It’s the right move, but how to handle the statistical records is a difficult problem.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
ajor League Baseball is considering retroactively raising the Negro Leagues to the status of “major leagues” for purposes of (among other things) baseball records, according to a report by Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer. The specific impact of this is that Negro League records would be considered MLB records the same as if they had been set in the National League. On the whole, this is a good thing, and MLB should do it. But it is not without some problems.
The good news is “majoring” the Negro Leagues would be a further step — following the enshrinement of Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame — to remedy a true historic injustice and increase the recognition of players who were long denied their proper due. The more complex questions involve the practical difficulty of reconstructing Negro Leagues records to the point where they are reliable, and the thornier question of whether retroactively adding the Negro Leagues to MLB would obscure the extent of their original exclusion.
To recap: Baseball developed in stages in America, starting with the first amateur club game under recognizable rules in 1846. The first openly professional team was started by the Wright brothers — not Wilbur and Orville but Harry and George, English immigrant brothers — in 1869. Organized professional baseball in America dates to 1871, when the National Association played its inaugural season. The National League began in 1876, after the NA folded, and has played every season since then. Baseball in the 1870s was effectively all white, owing to its clubby origins, but black players were not formally banned, and some played in leagues now designated as “minor.” Two brothers, Moses “Fleet” Walker and his brother Welday, broke through to the American Association (then the second major league) in the mid-1880s. The backlash led to the color line that exiled black players from organized ball — major and minor leagues alike — for 60 years until Jackie Robinson in 1947. Some of the ringleaders of that backlash, such as 19th-century Cubs great Adrian “Cap” Anson, are in the Hall of Fame.
Black Americans didn’t give up on baseball, however. They formed their own leagues, and from 1920 to the 1950s, the Negro National League and other all-black leagues (commonly known as the Negro Leagues) played an aggressive, high-quality brand of baseball featuring legendary figures such as ageless pitcher Satchel Paige, power-hitting catcher Josh Gibson, multi-tool center fielder Oscar Charleston, and speedster James “Cool Papa” Bell. Those leagues fell into disuse after 1947, and folded their tents by the mid-1950s as the trickle of black players into MLB started growing to a steady stream.
Were these leagues truly as competitive as the white Major Leagues at the time? We can only reconstruct the answer with indirect evidence, but the game’s historians have unearthed more of that evidence over the past few decades (even MLB’s own historical records were really only publicly available in standardized form starting in the late 1960s). The best evidence of a league being major-league in quality is how players perform when moving from one league to the next. Sadly, most of the Negro League players to make the journey into MLB were either old (Paige was 41 when he debuted in the American League), very young (Willie Mays was 17 when he played in the Negro Leagues), or spent little time in the Negro Leagues (Jackie Robinson). Worse, some of those who did come over in mid-career (Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Luke Easter, Sam Jethroe) had spent time in the Mexican Leagues or played in the Negro Leagues during World War II, when the level of competition was weaker everywhere with so many men in the service. The fact that the leagues produced high-quality stars is evidence of its own; Bill James tells Lindbergh, “it is impossible for a league to produce that many players of that quality in that period of time, unless the quality of play in that league was not only equal to the white leagues, but probably superior to it. You just can’t reach that level of excellence while playing against minor league competition.” And we know that the very best black ballplayers proved themselves more than adequately in MLB in the 1950s and 1960s.
Lindbergh cites team-level evidence that supports the leagues as, at a minimum, competitive despite their inferior financial resources for scouting and the fact that they were, after all, drawing only from a tenth of the U.S. population in the 1910-50 period:
Last year, McFarland Books published a collection of essays called The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues: Historians Reappraise Black Baseball. . . . [The book’s editor, Todd] Peterson observes that every one of the 16 MLB teams in operation between 1901 and 1960 played a Black club at some point in its history, and the non-major leaguers more than held their own . . . from 1900 through 1948 — the last year of the second Negro National League, and scholars’ consensus cutoff for the Negro Leagues’ potential period of major league status — Black teams went 315-282-20 against MLB teams, including games against intact MLB teams and “all-star” aggregations (although some of those white rosters weren’t composed entirely of major leaguers). From 1900 to 1950, MLB teams went 1690-677 against minor league teams, a far greater level of success that illustrates the gulf between the minors and the Negro Leagues. (From 1900 to 1948, Black clubs also went 324-246 against Triple-A teams.) Black players performed even better against white competition after the Negro Leagues era began in 1920, although NL and AL owners and officials increasingly restricted interracial contests, partly out of fear of being embarrassed by better players.
