The Padres shop at Woolworth Bay and Tiffany-Mart

Yu’re kidding, right?

They may not necessarily shoot the wounded in baseball, not much, anyway. But show me one or two teams hurting actually or allegedly and I’ll show you one team standing ready with a bag of salt for those wounds.

The American League champion Tampa Bay Rays prefer to continue as baseball’s version of Woolworth’s, a bargain-basement store with a bargain-basement approach. The Chicago Cubs seem to prefer being Tiffany on the outside but Wal-Mart on the floor inside. The San Diego Padres don’t mind going to either store.

The Padres went to Woolworth’s and spent a pair of major league youths and minor league prospects to walk home with lefthanded pitcher Blake Snell—last seen pitching in the 2020 World Series, of course. He’ll have elite rotation company in San Diego silks for 2021, too.

The Rays also went to Tiffany-Mart and tricked a salesperson into taking a moderately successful major leaguer and four teen prospects several years from maturity for the privilege of walking home with righthander Yu Darvish and his personal catcher Victor [Beta] Caratini.

In both transactions the Padres came away with gems. In one they surrendered a pair of young Showmen who could go either way and a couple of minor leaguers who could go likewise. In the other, they fleeced in broad daylight as it’s become more evident that, whatever the Cubs want to call it, there’s something suspicious in Wrigleyville.

“This,” tweeted ESPN’s Buster Olney, “is what a salary dump in a pandemic looks like. The Cubs aimed to transfer debt.

Debt? The gigarich Ricketts family? Let’s give them the momentary benefit of the doubt, as Bleed Cubbie Blue writer Sara Sanchez is willing to do for a moment. “The pandemic hit just as the Wrigley Field renovation, the team’s investments in Wrigleyville, and Marquee Sports Network came together,” she writes. “Everything was finally open for business to recoup some of the estimated $750 million the Ricketts family had invested in the neighborhood – and then, it was all shut down.”

Then, she says, more or less, halt right there: “Let’s not kid ourselves — neither the Ricketts nor anyone else in baseball has opened their books, which is unlikely to change in the near future, and none of us know if those losses are actual losses or just falling short of projected revenue . . .”

[W]hether you believe the Ricketts’ claim that they had actual losses, or the [Major League Baseball Players Association]’s claim that those are projected revenue losses, it really doesn’t matter because the front office has clearly been given a mandate to shed costs. It does not matter that you cannot balance a multi-hundred million (or billion, as Kaplan claims) dollar loss on the backs of peanut vendors or even Cy Young contenders. Believing in that financial frame is how you get a deal like this.

FanGraphs’s Craig Edwards is a little more blunt, in an essay titled “Padres give up prospects for Yu Darvish while the Cubs give up”: “[W]hile even a Darvish-less Chicago should still contend in a weak NL Central, there are only two players on the roster under team control beyond next season who project to be worth more than two wins: [pitcher Kyle] Hendricks, who turned 31 last week, and [outfielder] Ian Happ. The Cubs’ payroll for next season has now dropped below $140 million with no signs that ownership plans on increasing it; if there is another championship window on the horizon, it’s unclear when it will open.”

The Rays have been such a basement operation that some wags believe they’ve been living on salary dumping or at least taking to extremes the time-tested maxim that it’s better to deal a year or two too soon than a year or two too late. But it doesn’t get them off the hook entirely for dealing a former Cy Young Award winner to the team that promptly hit Tiffany-Mart and snatched what some call the National League’s should-have-been 2020 Cy Young Award winner.

Trading Snell, The Athletic‘s Keith Law writes, “only further underscores the fact that the situation in St. Petersburg is untenable.”

The team’s owner will not spend on players. He has said the stadium situation is the cause, limiting their revenues, and that argument has some merit; they don’t draw, and the stadium — ugly and hard to access — is at least a large part of their problem. Perhaps a new stadium on the Tampa side of the bay would help, but the team and/or MLB would have to pay for it — as they should, since it would profit the Rays and indirectly profit the league as a whole (or at least the teams that pay into revenue sharing). Perhaps they need to relocate to Nashville or Portland. But the current situation isn’t working. The Rays went to the World Series and immediately traded their best pitcher, a recent Cy Young winner, rather than paying him what amounts to fourth starter money in 2021. The MLBPA shouldn’t stand idly by and watch one of the few employers of major-league players all but refuse to pay them major-league salaries. The Rays made a damn good baseball trade here, but baseball is worse off for it.

Law isn’t exactly kinder or gentler about the Cubs dumping their best pitcher and his personal catcher, either. “Why the Cubs are operating on a shoestring is beyond me,” he writes, “but I can’t believe this was a baseball operations decision.”

It was likely forced by ownership, even though the Cubs were a playoff team this past season and had a very good chance to be a playoff team in 2021, even with their offensive flaws. This move makes them less expensive but not better now, and not better for several more years. What a swift, shocking fall for a team that less than five years ago seemed primed to compete for not just one but multiple championships.

