Up Next

MLB

In MLB’s hallowed numbers game, it’s time to make room for Negro League greats

From Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige to Cool Papa Bell and Martin Dihigo, these players were, and are forever more major leaguers

Major League Baseball, prepare. Your universe filled with sacred statistics and royal pecking orders is about to be shaken to its core. For the other Major Leaguers are coming. Negro Leagues Baseball is coming, bringing a host of already established Hall of Famers who are equipped with legendary accomplishments and erasers.

Once seemingly indelible numbers that help determine who’s who on baseball’s well-guarded pitching and hitting Mount Rushmores stand a great chance to be rewritten. That was all but guaranteed when MLB announced this week it will merge with the late but never forgotten Negro Leagues that employed more than 3,000 players from 1920 to 1948. “Accordingly, the statistics and records of these players will become a part of Major League Baseball’s history,” MLB announced.

Now, MLB’s official announcement did say that in order to correct the past wrongs of segregated America, it is “elevating” seven distinct Negro Leagues to MLB status. But think for a moment that African Americans and other players of color darned well knew they were major leaguers. They just were major leaguers in the other America – Black America.

These men and women who played, ran and owned countless franchises, knew who they were, what they were. They were the gold standard, and played at the highest level a segregated nation would allow. Their play rivaled the leagues and players they barnstormed against, enthralled and whose respect they earned.

Cool Papa Bell holds a picture of his Hall of Fame plaque on February 1990. Bell, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was once considered the fastest player in the Negro Leagues.

R. B. Fallstrom/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

From Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell to Martin Dihigo and Satchel Paige, no one would have had to affirm that they were on par with, and, if not for the cursed color line, would have succeeded alongside the Babe Ruths, Ted Williamses and Bob Fellers of the game.

Said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri: “These men and women, from players to owners, didn’t need validation from anybody. For me, this move by baseball is more about righting a wrong.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the game cannot give back opportunities lost – that, sadly, has come too, too late. But baseball can, and is, giving back recognition well-earned, and so long overdue. Some may question the impact, what with so many Negro Leaguers no longer with us. We know this is not the seismic shift that occurred when commissioner Happy Chandler refused to stop Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson from integrating the game in 1947. Other commissioners dating back to Fay Vincent have issued formal apologies to those careers stunted by the vile segregation of America’s national pastime.

Still, no commissioner welcomed Black players who preceded Robinson into the major-league family until Manfred. No commissioner, from the segregationist Kenesaw Mountain Landis to Bud Selig, chose to do this. Manfred did. “I appreciate that he was willing to take it on the chin,” said Kendrick. “Someone needed to do it. He did, and I commend him.”

It is now up to historians and number crunchers to determine the impact of this decision.

Guaranteed, numbers will matter. After all, what baseball stat, awards measurements, all-star and Hall of Fame-like determinations aren’t? Stats are like mother’s milk to baseball and its fans. The most iconic are chiseled in memory banks generation after generation, so much so that certain digits don’t even need names attached to be identifiable to fans, be they avid or merely casual observers …

… 511 … 755 … 714 … 1,406 …

Which of these stats now face the possibility of being surpassed? Barry Bonds’ career or single-season home run records (762, and 73, respectively)? Will Satchel Paige, having pitched forever, now have his wins from both major leagues compared with fellow Hall of Famers, such as all-time wins leader Cy Young (511 victories)? How will Josh Gibson’s home run total – which urban legends have as high as near 900 – shake up baseball’s greatest long ball hitters?

Let’s implore the game’s designated statistics sleuths to look outside the accepted baseball bibles and resources. May they familiarize themselves with the archives of the historically black media outlets that did not ignore their communities’ major leagues.

Henry Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) Willie Mays (660) and Frank Robinson (586) had to move over for Bonds and other colossi from the steroid era. Now come the Negro Leagues sluggers. What a home-run derby of the mind we have in store!

And isn’t that what separates baseball from other professional sports? This is the game where one can wrap arms around hallowed numbers. Committed to memory by grandma and grandpop, mom and dad, brother and sister, they drive dinner table debates and prompt countless hot stove league arguments.

The comparisons of Josh and The Babe, Josh and Johnny Bench, Satch and Bob Feller, Cool Papa and Rickey Henderson (all-time high 1,406 stolen bases) won’t be new. They now merely take on a new sense of urgency and intrigue, because baseball has decided to merge not only the legends, but the accomplishments found in countless box scores. “The numbers,” said Kendrick, “are what led us to this day.”

We know that in the other major league, incredible numbers were also compiled. The mystery is how well were they recorded. Will the faults of the sport media of yesteryear be held against Negro Leaguers, again? Negro League teams populated most every major metropolitan area east of the Mississippi, but the major metropolitan newspapers and radio stations certainly did not afford the New York Black Yankees the same coverage as the New York Yankees.

“If there was any fear that I have, it’s that [shortchanges] would be there,” said Kendrick of the purposeful lapses in coverage long ago. “There is still much work to be done. How baseball compiles and integrates the numbers we shall see.

“Conversely, we have to be prepared to see some numbers that we’ve long cited be diminished if the compilation depends on published box scores.”

So, whereas Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque credits the catching great with having hit nearly 800 home runs “in league and independent baseball,” and the Negro Leagues Museum cites the number as just under 900, Kendrick says Gibson fans may have to brace for an “official” number that may dip under 300.

Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson and executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, acknowledges that it is doubtful Gibson will unseat Bonds as the home run king. Too many of Gibson’s numerous homers were hit as a barnstormer, or against teams outside the leagues such as the Negro National and American leagues about to be merged with MLB. “But Josh should end up second in all-time batting average to Ty Cobb [.366 to .354],” Sean Gibson said. “He’s likely to be among the top five in on-base percentage, and in the top 10 in five or six categories.

“I’ve spoken with family members and we agree: Six or seven categories will give his all-round ability true context. We may not have the home run record in his name, but we do have that larger context of his true greatness.”

Said Kendrick, “the biggest value of the numbers is that they create context. Josh’s .441 in 1943 will now be included as one of the best single-season batting averages of all time. His lifetime batting average will rank among the best of all time. So, the numbers will allow future fans to see the accomplishments, see what these men have done.”

Therefore, may today’s search for certifiable deeds be a treasure hunt of immense proportions, carrying with it the greatest of intentions.

Let’s implore the game’s designated statistics sleuths to look outside the accepted baseball bibles and resources. May they familiarize themselves with the archives of the historically black media outlets that did not ignore their communities’ major leagues. Let the likes of the Baltimore Afro-American and Philadelphia Tribune lend light to teams such as the Baltimore Elite Giants and Philadelphia Stars. And may there be a meeting of the minds that our oral histories – so important throughout the African American experience – help enrich baseball lore.

No doubt the most dedicated of seamhead detectives are already salivating at the opportunity to confirm and compile, to recognize and help honor Josh, Cool Papa, Satch and so many more. No doubt they will help a sport confirm certainties long-ago known: Negro Leaguers’ achievements belong in the pantheon of the most famous statistics in professional sports. Most importantly, Negro Leaguers who compiled the numbers were, and are major leaguers forever more.

Claire Smith is a recipient of The Baseball Writers Association of America’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award for her contributions to baseball writing as a reporter and columnist. She is a news editor for ESPN.