Two things seem unclear at this point: whether the major-league designation would extend further back than 1920, and whether this would affect how the Hall of Fame designates the 21 players and five pioneers or executives enshrined for their roles in Negro League baseball.
The designation of “major leagues” has been controversial within the baseball-historian community even before entering the thicket of racial injustice. The National League, in business continuously since 1876, and the American League, in business continuously under that name since 1901, are not the only officially recognized “major leagues.” There are (depending who you ask) four or five others, all defunct, and there are a whole bunch of highly competitive leagues that have always been classified as “minor.” MLB had to develop standards to distinguish the two. Those standards typically asked not only about competitiveness, but also whether a league kept official records and played something like a regular schedule.
Two of the defunct, all-white major leagues ought to be uncontroversial, although one of them has never been officially recognized. One is the American Association, which ran from 1882 to 1891 as the original “second” major league, playing alongside the NL and, for several years in the 1880s, facing its champions in the original world series. Many of the AA’s players moved seamlessly into the NL by 1892. Eight of its franchises joined the NL, and four survive: the Dodgers, Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals. The other is the National Association, which reigned as the sole major league from 1871-75; it was replaced on its collapse by the NL, and virtually every NL player of note in 1876 was a NA veteran. Yet, while baseball recordkeepers such as baseball-reference.com place its records in the game’s canon, the NA was actually demoted in the 1960s from the status of “major,” due in part to the very short and erratic schedules of its earliest seasons. (You can read more here, from the game’s official historian John Thorn, and here on why the NA did not make the cut.) The other three “major” leagues were failed “third” leagues: the 1884 Union Association, the 1890 Players League, and the 1914-15 Federal League. Many now conclude that the Union Association’s major status was a mistake, as its best players played vastly better than they did in other seasons, and some of its franchises folded after playing only a small portion of their schedules.
This brings us to the thorniest problem: records. Negro League teams only played a fraction of their games against league opponents, spending much of their time doing barnstorming exhibitions against lesser foes. Press coverage could be spotty, let alone the retention of records. When Robert Peterson’s book Only the Ball Was White was published in 1970, the statistics available were extremely primitive, and they were not much better 30 years ago. Great progress has since been made, but the numbers even now are still behind where 19th-century baseball statistics were in 1969.
Sean Forman of the invaluable baseball-reference.com has publicly editorialized in favor of the move and pledges to include Negro League stats (already on the site) in the major-league tallies and commit resources to helping gather better numbers, but he admits that “It’s going to be difficult to have consensus around what the numbers would be.” That creates something of a confidence-in-the-data problem with convincing fans to accept the numbers as new MLB records, particularly batting averages and other percentage-based numbers from short schedules. Thorn asks, “if we can accept as official Ross Barnes’s .429 in 1876 (70-game schedule), why not Oscar Charleston’s .433 over 77 games in 1921, or Josh Gibson’s .466 over 69 games in 1943?” But MLB has long talked in “modern” record terms to wall off oddball records from the 19th century; few fans actually know anything about Ross Barnes (who, for that matter, hit .431 in 1872 and .430 in 1873 in the NA). And the legitimacy of any short-season records set in 2020 will likewise raise a lot of eyebrows. That’s not really an argument against raising the Negro Leagues to major-league status, but it suggests that fully incorporating those leagues into the game’s hallowed statistical records is not a problem easily hand-waved away.
The final problem, of course, is that the exclusion of black players from MLB is a historical fact, one of great importance not only to baseball history but to American history, and one implicitly commemorated annually by MLB on April 15 in honor of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. There are those who argue already that the game doesn’t do enough to specifically recall the color line itself, and — in my view, incorrectly — that its perpetrators should be defenestrated from the Hall of Fame. It remains somewhat awkward to reclassify men as major leaguers when such a large part of their life story and struggle was precisely their exclusion from the majors.
Still, doing historical justice sometimes requires acting imperfectly and unevenly. As far back as Paige’s induction in Cooperstown in 1971, baseball has fumbled its way towards giving proper due to men who would and could have been major-league stars if not for the color of their skin. It’s appropriate to make that recognition official: they were big leaguers.