And what a clearer picture it presents as to why Theo Epstein took a hike toward taking 2021 off to regroup himself.

Which isn’t to say that the Padres aren’t rolling some serious dice of their own, of course. Walking home from the shopping spree with Snell and Darvish has legions of fans drooling over the possiblity that the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t the only powerhouse in the National League West now.

But the Padres have been there, done that before, and not necessarily come up smelling as sweet as the San Diego waterfront air. They may be behaving like a West Coast discipleship of the New York Yankees, but even the Empire Emertus hasn’t been immune to big moves imploding on them, either.

Remember 2015? Padres acquired James Shields and Craig Kimbrel to go with additions of [Wil] Myers, [Matt] Kemp, & [Justin] Upton,” reminds Halo Life, a blog customarily dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels. “Big moves at the time. They were the talk of the winter. 74-88 record following season.” Halo Life says, Deja vu. It says here we’ll know when we get there.

Phil Niekro, RIP: Great pitcher, better friend

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, pitching for the Braves in Wrigley Field.

When Lou Piniella first managed the Yankees in 1986, he was handed an order in spring training that he didn’t want to obey. Owner George Steinbrenner convened a meeting of Piniella and his coaches plus others in the Yankee high command to discuss final roster cuts.

The name Phil Niekro came up. The vote was 11-1 in favour of keeping Niekro, who’d electrified both the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays fans when he landed his 300th career pitching win with a season-ending, 8-0, complete game shutout in October 1985. The only thing amiss was Niekro not landing it for the Braves with whom he’d been a fixture for two decades.

Then The Boss asked his son, Hank, “What do you say?” The younger Steinbrenner might as well have said, “Off with his head,” because his father said, “I agree. That makes the vote 12-11.” Rather conveniently handing himself ten votes. As he would in due course arguing with many an umpire, Piniella exploded.

“What are you even bothering to ask our opinion for? You know what you’re gonna do anyway.” Then Piniella made the long walk to the spring clubhouse, called Niekro in, and told him with the utmost reluctance that he was being released.

“Piniella’s anger over having to release Niekro was understandable,” wrote Bill Madden and Moss Klein in Damned Yankees, from whence the story of the execution springs. “There was no finer person to pass through the Yankees in the ’77-to-’89 period than ‘Father Time’.” (The writers covering the Yankees referred to Niekro that way, affectionately.)

The amiable Ohioan with the knuckleball that inspired some of baseball’s finest wisecracks, and the personality and presence that made you feel he was liable to invite you to a barbeque at any moment, lost a battle against cancer at 81 on Saturday night.

That makes it seven Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields this cursed year, including one hell of a pitching rotation if you think about it. Niekro, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, and Tom Seaver. How many pennants could you win if your rotation was Knucksie, the Chairman of the Board, Hoot, and The Franchise?

The seven set a record they’d surely rather not have set. Their deaths made 2020 a record year for Hall of Fame passings. If the Modern Era Committee elects the late Dick Allen when it meets in 2021, it’ll make for eight. (Allen died earlier this month.) Not nice.

I couldn’t resist looking it up and then imagining Allen giving Niekro a little good-natured grief upon their Elysian reunion. Allen faced Niekro 65 times, picked up nine hits including a double and a home run, walked nine times, but struck out fourteen times. Making the slash line .161/.277/.268.

“Trying to hit Phil Niekro,” Bobby Murcer once said, “is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”  “It actually giggles at you as it goes by,” said another outfielder, Rick Monday, which may have been more appropriate considering Niekro’s birth on April Fool’s Day in 1939. Said longtime catcher Bob Boone, who only ever had to try hitting the Niekro knuckler, “There were times I needed a tennis racquet to hit him.”

Trying to catch Niekro’s signature pitch may have made trying to hit it child’s play. “Catching Niekro’s knuckleball was great,” cracked Bob Uecker, Niekro’s flaky Atlanta Braves catcher. “I got to meet a lot of important people. They all sat behind home plate.”

Dale Murphy started his major league career as a catcher before he moved to the outfield. As a rookie behind the plate he had the signature honour of catching what threatened to be a no-hitter by Niekro against the Big Red Machine, until Cesar Geronimo managed to float a shuttlecock into left in the ninth.

“We had one out in the ninth, and I mean, I was scared to death,” said Murphy to The Athletic’s David O’Brien. “I mean, I’m trying to keep that ball in front of me. I don’t know what I’m calling. He had said, ‘Just give me a knuckleball sign every pitch; I’ll shake you off if I don’t want to throw it.’ And we ended up with a no-hitter until one out in the ninth, and then Geronimo dunked one in, just flared one over [Jerry] Royster’s head at third base.”

Rarely at a loss, Niekro once remembered Uecker giving him sound counsel early in his Braves career. “Ueck told me if I was ever going to be a winner,” Knucksie once said, “to throw the knuckleball at all times and he would try to catch it. I led the league in ERA and he led the league in passed balls.” That would have been 1967, when Niekro led the entire Show with a Koufaxian 1.87 ERA and wasn’t even a topic in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.

