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MLB has integrated Negro Leagues stats. Is it too little, too late?

<span>Josh Gibson in an undated photograph.</span><span>Photograph: AP</span>
Josh Gibson in an undated photograph.Photograph: AP

As Bob Kendrick, president of the Kansas City-based Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, tells it, baseball’s all-time hit king had eyes like Ted Williams and power like Babe Ruth.

“For me, his greatest feat of all is hitting a ball into the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium,” says Kendrick. “They say he was circling the bases and just giggling. He was the kind of guy who was so strong that he could poke you in the arm and it would hurt, but he didn’t know he was hurting you.”

The indomitable Josh Gibson, nicknamed the Black Babe Ruth, managed all this while swinging a bat that measured 40 ounces and 41 inches – about 25% bigger than today’s big leagues bats. “You got to be a man,” adds Kendrick, “to swing that kind of lumber.”

Officially, Gibson is now the man, after Major League Baseball announced the incorporation of records from the Negro Leagues, even though he never had an at-bat in the majors. The decision late last month to include more than 2,300 players followed a three-year research project, led by a special committee of Negro Leagues experts and statisticians.

Related: Willie Mays, baseball’s towering legend and all-time Giants great, dies aged 93

MLB’s new stats database will formally launch before a special tribute game between the St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants on Thursday at Alabama’s Rickwood Field, home to the Birmingham Black Barons, the team that launched Willie Mays, perhaps the finest player to ever pick up a bat and glove. Until his death on Tuesday at age 93, Mays – AKA the “Say Hey Kid” – was one of three surviving Negro Leagues players and baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer. MLB had already planned to pay special tribute Mays at a Negro Leagues commemorative game in absentia.

MLB’s statistical integration rights a wrong that had endured since Major League Baseball accepted Black players into its ranks in 1947, precipitating the Negro Leagues’ slow death the next year. Why it took nearly 80 years to integrate the stats is a matter of ongoing controversy, with critics accusing MLB of going woke, and some Black baseball fans feeling it all comes far too late in the day. Nevertheless, 77 years since he last swung his bat, Gibson, an imposing catcher and slugger once relegated to the shadows, now stands above the rest.

A gentle giant who loomed large behind the plate, whether crouched in front of the umpire or rolling up his sleeves to show off his massive biceps, Gibson overtook Ty Cobb in career batting average, surpassed Ruth in on-base plus slugging (a prominent advanced stat that measures a hitter’s ability to reach base and hit for average and power), and topped Barry Bonds’s single-season slugging percentage record, in two different years.

No US sport is more serious about its stats than baseball. Learned fans call up the most hallowed marks – Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs, Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average (ERA), Mays’s 660 homers, 339 steals and 7,769 putouts (from centerfield!) – as easily as their own phone numbers. Statistics for Negro Leagues players were just as painstakingly kept among teams and the Black press, which was no mean feat in a league where no set schedule was guaranteed to play out as planned.

“They had to scramble to keep afloat,” says John Thorn, the MLB house historian who chaired the 17-person committee that decided baseball’s stat integration. “If they played two or three games in a day and one was a league game and two were against integrated semi-pros, well, it was a paycheck.” Negro Leagues players barnstormed the country to make ends meet. They were forced into that hustle, adds Thorn, because of “MLB’s racism”.

Related: ‘A story that didn’t used to be told’: the rise and fall of baseball’s Negro Leagues

A 1969 committee on baseball records recognized six major leagues dating to 1876 – but excluded the Negro Leagues “for no reason”, Thorn says. “But while settling on those defunct rival leagues as equivalent of the major leagues, the subject of the Negro Leagues’ caliber of play was not really much of a question. Everyone agreed it was pretty darn good. That’s why I’ve taken to use the trope of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to describe the attitude toward Black baseball. It wasn’t so much racist animus as it was the feeling that they weren’t there.”

The Negro Leagues weren’t just an alternative pastime born from the two Americas that sprang up from segregation. As Sam Pollard shows in his 2023 documentary The League, the Negro Leagues teams were obvious indicators of thriving Black enclaves in major American cities. “We couldn’t go to major league games,” Pollard told me, “and if we did, we had to sit isolated, segregated from white audiences. So we created our own Black baseball teams, and that kept money circulating within our stores and funeral homes and the like, helping the community survive.”

