Why the Negro League stats belong in the MLB record books

Have you ever heard something on the news and responded by saying “it’s about darn time?” That’s how I felt when I heard about the integration of Negro League Baseball (NLB) statistics from 1920-1948 into Major League Baseball’s (MLB) record books.

This move doesn’t somehow “erase the years of injustice,” as the documentary “When It Was A Game” put it. Rather, including NLB statistics in the MLB ones “serve[s] to remind us of what we missed” by having racially segregated leagues.

Indeed, as elite sportswriter Neil Paine pointed out to me, it’s the stats that show us that the NLB was the equal of, if not superior to, its White counterpart.

Consider the statistics of when nine White major leaguers from various teams – who came together under the banner of “all-star” teams – played against teams of Black major leaguers.

The NLB players won 51% of the time from 1900 to 1948. This isn’t some statistical fluke, either. We have 180 documented games during this stretch, which is the equivalent of over one season of major league games (162 currently) or more than 25 World Series taken to the maximum of seven games.

As Negro League historian Todd Peterson noted when he made his case a few years ago, the Negro Leaguers were the only ones to consistently beat White major leaguers, who dominated squads of semi-pro, college and minor leaguers.

The games between White MLB stars and NLB players left a lasting mark on Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, who had organized a lot of games between White “all-stars” and Negro League players. Dean had great respect for the skills of arguably the Negro League’s best pitcher, Satchel Paige, after Dean’s team of White ball players fell to NLB teams on numerous occasions.

While players like Paige eventually did join an integrated MLB, he was well past his prime. Fortunately, we got to see other NLB players join an integrated MLB a short time into their careers.

Willie Mays was the best player of the second half of the 20th century, according to the all-encompassing stat wins above replacement (WAR); Mays was a member of NLB’s Birmingham Black Barons in 1948.

Henry “Hank” Aaron was the second-best player, according to WAR, of the second half of the 20th century. The 20th century home run king was a member of the NLB’s Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, after the period where NLB teams were considered major league for stat counting purposes.

High-level players and deserved accolades

It’s depressing to imagine a world where Mays or Aaron didn’t play in the integrated major leagues, which is true for Black players overall. They quickly became an integral part of the American and National Leagues in the late 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Black players were on average the best players, which adds to the case that the NLB was a major league.

Willie Mays of the New York Giants slides safely into the plate on Wes Westrum's bases-full single in the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at the Polo Grounds, New York.

Former NLB players who joined the integrated MLB got on base more frequently (.361) than the average (.324). They hit for more power too with a higher slugging percentage (.455) than the average (.380).

The same dominance of former NLB players held true for pitching in the integrated MLB. They won more games (55%) than the average major leaguer (50%), gave up fewer runs (with an ERA of 3.76 vs. 3.91) and struck out more players per nine innings (5.91 vs. 4.89).

It’s not surprising that the second former NLB player to win Rookie of the Year in the integrated major leagues was pitcher Don Newcombe. In fact, former NLB players won the National League Rookie of the Year every year from 1949 to 1953.

The first MLB player to win Rookie of the Year in the integrated league was Jackie Robinson.

Sometimes lost in all of the deserved accolades of Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 was just how good he was as a player in the integrated league. He put together seven of the best seasons ever for a guy who primarily played second base, according to WAR. Robinson did this while not playing a single integrated MLB game until he was 28, when many players’ skills are already declining.

Players like Robinson and Larry Doby – the first American League Black player and Hall of Famer – were able to perform at a high level, despite having to put up with a lot of racist rhetoric from fans and fellow players.

Sadly, some NLB stars never got to play in an integrated MLB: catcher Josh Gibson was one of them. He died before Robinson ever took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Baseball catcher Josh Gibson in an undated photo.

With Wednesday’s news, Gibson’s now credited with being the all-time baseball leader in batting average at .372 and power hitting (with a slugging percentage of .718). Gibson also leads in on-base-plus-slugging (OBPS) at 1.177, which combines getting on base and hitting for power. Ty Cobb had led the first category, while Babe Ruth led the second and the third.

Gibson’s great grandson put it best when he told CNN that “now, the conversation begins where Josh Gibson ranks as the greatest of all time or one of the greatest of all time.”

It’ll be a fun debate to compare the power hitting of Gibson and Ruth. We’ll never know how Ruth would have batted if Black players were part of the American League, or how Gibson would have done in regular season competition against White players.

But what’s interesting about the MLB is that it was already combining records for two totally different leagues prior to adding the NLB to the record books.

Larry Doby, center fielder of the Cleveland Indians, hits a home run in his second season in 1948.

The American League (of which Doby was part of) and National League (of which Robinson was part of) didn’t play regular season games against each other until 1997. Cobb never played against a NL squad in the regular season. Ruth only did for well less than half a season, after he was well past his prime.

In fact, if you were to look at the leaderboard for White MLB stats prior to integration, you’ll see many players never played the opposing league in the regular season. NL pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander never played against the AL. AL pitcher Walter Johnson never played against the NL.

A big reason for that is that it was basically impossible for the AL and NL teams to trade players to each other prior to 1959. The leagues were so distinct that they had different presidents just like the NLB.

What today’s MLB did in combining the records of the different leagues – the AL, NL and NLB – makes sense and has precedent to some degree. When people look at MLB stats now, they’ll get a truer picture of who was good, great or transcendent, regardless of which league they played in.

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