Throwing a pitch that places minimal strain at worst on the arm and shoulder, Niekro pitched major league baseball from Lyndon Johnson’s through Ronald Reagan’s presidencies, until he was 48 and the Braves—surely in tribute to the man as well as the pitcher—brought him back to let him suit up for one more start before he finally retired.

The un-straining knuckleball allowed Niekro to pitch 5,404 major league innings. The only pitchers who threw more were Hall of Famers Cy Young, Pud Galvin, and Walter Johnson. No pitcher since the dead ball era spent as much time as Niekro did on a major league mound. No knuckleballer struck out as many as Niekro’s 3,342.

Yet there was always the sense that, no matter how good and successful he was, no matter how he endured pitching long and well for teams that weren’t always as good as he was, Niekro was baseball’s Rodney Dangerfield, getting no respect, because he threw a pitch that was tough to master but still seen somehow as a gimmick. “Niekro wasn’t looking to master it,” says another Athletic writer, Joe Posnanski. “It was more like he and the knuckleball were friends.”

“I’ll tell you,” Niekro once told an interviewer, “I’ve been asked that question lots of times, you know, why does a knuckleball does what it does, and what makes it do it, and I have no idea.” It was also more like Niekro and baseball were kindred. The kid from Ohio whose coal-mining father taught the knuckleball to him and his late younger brother, Joe, really did seem as though you’d have to tear the uniform off him at last.

Phil Niekro chatting with Braves fans at a Hall of Fame event. (National Baseball Hall of Fame photo.)

“Warren Spahn will never get into the Hall of Fame,” Stan Musial once cracked. “He won’t stop pitching.” Spahn threw his last major league pitch four years younger and 160 innings short of Niekro’s final jacket.

As a 1964 rookie Niekro’s teammates included Spahn. When he got his wish to throw his last major league pitch as a Brave, his teammates included a rookie lefthander bound for Cooperstown likewise. Tom Glavine joked to O’Brien that he saw Niekro and thought for one moment he’d mixed up his own schedule and arrived at a fantasy camp.

Glavine was only kidding. “It was fun to watch. I mean, look, we all knew Knucksie and what he was and how much he loved being a Brave,” he told O’Brien.

That was a big deal for him to be able to end his career as a Brave. At the time I may not have understood it, but getting to know Knucksie as I did in the years after that, and certainly these last few years in the Hall of Fame, I understand why it was important to him. It was a neat thing to be able to watch him go out there and do that, and kind of have that closure.

Many players following the greats on their teams call them mentors. Niekro didn’t just make disciples, he made friends.

You were a great example for what athletes should aspire to be,” tweeted former Braves infielder Brian Jordan. “Phil had a huge heart to bring joy to others. He cared so much for kids and had a fantastic foundation. Continue to bring the joy in heaven my friend.”

[H]eartbroken!” tweeted incumbent Braves first baseman and National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman. “An amazing pitcher but an even better man! Thank you Phil for all the laughs and wonderful memories over the years!”

“Phil was a man with a perpetual smile and always overflowing with jokes and nice things to say,” wrote pitcher Mike Soroka on his Instagram page. “I will miss seeing him around the stadium as well as getting calls from him after games.”

“[I]n a world where athletes, celebrity, however you want to deem it, there’s always going to be somebody that just doesn’t like you,” Glavine said. “And I never heard anybody say anything like that about Knucksie. And the people who were privileged to know him — I mean, really know him — understand why.”

Niekro’s affection for younger players didn’t stop with the Show. From 1994-1997 he managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an exhibition team of young women baseball players who toured the United States playing against men’s amateur and semi-professional players. Niekro brought several former Showmen—including his knuckleballing brother Joe plus Al Bumbry, Johnny Grubb, and Joe Pignatano—to the coaching corps.

The Silver Bullets folded in 1997, after the Coors breweries ended their sponsorship of the team, but their skipper gave them their due when—with most of the Bullets present—he saluted them during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Phil Niekro, not long after the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. (Atlanta Braves photo.)

Niekro also served on the board of directors of Kiz Toys, a Georgia toymaker whom Niekro advised closely on the making and selling of its KizSport line of baseball toys and equipment. He also hosted an annual Ohio Valley golf tournament that raised funds for the high school for whom he pitched, Bridgeport High School. He lost only once as a high school pitcher—when a kid from Tiltonsville High named Bill Mazeroski hit one out.

Eons ago, Braves manager Brian Snitker caught a spring training bullpen session for Niekro. Snitker never got anywhere near the Show as a player but he made a lifelong friend in the genial knuckleballer. He told O’Brien Niekro’s least favourite topic of conversation was his health or himself.

