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.

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