On Wednesday, December 16, 2020, the long-awaited news finally was announced: seven of the Negro Leagues were having their statistics incorporated into Major League Baseball. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bob Manfred called it “long overdue recognition.” The League said it was "correcting a longtime oversight in the game's history" by elevating the Negro Leagues on the centennial of its founding.
Manfred bestowed Major League status upon seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. The decision means that the approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues during this time period are officially considered Major Leaguers, with their stats and records becoming a part of Major League history.
“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,” Manfred said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
On the very next day, I got an email from my pal and fellow baseball lover Gabe Yurkovich who wrote, “Glad to see MLB is now recognizing the Negro Leagues as the major leagues they always were. Some great ball players. I knew you would be excited to hear that too!”
The seven leagues are the Negro National League (I) (1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the Negro National League (II) (1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48). Those leagues produced 35 Hall of Famers, and the result of MLB’s decision is that Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell have achieved the Major League status denied to them in their living years by the injustice of segregation.
The Negro Leagues’ status change was applauded by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick.
“For historical merit, it is extraordinarily important,” Kendrick said. “Having been around so many of the Negro League players, they never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them. 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.”
As part of the decision, MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau – MLB’s official statistician – have begun a review process to determine the full scope of the designation’s effect on records and statistics. Historians and other experts will be consulted as part of that process.
The league will work with the Elias Sports Bureau to review Negro Leagues statistics and records and figure out how to incorporate them into MLB’s history. There was no standard method of record keeping for the Negro Leagues, but there are enough box scores to stitch together some of its statistical past.
Josh Gibson’s 238 official Negro League-leading home runs will now be included in the MLB list but it will not do justice to the 800+ homers accredited to him in the unofficial records. While some have estimated Gibson slugged over 800 homers during 16 Negro League seasons, it's unlikely that enough records exist for him to officially pass Barry Bonds for the career record at 762. Depending on what Elias and MLB rule, though, Gibson could wind up with another notable record. His .441 batting average in 1943 would be the best season mark ever, edging Hugh Duffy's .440 from 1894. On top of that, Willie Mays will now have a greater total of home runs than just his MLB stats since he played in 1948 with the Birmingham Barons. Satchel Paige will add at least 150 victories to his pitching total of only 28 wins.
In addition, the oft-used trivia question of “who was the oldest rookie to ever play in the Majors” may also need some reevaluation. The answer was always Satchel Paige, who entered the Majors at the age of 41.
Less clear at this stage, pending the discussions between MLB and Elias, is how rate statistics such as batting average or slugging percentage will be classified. For instance, Gibson (.365), Jud Wilson (.359), Oscar Charleston (.350) and Turkey Stearnes (.348) all had at least 3,000 career plate appearances and batting averages that would rank in the top 10 all-time, according to the Seamheads database. Their inclusion on that particular list would push the legendary likes of Ted Williams (.344) and Babe Ruth (.342) out of the top 10. That makes me smile.
In my mind, my heroes like Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neill, Turkey Stearnes, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige were already equal to any major leaguer. But to see their names now said in the same breath, with their stats occupying the same lists, as the recognized MLB stars does my heart good.
When I read the news to Nicole, I had tears in my eyes. There are few things that could have made me happier.
Still, ask me how many homers Josh Gibson had and I will tell you: over 800 dingers. Who was the fastest man in baseball? Cool Papa Bell, who could “switch off the light and be in bed before the room got dark.”
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.