“He’d never let on if anything was bad, that’s for sure,” Snitker said. “He’d always call, and I’d always tell the guys, the coaches and everybody, ‘Knucksie’s calling and just checking on everybody.’ I said there wasn’t a bigger Braves fan in the world than Phil Niekro . . . Knucksie, he was a big fan of them guys (the current players) and us and everybody. He was an awesome, awesome man. I’ve never seen a guy that sucked the life out of every day like that guy did.”

Niekro’s reputation for geniality even extended to fans. Stories abound of Niekro meeting fans at the ballpark, at various team events, and even away from the park, and talking to them as if they were his long-lost friends.

The coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on Niekro’s presence with the Braves this year, but it didn’t keep him isolated entirely. Snitker said Niekro would call him every few days to check in on him and the team. Previously, Niekro would bring his wife, Nancy, and their grandchildren to the Braves’ facilities where he’d also pitch batting practise. “If you needed help,” Snitker said, “all you’d have to do is call, and Knucksie would be there, loving it.”

Niekro thought himself a caretaker of a game that belonged to everyone beyond those who play and administer it. “This is America. America is baseball,” he said during his Hall induction speech, pointing to the Cooperstown crowd as the only player inducted in 1997. “This game is owned and it belongs to you. The fan. Cherish it and take care of it.”

Nancy Niekro was a young flight attendant when she first caught her husband’s eye, while he boarded his first flight as a member of the Braves organisation. Niekro told a teammate that so help him he’d marry her soon enough.

He did. They raised three sons together, and became grandparents twice. She, their sons, and their grandchildren lost something even more precious than baseball lost, when Niekro died in his sleep Saturday night. It was as gentle a passing as you could ask for a cancer-stricken man who made life a playground. Surely the Lord welcomed home not just a great pitcher but a better friend.

The pastor and the pension problem

Tom Johnson, in Twins jersey and a 1977 Twins cap, at GoodSports Slovakia, a program teaching and ministering Slovakian youth in baseball and in spirit. (GoodSports photo.)

In 1980, righthanded relief pitcher Tom Johnson—former Minnesota Twin, credited with sixteen relief wins in 1977; struggling with shoulder trouble in 1978; missing 1979 rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery—had reason to believe his career would still have a second act. He was signed by the Chicago White Sox during Bill Veeck’s second ownership of the team.

After five seasons as a Twin, Johnson pitched in the White Sox organisation in 1980. The same year, major league owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned the player pension program. Johnson had every reason to applaud—at first.

The new plan vested players for pensions after 43 days’ major league service time and for health benefits after one day. Johnson believed he would come back strongly enough to pitch for the White Sox.

“When I initially heard they had made the decision to make the change, I was very excited,” Johnson said during a telephone interview a few days ago. “I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to it because I was in the midst of trying to come back from surgery. So I had my eyes focused on getting back to the major leagues, and I had every reason to believe I was going to do that.”

But in January 1981, saying he couldn’t afford to operate in the full free agency era any longer, Veeck sold the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf and his minority partner Eddie Einhorn.

The new owner didn’t offer Johnson a new pitching deal, but they did offer him a gig as a roving minor league pitching coach. His pitching career was over—and he was now going to be without a baseball pension to look forward to. The 1980 re-alignment omitted short-career players who played between 1949 and 1980.

“When I heard that the [pension] change had taken place,” he told me, “I was excited, because in the past all improvements to the pension plan had been retroactive. So I had every reason to believe, until I found out otherwise, that that would include me.

“I was looking forward to the new system and having a pension, only to find out this was one of the few times in which it was not retroactive,” Johnson continued. “That came later. The disappointment compounded itself when I realised I wasn’t going to make it back, my shoulder wasn’t responding the way I hoped.”

Johnson today is one of 618 still-living, pension-less, pre-1980 short-career players. Their only redress since has been the plan devised in 2011 by then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner—giving them $625 a quarter for every 43 days major league service time, up to four years. It was a start, but should they pass away before collecting the entire dollars due, those dollars can’t be passed to their families.

“That’s kind of a hard one to take,” Johnson said. “It’s like, that would be such a small thing but a good thing for us and give us some comfort in knowing that this small payment we get once a year is going to pass on [to our families].” Johnson told me that, after taxes, he gets $5,800 per year under the Selig-Weiner adjustment.

Weiner died of brain cancer two years after he and Selig struck that deal. Neither the players union nor the owners have sought to revisit the pension issue for the pre-1980 short-timers since. Asked why not, Johnson says he doesn’t know. “I have no idea, other than that people just don’t want to be bothered,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He thinks that if the issue ever has arisen in negotiations between the owners and the union since, it’s taken off the table very early if it got there at all. “Probably the reason that it hasn’t gone forward is that there hasn’t been a strong advocate in the system that believes changes are needed,” he said.

Tom Johnson, on the mound for the Twins during his career year 1977. (Twins Daily photo.)

The pre-1890 short-timers have had varying lives since leaving baseball. Johnson became a full-time minister later in the 1980s. Active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his playing days, he’s also worked for GoodSports Slovakia, a program that ministers and teaches baseball to Slovakian youth, since 1995. He’s been its president since 2006; he and his wife, Deb, lived in Slovakia full-time promoting baseball from 2005-2017.

