“The Negro Leagues are the platform from which Jackie Robinson could stand in order to make his jump into the major leagues and have the success that he had “
~Dr. Ray Doswell~
As a kid growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s in a 98% white suburban Long Island neighborhood, I had no clue what the Negro Leagues were. I knew about my little league team and my school teams, and the National League and the American League. There were no black children in my elementary school at all. When I got to middle school there were less than 10. None of them were my friends. They mostly kept to themselves and I never reached out. It’s just the way it was. This is how I grew up. There was a divide, and as a kid I didn’t even think to cross it (until I was 15, but that’s another story). We learned about slavery and Lincoln and the civil war in school of course. But that was “all in the past now” and not something I needed to be concerned about in the present tense, according to both my teachers and my parents.
When it came to baseball, and the heroes I worshipped on the field, I was totally colorblind however. My two favorite players as a 10 year old were Tom Seaver and Tommie Agee. My favorite non New York Mets player was Roberto Clemente. The most feared player I saw step into the box against my Mets was Willie McCovey. The question of race simply never entered my mind that I can remember. I have no recollection at all of separating the players I watched on T.V. or at the ballpark by the color of their skin. It was just baseball. I loved the game and I loved watching ALL the major leaguers play.
Sadly, that does not reflect the history of Baseball in the United States. Baseball has often reflected society as a whole, and when it came to race relations, baseball not only reflected society, but in many ways was the tip of the spear. I only first started to become aware of these issues not only in baseball, but in society in general as a result of the run up to Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. By the early 70’s it became apparent that Aaron, not Willie Mays, posed the greatest “threat” to break Ruth’s homerun record. While there were many debates about who was the better home run hitter that often centered around how many more at bats Aaron had than Ruth, there were sharp racial over and undertones that even I in my white suburban bubble became aware of. We’d later learn details about death threats and other horrible things Aaron went through in the pursuit of greatness while being black. But even before those details came out in full and were documented, I distinctly remember hearing conversations laced with racial hatred that made a deep impression, and not in a good way. As a 14 year old, this was likely the beginning of my own personal gradual awakening to the reality of race relations in the United States. Like so much else in my life, it came through the lens of baseball.
Fast forward to 1994 when Ken Burns seminal documentary Baseball was aired for the first time. (see link for episode breakdowns) By then in my mid 30’s, I was living in Taiwan at the time, and I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point happened to be in the USA on a long vacation and it was re-airing, and I got to watch the entire documentary. I remember my wife being incredulous that I would spend every evening of our vacation sitting in front of the T.V. watching a boring show about baseball. The documentary has several episodes that highlight the black experience and the Negro Leagues and this was the first time I truly became aware of the importance of pre integration Negro League Baseball. What little I knew before then seemed mostly the stuff of baseball mythology with tales of incredible achievements that while fun and interesting, seemed to be exaggerated. This documentary was the first time I started to realize just how great those leagues were. If you’re one of the few people who’ve never seen the documentary, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Negro League Baseball Museum was established in Kansas City, Missouri in 1991. Other Museums and organizations were established to record and chronicle these important American institutions. A few are discussed HERE. Finally, over the years Baseball-Reference.com began adding Negro League stats to it’s data base, culminating in this:
NEGRO LEAGUES ARE MAJOR LEAGUES
This project was unveiled last summer and is the culmination of thousands of hours of work from dozens of researchers and experts in the field. Contained on that page are links to a number of really good articles, and a Podcast dedicated to the topic. There are also lists of players in the HOF that participated in the Negro Leagues. The link above should be bookmarked for anyone with interest.
There was no ambiguity in the position staked out by Sean Forman and the Sports Reference team. From the opening paragraph of his welcome article he stakes his personal reputation and that of his company on the line:
“This week, Baseball Reference will recognize certain Negro Leagues as major leagues on our site. With this change, we now present these Black major leagues as the equals of the American and National Leagues. We have had Negro League baseball stats on Baseball Reference for at least ten years now, but we treated them as less than the statistics of the White major leagues. We will now treat them as the major leagues they are.”
And so they have. When searching the site, and using the Stathead service they provide, you have the option to include or separate the leagues, the but the default search position is all inclusive. While there is some debate perhaps about the veracity of this claim, I will simply say this:
From a statistical perspective, the relative quality of both MLB and the Negro Leagues is not the most important thing here, in my view. The indisputable fact is BOTH leagues were inferior to the subsequent fully integrated version of MLB. Arguments about whether or not the Negro Major Leagues statistics are “legit” when compared to MLB stats often miss the critical fact that it cuts both ways. If you remove the bottom 10-20% of performers to play in MLB from 1920-1948 and replace them with the top Negro League players what do you think happens to the comparative stat lines ? The overall quality of the league would have been unquestionably higher and the replacement level would have increase a great deal. Many of those ultra dominant stats lines with season after season of double digit WAR totals and sky high career OPS+ and ERA+ numbers from many players would be taken down a notch or two. If you feel the need to discount the individual stats of the best Negro League Stars a bit, (I don’t but YMMV) then you certainly need to discount the stats of MLB stars prior to full integration as well. So either way whatever gap there may be, narrows quite a bit.
As Jim continues his excellent series on the all time MLB Team, I’ll keep chipping in where I can by highlighting some of the greats of the Negro Leagues. But the story and impact of these leagues are so much greater than just the accomplishments of the brightest stars. I’m no expert in this field despite being a “Major League Baseball fan for 57 years since my first game at the age of 5 in 1965. I’m STILL just scratching the surface in my own personal journey of discovery. I hope that this article may help you along in yours.