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The Negro Leagues are officially part of MLB history — with the records to prove it

Satchel Paige of the Monarchs talks with Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays before a game in Kansas City in 1941.
Mark Rucker
/
Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
Satchel Paige of the Monarchs talks with Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays before a game in Kansas City in 1941.

Hundreds of Black athletes who were shut out of Major League Baseball a century ago are now officially a part of it.

The MLB announced on Wednesday that it has incorporated the statistics of more than 2,300 Negro Leagues players from 1920 to 1948 into its records, which are now available in a newly integrated online database.

“Today’s announcement is the first major step that makes the achievements of the players of the Negro Leagues available to fans via the official historical record,” the MLB said in a statement.

It follows nearly four years of research and a move the league made in December 2020. That year saw both the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues and nationwide protests against racial injustice.

The MLB said at the time that it was “correcting a longtime oversight” by officially elevating the Negro Leagues to Major League status and including their stats in its history books.

“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s finest players, innovations and triumphs against the backdrop of injustice,” MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred said at the time.

The seven leagues that made up the racially segregated Negro Leagues were home to legendary talents, with 35 of its stars now enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Some of its many dominant players included Satchel Paige, whom many subsequent greats deemed the best pitcher ever; power-hitter Josh Gibson, who was considered the “greatest slugger in Negro baseball leagues” and “Cool Papa” Bell, whom the hall of fame says “may well have been the fastest man to ever play the game.”

As their statistics enter the MLB record, some of their names have risen to the top of the leaderboards.

Gibson, who died of a stroke at age 35 in 1947, is now the MLB’s all-time career leader in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage. He also holds the all-time single-season records in all three categories.

Gibson’s .372 batting average surpasses Ty Cobb’s .367, and his .718 slugging percentage overtakes Babe Ruth’s .690 — a fitting accomplishment for a man often called “the Black Babe Ruth.”

“Josh was known for his home run greatness,” Sean Gibson, his great-grandson, told NPR. “But this shows that not only was he a great hitter, but he was a great all-around player.”

And for other Hall of Famers who went on to play in the majors, their career stats will now officially include accomplishments from their time in the Negro Leagues too.

For instance, Paige’s career wins total jumps from 28 to 125, Minnie Miñoso’s hits with the New York Cubans lift his career total above the 2,000 milestone and Jackie Robinson’s hits from his season on the Negro Leagues boost his career total from 1,518 to 1,567.

Citing expert estimates, the MLB says the available Negro Leagues records from the 1920-1948 window are just shy of 75% complete — meaning more changes to the leaderboards could be on the horizon.

"The Negro Leagues always felt they were Major Leaguers anyway," Gibson said. "The Negro Leagues always felt they were Major Leaguers anyway," Gibson said. "Society made that choice to divide them."

How we got here — and what took so long

The Homestead Grays pose for a team shot in their home park, Forbes Field, in Pittsburgh in 1942. Hall of Fame members on the club include Josh Gibson, standing third from left, and Buck Leonard, standing far right.
Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
/
Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
The Homestead Grays pose for a team shot in their home park, Forbes Field, in Pittsburgh in 1942. Hall of Fame members on the club include Josh Gibson, standing third from left, and Buck Leonard, standing far right.

Black Americans had played baseball on military and company teams since the late 1800s but were barred from professional teams and instead created their own, “barnstorming” around the country to play challengers, according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

It wasn’t until 1920 that those teams would start to form structured leagues, eventually totaling some 3,400 players across seven leagues: the Negro National League, the Eastern Colored League, the American Negro League, the East-West League, the Negro Southern League, the Negro National League and the Negro American League.

Organized Black baseball — and its fan base — grew considerably throughout the 1930s and 1940s, drawing an estimated 3 million fans to games in the 1942 season, according to the MLB. It was considered equivalent to the talent of the majors — both by fans and by Negro Leagues players themselves.

Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking the MLB’s color barrier. Other Black stars quickly followed him into the majors, prompting the dissolution of the Negro Leagues around the middle of the century.

Despite its many contributions to the sport, the Negro Leagues were passed over for recognition in the ensuing decades.

In the late 1960s, MLB's Special Baseball Records Committee met to discuss which past professional leagues should be classified as Major Leagues in the first edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” per the MLB.

They recognized several leagues, but never even discussed the Negro Leagues, Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, told NPR in 2021.

“You know it was racially motivated, because we're talking about a league that was as good as any, and had more impact on Major League Baseball than any of the leagues that were recognized,” Kendrick said, adding that many major-league owners profited off the Negro Leagues teams filling ballpark seats, not to mention the unprecedented influx of talent that flooded the MLB after 1947.

It’s that decision that the MLB said it sought to rectify in 2020, assembling a team of historians and statisticians to set about “righting a historic wrong,” according to a fact sheet distributed by the league.

That process was complicated by the lack of comparable data, both because of the paucity of Negro Leagues statistics and the difference in their season length compared to the MLB. The 17-person review committee said they had to settle on “minimum qualifying standards.”

“How are we to understand the MLB’s new database?” they wrote. “By realizing that statistics are shorthand for stories, that history is not product but process, and that the reasons for the very existence of the Negro Leagues are worthy of our study.”

The MLB is also planning to honor the Negro Leagues in June by playing its first-ever game at a longtime Negro Leagues field (which you can learn more about in a new podcast from NPR station WWNO).

The St. Louis Cardinals will play the San Francisco Giants at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., the oldest professional ballpark in the U.S. and former home of the Birmingham Black Barons.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.