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New MLB stats recognize the legacy of Black players

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's not often that baseball is our lead story, but today's news was more than a century in the making. According to official statistics, Major League Baseball now has a new all-time batting leader. Josh Gibson played in the Negro Leagues before baseball was integrated, and for the first time, statistics from those players have been added to the official MLB record books. That means, as of today, Josh Gibson has dethroned the legend Ty Cobb. People have been fighting for decades to include Black players in these records. Here's Josh Gibson's great-grandson, Sean Gibson, speaking to MLB.com back in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN GIBSON: These guys played the game of baseball just like the white players did and did it just as well as the white players.

SHAPIRO: Larry Lester is a historian who spent about 50 years searching through old newspaper files to tabulate these records and arguing just how important they are to baseball history. Mr. Lester, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LARRY LESTER: Well, thank you for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How good was Josh Gibson?

LESTER: Without a doubt, he was one of the greatest hitters along with Mule Suttles, Turkey Stearnes and Oscar Charleston. The statistics validate his greatness. I mean, his home runs per at-bat ratio is similar to Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth, so that tells me and others that he was a legitimate home run hitter and slugger, hit for a high average and seldom struck out. So he was the ideal model for the perfect slugger for any team.

SHAPIRO: You've spent your whole life documenting this history, going into the archives of public libraries, microfilms of old local newspapers. What is it like for you to see this day where, officially, the rankings are there, and they show the results of the work you've been doing for so many decades?

LESTER: Well, this is - it brings a lot of joy in my heart. It's a relief. I can exhale. Spent many hours in the library going through microfilm before there were online newspaper databases - I did it the hard way, making copies of every box score that I could find.

As an IT professional, I created a database, and even today, we have to manually input every box score. There is no app, no software that can scan a box score that will populate a spreadsheet. So every entry - every batter, at bat, run, hit, double, triple, home run, walks, stolen bases, errors - have to be inputted manually. So it takes me roughly an - half an hour to input one game, and I've got over 16,000 games in my database.

SHAPIRO: Why is that work so important to you?

LESTER: Because I wanted to know the answer. I wanted to know if all the stories were true. Statistics are a shorthand for stories. So we work backwards here. I hear that Cool Papa Bell is great. I hear that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson are great but cannot quantify it. And this is what motivated me to spend most of my life compiling these statistics from more than 450 Black newspapers.

And, you know, I was often told that African Americans are apathetic about their history and that information was not recorded, but that simply was not true. Starting in the 1920s, Black newspapers had box scores. They even had play-by-plays, editorials, biographies about Black ballplayers. This is all there in the Black newspapers. It just had to be mined and processed.

SHAPIRO: Have you heard from any Ty Cobb fans who are upset today? Is anyone complaining that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, since segregation kept these players from ever facing each other?

LESTER: Well, no, I haven't had any critics, but there's no reason to criticize what is being done here. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, like many others, did not play against a Black player. Let's remember that Babe Ruth never hit a home run off a major league Black pitcher, and ditto for Ty Cobb. He never played against a Black major league player.

Now, the same argument can be said that Josh Gibson never hit a home run off a white major league player. So we aren't comparing apples to apples or a Sunkist to orange juice or whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

LESTER: It all works. The fact is, they played in two separate universes - one black, one white - but they played between the white foul lines. And let's keep in mind that the Negro League teams played in major league ballparks. They ordered their bats from the Louisville Slugger manufacturer. They used a Wilson 150CC baseball. They ordered their gloves and uniforms from the same manufacturer, Spalding or Reach. They had the same equipment. They played under the same rules in the same ballparks. The only difference was the color of their skin.

SHAPIRO: To return to Josh Gibson - his life was full of tragedy. His wife died giving birth to twins, and he died when he was only 35 years old, less than three months before Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier. What do you think this moment means for his legacy?

LESTER: I guess qualifies some of the struggles that he had to go through - him and other Black ballplayers who never received the recognition that they deserve. It saddens me that him and many others did not get to enjoy this glory of recognition.

You know, we talked about, you know, Josh Gibson and his legacy and Satchel Paige and others, but so many, many, many other Negro League players - their relative anonymity is a cruel joke to every sports fan in America. And hopefully, this statistical project by Major League Baseball will wake up the consciousness and recognize their greatness. And, you know, I welcome the pushback from the Babe Ruth families or the Ty Cobb families or whoever it may be. But we have to remember that the Negro Leagues were a product of systemic racism by Major League Baseball.

SHAPIRO: Well, Larry Lester, congratulations on reaching this day, and thank you for talking with us about it.

LESTER: Well, you're welcome, Ari.

SHAPIRO: He's an author and historian and co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.