It wasn’t until 2020, when Covid restrictions forced MLB to cut its schedule from 162 games to 60 (the baseline for an average Negro National League season) while making clear that the records generated during that span would be treated the same, that the league announced the integration of Negro League stats to correct “a longtime oversight”. Over the course of six meetings, Thorn’s MLB committee – which included representatives from the Negro Leagues database Seamheads, the MLB play-by-play archive Retrosheet and the Elias Sports Bureau, MLB’s official record keeper – pored over decades’ worth of game stories and box scores, separating out the inconsistencies among the stats (incongruent wins and losses) and stars (distinguishing among multiple players with the same name).

“In the end, once we acknowledged that a 60- to 80-game schedule may have been most frequent for Negro Leagues teams, we were able to empty a sliding, variable scale so that although the number of league-scheduled games per league, per team, per annum varied from year to year, what was constant is 3.1 plate appearances per scheduled game (to qualify for batting stats) and one inning pitched per scheduled game to qualify for ERA. Now the very same standards we used for white players we use for Black ones.”

Thorn says the current analysis isn’t the final word: “There will be a version 2.0, and it will be richer than what we have today.” Still, as overdue as these gestures are, there remains a contingency of Black baseball fans who feel as if this is too little, too late. Baseball stats have already been devalued after a number of players, including some Black players such as Bonds and Sammy Sosa, had their record-setting accomplishments invalidated during baseball’s steroid era.

MLB’s nod to the Negro Leagues comes as Black American representation in the major leagues is at a historically low ebb. A USA Today study found that on the opening day of the 2024 season only 5.7% of players were Black Americans, the lowest percentage since 1955, and that five teams didn’t have any Black American players. David Justice, a former all-star and World Series champion with the Atlanta Braves, chalks a lot of that up to the high cost of entry.

“There’s this thing called [youth] travel ball,” Justice explained to Fox Sports’ Keyshawn Johnson, a former NFL star who started out playing baseball, “and it costs a lot of money. A [proper] baseball bat costs $400. And if you don’t have the family, you don’t have the money. But I can go out here and grab that basketball, and we can go hoop all day.” Nevertheless, diversity has increased across the league, with Latino representation shooting up from a handful of players in 1948 to nearly 30% of players by opening day 2024.

The hope is that by finally integrating Gibson and other Negro Leaguers like Buck O’Neil (a Negro Leagues all-star first baseman turned MLB scout and coach) and Norman “Turkey” Stearnes (so nicknamed for his waddly flair for rounding the bases) into the official record, fans will connect with this hidden history and fall deeper in love with the game.

Sadly, Gibson, the second Black player inducted into baseball’s hall of fame, died of a brain tumor-induced stroke at age 35, months before Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color line in 1947. When longtime followers of Black baseball say there were far more talented players in the Negro Leagues than Robinson who could’ve made that same history, Gibson’s name usually comes up first. (Thorn says Branch Rickey, the visionary Dodgers general manager who brought Robinson in, “wanted someone with a college education”, believing Robinson’s years at the University of California at Los Angeles had better prepared him for white society.)

Yet in the mind of many baseball fans, Robinson and Gibson don’t compare because Gibson, despite stronger numbers, never crossed over to MLB. To Kendrick, that’s a bad-faith premise. “Someone on social media hit me and said: ‘Well, we just want to compare apples to apples,’” says Kendrick. “No major leaguer ever had to go through what these players in the Negro Leagues had to endure. Never had to worry about where they were going to get a meal, go to sleep. Never had to eat peanut butter and crackers on the bus, or get dressed underneath the stands because they couldn’t use the facility in the ballpark, couldn’t wash their uniforms. So it can never be apples to apples.”

For Cindy Cobb, Ty’s granddaughter, the record is straight. “I envision Turkey and Ty playing together in the outfield,” Cobb told ESPN. “Let’s never use the color of skin to separate people.”