may be more appropriate than a parade. Particularly given the way that MLB is in the midst of mercilessly muscling Minor League Baseball into a form more advantageous to its own needs, one can be excused for seeing this as another move on the league’s part to act as gatekeeper for the entirety of baseball.

The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates offered a rather blistering counterpoint to Wednesday’s celebration:

“There’s a phrase coined, likely by some old white guy, that goes “winners write the history books.” In the case of Major League Baseball, not only do they write the history books, but apparently they decide when everyone else’s histories are legitimate, too.

…”I’ll say what Bob [Kendrick] is too classy to say or perhaps feel: It’s about time y’all white folks acknowledged us, so thanks. But again, if you are the kind of person who genuinely ever viewed Major League Baseball as the summit of what the sport could and should be, then you were never paying attention to begin with. It’s the top flight of the most economically abusive sport in this country. Baseball is the sharecropping of American sports.”

Yates took aim at Branch Rickey, who both plucked Robinson from the Monarchs without compensating owner J.L. Wilkinson for the right to purchase his contract (a sin that he and other owners repeated many times over as MLB raided the Negro Leagues for their top talent), as well as creating “the system we used to know” as the minor leagues. He more thoroughly upbraided MLB, which gives substantial financial support to the National Baseball Hall of Fame but not the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame. His whole column is worth reading and absorbing, even if (and perhaps because) it dims the luster of Wednesday’s announcement.

For as tantalizing as it is to contemplate the inclusion of Negro Leagues statistics within the major league record, it’s worth remembering that Black baseball has always been about more than just the numbers. The stories — some of them myths and legends — that celebrate these great players as they endured the indignities of segregation and the brutality of racism are a key part of why the Negro Leagues matter. That we don’t know how many home runs Josh Gibson hit or how many games Satchel Paige won because these men and their peers would play anywhere they could get nine-on-nine going is more important than the fact that the painstakingly-compiled numbers at Seamheads reflect a tally of 238 homers for Gibson in 911 documented games during that window, or 115 wins for Paige in 274 appearances. We’ll never know their true totals, just as we can never make these men and their peers whole to compensate them for the injustices that they faced.

Which isn’t to say that we should ignore the numbers, or turn our noses up at the finding that in 1943, Gibson hit for a .441 batting average in 342 PA over 78 games, enough by historical standards for him to supplant Hugh Duffy’s .440 mark from 1894 as the highest single-season batting average. As Lindbergh points out, both Gibson and Artie Wilson (.431 in 181 PA in 1948) hit .400 more recently than Ted Williams (.406 in 1941). Not everybody is going to love that type of acknowledgement, or the recognition of Mays’ 661st home run, if it’s ever documented to the satisfaction of MLB and Elias (a newspaper report of it exists, but again, the box score has yet to be unearthed). And move over, Bob Feller, because Hall of Famer Leon Day also threw an Opening Day no-hitter, in 1946. According to Dirk Lammers, keeper of the No No-Hitters site, 25 of the 33 Negro Leagues no-hitters it has logged occurred in the 1920-48 window.

As for what this means for the Hall of Fame, my initial reaction to the news was that this should help the candidacies of integration pioneers Minnie Miñoso and Don Newcombe. Both players began their careers in the Negro Leagues and played in MLB, though their arrivals were further delayed by the informal quota system once the color barrier fell; both tore up the minor leagues when they should have been in the Show. Sadly, both have passed away since they were last considered. Neither player generated much traction with the expanded Veterans Committees of 2003, ’05, and ’07 — which included all living Hall of Famers and Spink and Frick Award winners — all of which failed to elect a single candidate. Miñoso came much closer via the 2012 and ‘15 Golden Era Committees, netting nine out of 16 votes in the former year, when Ron Santo was posthumously elected, and eight out of 16 in the latter year, when Dick Allen and Tony Oliva both fell one vote short. In all likelihood, Miñoso would have been part of the 2021 Golden Days Era Committee ballot, but the coronavirus pandemic led the Hall of Fame to postpone consideration of that panel, a move that had heartbreaking consequences, as the 78-year-old Allen died the day after he would have been considered.

Miñoso and Newcombe were additionally both considered via the 2006 Special Committee on Negro Leagues, which in one fell swoop elected 17 players to the Hall of Fame, nearly equaling the previous total of players and executives whose careers took place primarily in the Negro Leagues (18). Via that panel, the most publicized omission was Buck O’Neil, but Miñoso and Newcombe were also left on the outside looking in. As historian Adrian Burgos Jr., who was part of that Special Committee, explained in 2015, voters were only allowed to consider the Negro Leagues portion of each candidate’s careers, which were comparatively brief and at the outsets of their playing days. Separately, only their MLB careers could be considered via the Veterans and Era Committees. Obviously, both candidacies are much stronger when one includes the whole of their accomplishments; for one thing, including Minoso’s three years in the Negro Leagues pushes his career hit total past 2,000, a mark below which no player whose career crossed into the post-1960 expansion era has been elected, by any method.

The Negro Leagues data at Seamheads, which is richer than what’s at Baseball-Reference, includes fielding statistics and the Baseball Gauge version of WAR (aka gWAR, not to be confused with the band). One can see hitting and pitching leaderboards there, which, wow. The relative brevity of those players’ seasons suppresses their seasonal and career totals, particularly once the windows are limited to the 1920-48 period, which would make incorporating them into JAWS “as is” a less than satisfactory solution for the purposes of evaluating Hall of Fame ballots. Some kind of scaling factor is necessary, and if it’s being done for the Negro Leagues, perhaps it needs to be done for the shortened seasons of 19th century players as well. Already, I have been mulling a method to account for historical disparities in pitcher workload — the 500- or even 600-inning totals from the 1870s, and even the 300+ inning totals from the deadball era — and, well, this adds to my workload. B-Ref’s Sean Forman has committed to incorporating a version of Negro Leagues WAR into his site, and at some point, I expect to engage in a discussion with him as to how we might work with this in JAWS.

(And yes, at FanGraphs we have begun exploring the addition of Negro Leagues stats to our arsenal.)

That part of things, which again isn’t the most important aspect of this, should serve as a reminder that grappling with the ramifications of the Negro Leagues’ inclusion as major leagues should not mark the end of this story. By no means does MLB’s action let it off the hook for the segregation that made the Negro Leagues necessary in the first place, and there is still reckoning that is overdue when it comes to the fall of the color barrier, MLB’s role in destroying the viability of the very leagues it is suddenly celebrating, and the simplified, sanitized version of Robinson’s story that it tells annually. All of us who care about the legacy of the Negro Leagues still have work to do. Let’s get our asses in gear.

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.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

is mlb going to send negro league players a pension?

3 years ago
Reply to  tuna411

Considering what it took to get their collective asses in gear to “elevate” the Negro Leagues’ status, I highly doubt it.