Posted on December 17, 2020

MLB Retrospectively Elevates Negro Leagues to Major League Status

Jared Diamond, Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2020

Major League Baseball announced Wednesday that it was “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history” by elevating the Negro Leagues from 1920 through 1948 to major-league status, a move that recognizes the sport’s long-excluded Black pioneers and immediately rewrites baseball’s record books.

Roughly 3,400 Black and Latino players from seven distinct leagues, who were barred from joining the segregated National and American Leagues, will now be classified as “major-leaguers,” alongside white stars of the era. All statistics and records for those players will become part of MLB’s official history.


“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said.


Black representation at the top level of baseball has waned in recent years, falling to about 8% of MLB, down from nearly 20% in the 1980s. In response, more than 100 current and former Black players have formed the Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing Black participation in the sport. The group believes that increased visibility on the history of Black baseball will help its efforts.


The question of how baseball should treat Black players from the era of the Negro Leagues has been an ongoing question for decades. Ahead of the publication of the first edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” in 1969, commissioner William Eckert convened the Special Baseball Records Committee to settle issues related to baseball’s statistics, which were filled with discrepancies. That group gave major-league status to six leagues dating back to 1876, including some in which the quality of play was lower than that of the Negro Leagues.

The panel, comprised entirely of white men, never considered the candidacy of the Negro Leagues, relegating the contributions of many players kept out of MLB because of racism to secondary status. That ruling remained in effect until Wednesday, when MLB said that the “committee’s 1969 omission of the Negro Leagues from consideration was clearly an error that demands today’s designation.”


“We can’t undo the past, and we can’t redo the past,” said John Thorn, MLB’s official historian. “What this gesture does is to make amends, insofar as amends may be made.”

Beyond the symbolism of the move, this new designation will fundamentally alter MLB’s record books, sometimes in complicated—and potentially controversial—ways.

Some of these are simple: Willie Mays, for instance, had 17 hits in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, according to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, a key source MLB used in reaching its decision. Those are expected to be added to Mays’s 3,283 hits in the NL. {snip}


Others are more complicated and will undoubtedly spark debate for years. For example, Ted Williams has for eight decades been recognized as the last man to hit .400 in MLB. His .406 batting average for the Boston Red Sox in 1941 is a statistic permanently etched in the fabric of the sport, standing for generations as one of the pinnacles of athletic achievement.

However, Gibson, the Hall-of-Fame catcher known for his time with the Homestead Grays, hit .441 in 1943, albeit in just 281 at-bats. That would mean that Gibson would not only top Williams, but would surpass Hugh Duffy’s .440 for the 1894 Boston Beaneaters for the best single-season batting average ever.