Meet baseball’s new GOAT, Josh Gibson, after Negro Leagues’ stats added to MLB

Major League Baseball announced Wednesday that statistics from the Negro Leagues have been added to the MLB database.

MLB elevated Negro Leagues stats to “major league” in 2020, a move MLB said was “a longtime oversight in the game’s history.”

Since then, MLB has been working with the Elias Sports Bureau to figure out a way to incorporate them into the league’s database.

The move shook things up in the baseball record books. For example, Willie Mays has 10 more hits, and Satchel Paige went from 28 wins to 125.

But there may now be a new best baseball player of all time.

His name was Josh Gibson. He was a Negro League star catcher who, despite Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, actually might just be the best player the Negro Leagues had ever seen.

But now he’s in the conversation as the best player the sport has ever seen in any league.

Because of the revamping of the system, Gibson now holds the records for highest career batting average (.372, surpassing Ty Cobb’s .367), slugging percentage (.718, formerly held by Babe Ruth’s .690) and OPS (1.177, beating Ruth’s 1.164). His .459 career on-base percentage ranks third all-time.

Gibson also holds several single-season records. His .446 average in 1943 for the Homestead Grays is now a record, as is his .974 slugging percentage from 1937. That record was held by Barry Bonds, who slugged .863 during his 73-homer season in 2001. Gibson also now holds the two-best single seasons in OPS, including his 1.474 from 1937, also beating out Bonds.

It should be noted that Gibson’s true numbers are not known and probably never will be. MLB has worked with Elias and other Negro League researchers to come up with “official” statistics.

MLB.com’s database has Gibson playing in 653 games. By contrast, Ruth played 2,504 and Cobb played 3,034. In that 1943 season, Gibson is recorded to have 74 games played, as opposed to 39 games in 1937.

Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson

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According to MLB, the Special Committee on Baseball Records ruling in 1969 stated, “For all-time single season records, no asterisk or official sign shall be used to indicate the number of games scheduled.” For context, that would have remained the case had any records been broken in the strike-shortened 1994 season or the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

With his shorter seasons and fewer games played, Gibson’s cumulative numbers do not come close to the all-time rankings. For example, Gibson’s own Hall of Fame plaque says he hit “almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career.” 

But the majority of those came in what MLB calls “‘barnstorming’ exhibitions that were not part of the official league season and not included in MLB’s official record.”

The record books will show Gibson with 838 hits, 174 of them home runs. He also walked 359 times and struck out 11 times.

Josh Gibson statue

When Gibson was 32 years old in 1943, he fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He neglected care and died of a stroke four years later. He never got to see baseball integrated, having died three months before Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Larry Doby famously said Gibson died prematurely because he felt it should have been him, not Robinson, to break the color barrier. Robinson was 28 years old April 15, 1947.

A statue of Gibson was built outside Nationals Park in 2009, and he was inducted into the Nationals’ Ring of Honor in 2010. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, the same year Robinson died.

MLB says Negro Leagues research is about 75% complete, so expect some more changes down the line.

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