When not supervising and making sure GoodSports staffers are paid on time—a task made arduous thanks to the coronavirus pandemic—Johnson wants to see the pension plan redressed on behalf of his fellow 1949-1980 short-career players.

Like several other affected short-career players, Johnson believes Marvin Miller—the longtime players union leader who was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously for his groundbreaking work—took one major regret to his grave: not revisiting the pension issue and redressing the freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers.

“Nobody has picked it up,” Johnson said, referring to people within the professional baseball system. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

And, like several such players to whom I’ve spoken since first interviewing former pitcher Bill Denehy in spring 2019, Johnson believes that if Weiner had lived he might well have worked toward going beyond the 2011 deal with Selig on behalf of those players. “Absolutely,” he said.

Why doesn’t Clark—the first former player to head the MLBPA—address the issue or even give it a single listen, on behalf of these former players who also partook of all players union actions pre- and post-free agency?

Clark’s playing career began two decades after the Messersmith decision ushered free agency in. Johnson isn’t alone among his fellow pre-1980 short-timers in believing the former first baseman wasn’t close enough to the key battles for which players like Johnson fought just as arduously as did baseball’s major stars.

“I would just go back to something I believe strongly about,” Johnson said. “Any issue of what you might call injustice, it’s easy not to address it if you’re not close to it, if you’re not proximate to it. And I would say, for Tony Clark, he’s just never taken the time to sit down with people like myself and hear us and get close enough to us and hear what we have to say.”

If Johnson could tell Clark one thing, it’s to take that time. “Take some time to get to know us,” he continued. “Take some time to hear from us. We played. We did walk the picket lines. We did participate in lockouts. We did work on behalf of players who are now making six and seven figures, to make it possible to make it happen.”

He might tell likewise to dozens of former ballplayers who’ve made second careers in the sports media and who could wield major influence but don’t for now. “I think it’s the same reason, it doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t know anybody that’s personally affected by it, so it’s just easy to dismiss it. I would guess some of them aren’t even aware of it, some don’t bother to be, and the ones who are made aware of it, it’s just too easy for them to go on to other things.”

If the union and commissioner Rob Manfred today can’t be made to look twice at the 1980 pension re-alignment freeze-out of the pre-1980 short-timers, what about individual owners—say, Steve Cohen, the new owner of the Mets; or, John Middleton, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies—each taking up just on behalf of those short-timers who played for the teams they now own?

“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” Johnson said. “I would love to think there would be people who would lead the way and call on other owners to step up. They don’t have to; after the difficult situation they’ve faced financially with the pandemic, I’m not hopeful.”

Not for now. But perhaps down the road that option might be considered. Perhaps by a Cohen, or a Middleton; perhaps by another. It would be a strange irony if the union that made such a terrible mistake found itself upstaged over four decades later, by even a single owner persuaded that it’s long past time to do the right thing.

Let the Negro Leagues records Show

Why should anyone fear to know exactly how many home runs Josh Gibson really hit in major league competition?

Have you ever heard of the Wilmington Quicksteps? They were a replacement team in the 1884 Union Association, after the Philadelphia Keystones folded down the stretch with a 21-46 record. The Quicksteps ruled the ancient Eastern League (forerunner of the AAA-level International League) to the point where fan interest collapsed.

Enter UA founder Henry Lucas. When the Keystones folded, Lucas invited the Quicksteps to replace them. That was the good news. The bad news: the Quicksteps played eighteen games, lost sixteen of them, and with several key players jumping the team to sign with other UA clubs for better pay, the Quicksteps stepped away and folded before the season ended.

Lucas owned the 1884 UA’s pennant winner—the St. Louis Maroons. He replaced the Quicksteps with the first club known to have been called the Milwaukee Brewers. After the season, both those Brewers and the entire UA folded. Now, the fun part: Because the Brewers played twelve games, won eight, and made for a .667 winning percentage, they were considered the league’s second-place finishers. (The Maroons won the pennant with a 94-19 record, if you’re scoring at home.)

What maroons! you say.

Folded but not forgotten. In 1968, after then-baseball commissioner William D. Eckert convened a panel to determine whom among the latter 19th Century’s professional leagues merited classification as major leagues, the UA was one of four leagues recognised thus. (The others: the 1882-91 American Association, the 1890 Players League, and the 1914-1915 Federal League.)

Thus do the Quicksteps’ 2-16 record, the Brewers’ 8-4 second-place finish, and all individual and team statistics therein, count as major league statistics. You can look them up, too, at either Baseball Reference or Retrosheet. (They list the Brewers as the Milwaukee Grays, by the way.) You’d be betting on a sure thing, too, if you suggest that no one otherwise gives a fig’s leaf about it.

