than 3,400 players from seven leagues that operated from 1920 to 1948
will now be considered major leaguers in a move that will shake up the
The adjustments to the statistics will almost assuredly result in a new
single-season record for batting average. But the impact on other
records will be fairly small as a result of the shorter schedules played
in the Negro leagues, most of which played only 80 to 100 games, as
compared to the 154 per season that was standard in the other major
leagues of the era.
somehow reflects America, as romanticists like to believe, then it also
shares in its blemishes. The National and American leagues were
segregated until 1947, and the decades since have been marked by a
halting kind of reckoning.
Wednesday, Major League Baseball took one of its biggest steps to
redress past racial wrongs: It formally recognized several of the Negro
leagues as on par with the American and National leagues, a distinction
that will alter the official record books to acknowledge a quality of
competition that the long-excluded players never doubted.
the change, more than 3,400 players from seven distinct Negro leagues
that operated between 1920 and 1948 will be recognized as major
leaguers. And the statistical records will be updated.
of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced
many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a
backdrop of injustice,” Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League
Baseball, said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the players
of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the
official historical record.”
Records for some of the game’s biggest stars will receive at least mild adjustments. The Hall of Famer Willie Mays,
for example, is likely to be credited with 17 more hits, though no home
runs, from his time with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. That
would bring his career total, including hits from his time with the
Giants and the Mets, to 3,300. The actual adjustments will be made after
a review of available data by the Elias Sports Bureau, keeper of Major
League Baseball’s official statistics.
decision to recognize Negro league players as major leaguers was a
welcome change for the people who have fought for years to keep the
leagues’ memory alive. But Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said that no announcement from Major League Baseball could validate leagues that earned their own legitimacy.
gives greater context to the Negro leagues in a quantifiable way, as
opposed to the lore and legend that sometimes drives this story,”
Kendrick said of the changes. “But I can tell you this: For those who
called the Negro leagues home, they never questioned their own
“They knew that their league was as good as anybody’s league,” he added.
leagues made up of Black players formed as early as the late 19th
century as a result of the color line observed by the American and
National leagues. The quality and organization of the leagues varied
wildly, but Major League Baseball determined that from 1920 to 1948
seven distinct organizations met the standards of major leagues.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Mays said
on Wednesday in an interview with John Shea, his collaborator on a
memoir, “24,” released this May. “It recognizes guys who played way
back. I’m talking a lot of good ballplayers.”
The group of seven leagues has already produced 35 Hall of Famers, including recognizable major league stars like Mays, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson, as well as figures who made their names entirely in the Negro leagues, like Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston. The leagues were dominated by champions like the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs.
Negro league play continued during the early years of the integrated majors,
but John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, said
the landscape changed so profoundly after 1948 — the year of the last
Negro World Series — that Major League Baseball used that season as the
Thorn attributed the changes
to a bleeding of talent to the American and National leagues, and the
dissolution of the second Negro National League. Recognizable stars like
Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks came to the Negro leagues after 1948, and
some leagues played as late as 1960. But extending the window to include
them was not appropriate, he said.
trying not to honor individual players but the league experience, and
the Black experience in baseball and America,” Thorn said.
greatest challenge in incorporating Negro league statistics into the
official record is the scattered nature of the various leagues, which
led to somewhat inconsistent record-keeping. The statistics are
complicated by barnstorming exhibitions — some against players from
National and American league teams — and other competitions that do not
show up in the numbers soon to be added to the official record.
The Hall of Fame
plaque for Gibson, for example, says he “hit almost 800 home runs in
league and independent baseball,” a vague description that will not be
sufficient to eclipse Barry Bonds’s career record of 762.
though, will be at the center of the biggest change expected to happen
as a result of Wednesday’s announcement: Once Elias has completed its
research, it is expected that Gibson will be awarded the single-season
record for batting average. The record currently belongs to Hugh Duffy,
who hit .440 for the Boston Beaneaters in 1894. Gibson, a power-hitting
catcher who was sometimes called the Black Babe Ruth, batted .441 for
multiple Negro league teams in 1943.
is not the first time that Major League Baseball has officially
classified other leagues as major leagues. In 1969, a committee of five
men (all white) representing the commissioner’s office, the National
League, the American League, the Hall of Fame and the Baseball Writers’
Association granted such status to four defunct organizations: the
American Association (1882-91), the Union Association (1884), the
Players’ League (1890) and the Federal League (1914-15).
Negro leagues were left out of that discussion, and Major League
Baseball’s announcement on Wednesday said that the omission by the 1969
committee was “clearly an error” and that years of research had
uncovered more statistics and context.
Edward Schauder, a
legal representative of Gibson’s estate, said in an email that Gibson,
who played mainly for teams in Pittsburgh and Washington, “will now
deservedly be recognized as one of the top five players in the MLB
record books in many offensive categories.”
addition to gaining the single-season batting average record, Gibson
(.365) will probably trail only Ty Cobb (.367) in career batting
average. Other Negro league stars, like Charleston, will also be
recognized for their strong careers, though they will not rise quite as
high as Gibson.
“We can now speak in a more quantifiable fashion as it relates to the
Negro Leagues, so that satisfies those who only look at statistical
data,” Kendrick said. “But as we know, you can never reduce the Negro
leagues to just statistics. You can not. It’s just so much more profound
Gibson died at age 35
in January 1947, just months before Jackie Robinson integrated the
major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers after a season with their
Montreal farm club. Robinson — like Roy Campanella, who joined the
Dodgers in 1948 — was a veteran of the Negro leagues, having played for
the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945.
his acclaimed 1983 book “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson
and His Legacy,” Jules Tygiel wrote that Robinson did not enjoy the
experience. He had played four sports at U.C.L.A. and served in the U.S.
Army, and was frustrated by the indignities of a segregated league.
to the discipline and structure of intercollegiate athletics, Robinson
found the loose scheduling and erratic play appalling,” Tygiel wrote.
“Nor did he hide his distaste for being relegated to a Jim Crow League.”
of Famers like Aaron and Banks, who played briefly in the Negro
leagues, have long been among the 19,902 players listed on the Baseball Reference website as having performed in the major leagues. They are about to have a whole lot of new company.
an elevation of an entire league,” Thorn said. “Any plans for a
celebration of M.L.B.’s 20,000th player now have to go into the
Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The
Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the
Yankees from 2002 to 2009. @TylerKepner