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!

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