But oh, doctor, did enough people give figs’ leaves about what to do about the records now that the seven known Negro Leagues have too-long-overdue major league status. (They weren’t even a topic before that 1968 panel.) Forget “you could look it up,” some of these people seemed to be afraid we were now going to blow it up.

Just a cursory tour through the social media swamps and lakes shows those who think Negro Leagues stats might distort the overall record, those who think they’ll screw up some Negro Leaguers who made what were then the majors, and even—so help me God I saw someone say this—maybe more than one fearing that Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s accomplishment in 1947 would be diluted, diminished, deceased.

Need a reminder about a couple of things? Thomas Boswell—who made me aware of the Quicksteps in the first place—has a few. “MLB played just 60 games this past season, far fewer than many Negro League seasons,” he wrote Friday. “Yet the [Washington Nationals’] Juan Soto can claim his batting, slugging and on-base titles forever.”

Boswell says, plainly, let the records show. The keepers of baseball’s statistics and its flames have spent eons on expeditions to get the real records. So why shouldn’t the Negro Leagues get the same attention and respect now that they’re officially the group of major leagues that everyone with heart, soul, and brains knew they were in fact though not in official branding and badging?

What are the worriers worried about? That Willie Mays might lose three points on his lifetime hitting average (he would, down to .301) but gain a lifetime home run if his single season with the Birmingham Black Barons joins the major league books? That Josh Gibson might turn out not to have hit 800+ home runs? (At least not in official league competition.) That those and more changes might do what nobody with a brain would really suggest—dilute their actual greatness?

Try this one on. Jackie Robinson played the 1945 season with the Negro American League legend Kansas City Monarchs. (His teammates included Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Double Duty Radcliffe.) His slash line was .414/.460/.569 in 63 games known on the record. Now that the Monarchs are an official major league team, guess what that does for Robinson so far? It bumps his hitting average to .314 but keeps his on-base percentage at .414 and his slugging percentage at .474.

Monte Irvin’s life as a New York Giant was compromised by a nasty ankle injury. Marry his known Newark Eagles (Negro National League II) stats to his Giants stats (and his one season as a Cub) and he’s got a .304 major league hitting average. He might even shake out higher when they finally exhume the complete statistics. (Surely you’ve read that, at the time Rickey made his move, his first target was Irvin, considered at the time the best in the Negro Leagues, but Irvin turned it down saying he wasn’t quite ready after missing time to World War II.)

Spare me the crap, too, about the Negro Leaguers not facing major league competition except in exhibition or barnstorm games. It wasn’t their fault. Nobody held the Show at gunpoint to force it to enforce a colour line. Nobody will ever know for dead last certain why team and league administrators in the seven Negro Leagues didn’t keep complete records that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t.

In baseball’s first generation of desegregation, as slow on the uptake as it actually was, you saw just enough of what Negro Leagues players might do against their white competitors. Robinson has a .281/.333/.481 slash line with nine home runs against Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. Irvin went 2-for-4 against Hall of Famer Don Drysdale and posted a lovely .276/.383/.449 slash line with four homers against Hall of Famer Warren Spahn.

Paige kept Hall of Famer Ted Williams to a .222/.364/.222 slash line—with no home runs. And that was when Paige was in his 40s, far past his prime, but still an effective relief pitcher who inspired Yankee manager Casey Stengel to hector his hitters, “Get your runs now—Father Time is coming!”

Maybe the worriers are worried that a few sacred Show cows might turn out to have been steak? Boswell isolates a case: “Artie Wilson hit .428 in 1948 in the Negro Leagues. Does that make Wilson, not Ted Williams, the last .400 hitter? Teddy Ballgame would get a kick out of that; few men ever boosted and boasted about the quality of Negro League play more than Ted.”

Oho, some cynics might ask (and have asked), but how many of Josh Gibson’s home runs came off guys that would never have made the major leagues even if there was no segregation?

Elston Howard—from teenage Kansas City Monarch (1949) to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra’s eventual successor behind the Yankee plate.

OK, you asked for it. How many of Henry Aaron’s, Babe Ruth’s, Albert Pujols’s, Willie Mays’s, Ken Griffey, Jr.’s, Jim Thome’s, Frank Robinson’s, or Harmon Killebrew’s home runs came off guys who probably had no business being in the majors, too? No hitter faces only the Walter Johnsons, Lefty Groves, Satchel Paiges, Double Duty Radcliffes, Whitey Fords, Sandy Koufaxes, Bob Gibsons, Juan Marichals, Tom Seavers, or Randy Johnsons.

The only thing anyone should worry about is that it may take a good long while before finalising the complete stats is done for Gibson, Irvin, Paige, Radcliffe, Robinson, Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Sam Jethroe, Elston Howard, Buck Leonard, Don Newcombe, Buck O’Neil, and every Negro Leagues player who did or didn’t eventually make it to the Show after Robinson. If they can be done at last.

“The new Negro League numbers will have many such gaps, a byproduct of the discrimination that limited every aspect of those players’ lives, right down to the tiny detail that many of their games got no box scores in papers,” Boswell observes.

