Sports

Karl Lindholm: Recognition is finally here for Negro Leagues

NEGRO LEAGUE LEGEND Josh Gibson, here in his Pittsburgh Crawfords uniform, is now the Major League leader in many batting categories, with the addition of Negro League stats to the official MLB database. His lifetime batting average of .373 supplants Ty Cobb’s .367.
Art by Graig Kreindler with permission of Jay Caldwell

Part 2 of 2. Read the first part here.

I didn’t think it would ever happen. Practically speaking, I didn’t think it was possible: that is, that the brilliance of Black baseball players during the 60 years of baseball’s segregation at the highest level could ever be officially acknowledged in the statistical record.

The color line in baseball was drawn in 1887 and was not breached until Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, in the pristine white uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When I taught my class on the Negro Leagues at Middlebury College, I would say to students, “This is a class in narrative and myth, not in numbers, statistics.” It was about stories, stories about great players and teams — and a bitter struggle for respect and acknowledgement playing a game they loved in hard times: the National Pastime. 

Black teams barnstormed the country, played against all-comers wherever there was a payday, year-round, with and against white players in the Cuban winter league, and throughout Latin America. For the first three decades of the game’s segregation, there were no Black leagues at all. Most Black players and teams played up to 150-200 games a year.

There were no successful “Negro leagues” until 1920 when Rube Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, gathered other owners of Black baseball teams at the time, mostly in the Midwest, and organized the eight team Negro National League. In 1923, the Eastern Colored League, or ECL, was founded with teams along the Atlantic seaboard. 

From 1920-48, seven different Negro leagues came and went: Keep in mind the era: the ’20s, the Depression (’30s), and World War II (’40s) were not a time of economic stability throughout America, especially in Black America. 

Comparing Black baseball during segregation with Major League Baseball, statistically, could not be done fairly, I concluded. 

Conclusive proof that Black players were worthy of comparison, however, came in the brilliant quality of their play after the door had been opened. 

I was not wrong in my conclusion, but I’m happy to say I was not right either. Turns out, Black lives matter!

In December 2020, perhaps as a result of years of pressure from Negro league scholars, writers, and advocates, Major League Baseball announced that it would include Negro League statistics its official data base. 

Three and a half years later, last month (May 29), MLB revealed the results of the efforts of the 16 person Negro Leagues Statistics Committee — and the new official database of Major League Baseball.  

Committee Chair John Thorn, the official MLB historian, said that “stats are shorthand  for stories and the story of the Negro Leagues is worthy of our study.”

LAST THURSDAY, JUNE 20, Major League Baseball hosted a celebration of the Negro leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., the oldest ballpark in continuous use in the country. Willie Mays first played for the Birmingham Black Barons at Rickwood. The columnist visited Rickwood in 2010 at a Negro Leagues Conference, a highlight of his baseball experience.
Photo by Karl Lindholm

The Committee determined early on that only the games played in the actual Negro Leagues from 1920-48 would count and only statistics documented with actual box scores would be included. The MLB estimates that it has box scores for about 75% of Negro League games, a number I would never have imagined.

Among the heroes of this ambitious enterprise are the dogged researchers who poured over Black newspapers, scorebooks, and microfilm to unearth the documentation required. Negro League author and researcher Larry Lester reported, “I have about 16,000 box scores in my database, so it took years to perform the task.” 

The typical Negro League season was only 60-80 games (as compared to the 154 game seasons in the Major Leagues at the time), so the principal changes in the record book are more for “rate stats” (averages, percentages) than for “counting stats” (home runs, RBIs, wins).  

The most striking change is that Josh Gibson, legendary catcher and power hitter, is now the all-time leader in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS and also is the single season leader in those same categories. His .372 lifetime batting average replaces Ty Cobb’s .367 and his 1943 BA of .466 replaces Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894. 

Among Black baseball fans, Babe Ruth was known as “the white Josh Gibson.”

In all, 2,023 Negro league players now have their numbers included in the new MLB integrated database. Those players who played in the Negro Leagues and then integrated the previously white Major League Baseball have seen their numbers adjusted upward, in many cases quite significantly. 

ROY CAMPANELLA PLAYED eight years for the Baltimore Elite Giants (starting at age 15!) and 10 years in the MLB for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His official statistics have been significantly upgraded by the addition of his Negro League stats.
Art by Graig Kreindler with permission of Jay Caldwell)

Roy Campanella, great Dodger catcher, played eight seasons (starting at 15!) in the Negro Leagues, mostly for the Baltimore Elite Giants, and 10 years in the Majors for Brooklyn. He gains 274 hits (total 1,435), 167 RBIs (1,053), and 19 homers (261) in his overall statistics. 

Monte Irvin played for the Newark Eagles from 1938-48 and eight years in MLB for the New York Giants. His 363 hits for the Eagles raises his lifetime batting average from .293 to .305. 

Minnie Minoso, the Cuban Comet, integrated the Chicago White Sox in 1951. His 150 hits with the New York Cubans (1946-48) gives him over 2,000 for his career (2,113). 

Satchel Paige won 28 games in MLB in his five years, starting in Cleveland (6-1) in 1948 at age 42. He now is credited with another 97 wins — and his only home run, hit in 1929 for the Birmingham Black Barons. His career officially spans over 35 years, from 1929 to 1965!

These changes, these statistical adjustments, don’t begin the tell the story of Black baseball and the hardships and humiliations of segregation . . . but it surely is a gesture in the right direction.

Willie Mays only had 43 at-bats in 13 games in the Negro Leagues. He played at age 17 in 1948 for the Birmingham Black Barons. He had 10 hits for the Barons, giving him a total of 3,283, including two doubles, a triple, and a homer. The homer (which was widely acknowledged) doesn’t count because there’s no box score documentation. So Willie’s home run total remains at 660. 

Willie died last week at age 93 on the eve of a spectacular celebration of the Negro Leagues in Birmingham, where Willie’s life and career began. Last Thursday, the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants played an MLB game at Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in continuous play in the U.S. Built in 1910, it was the home field of the Black Barons for nearly 50 years. 

The Rickwood game was entertaining and competitive, a 6-5 Cardinals win. The extensive pregame festivities were both exciting and poignant as Willie was remembered for his extraordinary life. 

It was a fitting remembrance for the game’s greatest player. 

—————

Karl Lindholm, Ph.D, taught a Negro Leagues course in the American Studies Program at Middlebury College, “Segregation in America: Baseball and Race.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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