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Dec, 2020

Finally, MLB Recognizes Negro Leagues as Major Leagues

Baseball Rights a Wrong by Adding Negro Leagues to Official Records

More 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 record books.

If baseball 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.

On 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.

With 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.

“All 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.”

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.

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.

The 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.

“It 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 validity.”

“They knew that their league was as good as anybody’s league,” he added.

Numerous 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 cutoff.

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.

“We’re trying not to honor individual players but the league experience, and the Black experience in baseball and America,” Thorn said.

The 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.

Gibson, 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.

This 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).

The 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.”

In 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 than that.”

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.

In 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.

“Accustomed 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.”

Hall 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.

“It’s 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 wastebasket.”

Tyler 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

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