As more information is gathered, all those Negro League stats will change, just as, over my life, I have watched the win, strikeout and hit totals change for Walter Johnson and many other white Hall of Famers.

What the true baseball fan wants to know is: everything. All the data that is available. We will figure out, each in our own way, what to make of it, how to rank it and, in some cases, how to get our jaws off the floor.

We’ll also figure out that there was so much more to regret than we ever knew, when we first learned of the shameful decades of baseball’s segregation. But we’ll also figure out just how much richer the game we love is, now that those men are given officially what we always knew they were, from the stories, the legends, and the eventual actualities when they were finally allowed to join their white baseball brethren on the field:

They’re major leaguers, dammit!

Formalising what people of heart, soul, and mind always knew

Monte Irvin and Willie Mays—major leaguers as Giants and as a Newark Eagle (Irvin) and Birmingham Black Baron (Mays).

When Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he kept it short, sweet, and shameless. One moment, Williams gave props to Willie Mays, who’d passed him on the all-time home run list days earlier: “[H]e’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘Go get ’em, Willie’.” Then, the Splinter hit a grand slam:

Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.

Gibson didn’t quite live long enough to receive his chance to play major league baseball; he died before Branch Rickey finally began the undoing of what should never have been done in the first place. But he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a baseball immortal in 1972.

Paige did get his chance. Among other things, he kept Williams to a .222 hitting average and slugging percentage but a .364 on-base percentage, after joining the American League with the Cleveland Indians and in due course the St. Louis Browns—in his forties.

Unlike Gibson, Paige did live long enough to see himself inducted into the Hall of Fame, the first Negro Leagues player so inducted (in 1971) after a special committee was formed to determine, as best they could with what they had, whom among the Negro Leagues’ best belonged in Cooperstown.

Not long before then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn formed the committee, his predecessor William Eckert convened another committee to isolate which among the earliest professional leagues merited official major league status. Four leagues were given such formal recognition by that group: the American Association of 1882-91, the Union Association of 1884, the Players League of 1890, and the Federal League of 1914-1915.

The Negro Leagues weren’t even a topic then. Boy, are they a topic now, with commissioner Rob Manfred having pronounced that the seven professional Negro Leagues which played from 1920 to 1948 shall henceforth be known as major leagues. Did I say seven?

Manfred conferred formal major league status on the first Negro National League of 1920-31, the Eastern Coloured League of 1923-28, the American Negro League of 1929, the East-West League of 1932, the Negro Southern League of 1932, the second Negro National League of 1933-1948, and the Negro American League of 1937-1948.

That’s the formality. Any baseball fan with heart, soul, and mind coordinating properly didn’t need a formal proclamation to know the Negro Leagues were as good and sometimes better than the “official” major leagues. They knew down to their bone marrow that Ted Williams was dead right in his implication that the “official” Show’s pre-1947 segregation denied those leagues and a good number of their players their propers.

Why the 1948 cutoff? That was the year of the final Negro World Series, between the Homestead Grays of the NNL and the Birmingham Black Barons of the NAL. (The Grays flattened the Barons in five, despite the Barons’ sharp center fielder—a child prodigy named Willie Mays.) With Jackie Robinson having cracked the old, disgraceful major league segregation line a year earlier, and National and American League teams beginning to scout and sign Negro Leagues talent, however incrementally, the Negro Leagues’ days were numbered.

After that Series (the Grays won the last such major league-level championship in Washington until last year’s Nationals), the Negro National League folded, followed by the Grays themselves in 1951 after barnstorming proved financially untenable. With the two then-solely recognised major leagues continuing to bring black talent aboard, the Negro American League fell back to the equivalence of the highest minor league before folding in 1958.

Bob Kendrick, a man of impeccable intelligence and sensitivity who presides over the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, knows the difference between conferring historical merit and validating the Negro Leagues and its players as major leaguers. “[T]hey never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them,” Kendrick tells MLB.com writer (and author of the splendid A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics) Anthony Castrovince.

But for fans and for historical sake, this is significant, it really is. So we are extremely pleased with this announcement. And for us, it does give additional credence to how significant the Negro Leagues were, both on and off the field.

A writer for The Athletic, Marcus Thompson II, sees and raises. “‘Oh, so now they’re good?’ was my initial reaction,” he writes in a forum convened by the journal to discuss the Manfred pronouncement.

Josh Gibson doesn’t need validation from Major League Baseball. Oscar Charleston doesn’t need validation. Pop Lloyd ain’t suddenly legit now because MLB basically decided to include him in the fold. It reeked of baseball’s arrogance. It wasn’t so much the inclusion of Negro League players, but the idea that somehow they are being officialized by this inclusion. This, obviously, should have been done a long time ago. But the pretentiousness of believing this to somehow be an elevation of those players, as if they’re being knighted posthumously, is insane and offensive . . . Satchel Paige was already a Major Leaguer by every other possible definition. Cool Papa Bell’s been official. His name is Cool Papa Bell.

Did we really need Rob Manfred to tell us Satchel Paige (left) and Jackie Robinson were major league level in the Negro Leagues?

Indeed. And, what do you know, just one prowl of social media delivered enough of the half-witticisms of those who think any thought of the Negro Leagues as “official” major leagues carries the whiff of political correctness. One such miscreant sticks uncomfortably in my mind: “[T]hey didn’t play against ball players like Bob Feller and Ted Williams sooooo… they didn’t play against major league talent.”

Well, now. I’d have loved the miscreant to explain what he thinks of the Show’s willful exclusion of non-white talent prior to 1947. (Fair disclosure: I zapped him by answering his foolish remark with the aforequoted Williams valedictory. As I write, he hasn’t offered an answer.) Do he and others of (I hate to use a four-letter word when ladies might be reading) like mind think such “major leaguers” as Robinson, Mays, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Henry Aaron, and Ernie Banks were just another bunch of minor leaguers before “organised baseball” deigned to invite them aboard?

Those of us who love the game and share the concurrent strain that its statistics are its life blood face a pretty pickle, too: How to finalise the true statistics of Negro Leagues competition. For one thing, it was known long enough that the Negro Leagues didn’t keep complete statistics for assorted and largely unpleasant reasons tied in large part to the unconscionable segregation of the so-called National Pastime.

The legends yielded by the Negro Leagues have been fun as legends but problematic as statistical analysis. Josh Gibson hitting eight hundred home runs plus in his baseball life is great fun as a legend, but how many did Gibson actually hit in Negro Leagues competition against how many did he actually hit on the barnstorms?

Castrovince observes that Negro Leagues statistics from leagues competition in 1920-1948 will be the ones brought to account, for a couple of very good reasons: Trying to develop the leagues before 1920 weren’t successful “and lacked a league structure.” Fans black, white, brown, and paisley alike may be disappointed with the net result because the barnstorm and exhibition stats won’t be included.

It won’t be simple, says another Athletic forum participant, Marc Carig. “[T]here are still games missing from the historical record,” he begins.

As of now, researchers have documented 73 percent of Negro League games contested in the 1920-1948 window of inclusion. That figure will keep climbing. More and more newspapers are getting digitized, making it easier to search for documentation. But it is still unlikely it will ever get to 100 percent. That can be a challenge. Now begins the work of figuring out how to incorporate that existing data into the official records. That’s the next step in the process. It’s not an easy one. But it’s worthwhile.

Forget about whether Gibson knocks Aaron and Barry Bonds out of the home run record books. He’ll probably still look like the great bombardier of his legend. And, since Aaron’s Negro Leagues play came after 1948, any home runs he hit before joining the Braves’ organisation won’t change his career home run total. Or the magnitude of his career and of a certain night in April 1974.

But Mays will see some changes. Let’s look. He had 73 plate appearances for the 1948 Black Barons, with sixteen hits including two doubles, twelve runs batted in, and twelve walks.He hit .262 with a .384 on-base percentage but a .295 slugging percentage with the ’48 Black Barons. His OBP won’t change, but his hitting average (sorry, the traditional batting average is incomplete and mistreats hits) will fall . . . one point, to .301. His slugging percentage will also fall . . . one point, to .556.

Another Athletic forum participant, Jason Jones, understands the concurrent late symbolism and undercurrent shame in Manfred’s pronouncement. “[I]f it took this announcement for you to believe Josh Gibson was one of the best to ever swing a bat, shame on you,” Jones says. “This is clearly long overdue. I wish those players were here to see baseball finally do the right thing.”

It shouldn’t have taken us that pronouncement, either, to believe Satchel Paige was one of the best ever to take the mound. (Casey Stengel would hector his Yankees when he saw Paige throwing in the bullpen, “Get your runs now—Father Time is coming!” That was when Paige was in his 40s and not exactly in his prime.)

Or, that Buck Leonard was one of the best ever to play first base.

Or, that Monte Irvin may have been the actual best of the Negro League talents to cross into the Show when he finally did, and that he might have given the Show another decade of his best before an ankle injury compromised him while with the Giants. Among others. (Irvin’s lifetime major league hitting average might jump to .304 when the records are adjusted.)

Said Manfred in a formal statement, “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. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”

Where they always belonged.

Now, if only Manfred and his minions would take things from there to send the Show on a real, substantial mission to rekindle deeper interest in baseball among black youth around the country, whether inner city, suburbia, or the country life. Black people have elevated the game as men and as players, coaches, managers, and executives, even if the number  among the last three of those remains terribly low.

Today’s young black aspirants deserve to know the game belongs to them, too. Numerous localised organisations carry that mission splendidly. It would give them a badly needed lift, and further honour the Negro Leagues legacy, if Manfred and his get off the schneid and onto the hunt. It’d mean as much and maybe more than how Jackie Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque would look with the addition of his seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs.