MLB Gains New Stat Leaders by Integrating Negro Leagues Data

    In 2020, Major League Baseball officially declared that the Negro Leagues were on equal footing with the players of the MLB, a move that foreshadowed their formal announcement on May 29. In a historic reshuffling of the story of baseball itself, Negro Leagues legends like Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson now sit in their proper places as all-time statistical category leaders. 

    As The Athletic reported, John Thorn, the MLB’s official historian, believes that the time is right, particularly because the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants are scheduled to play a game at a historic Negro Leagues stadium, Rickwood Field, in June. Thorn also estimated that around 75% of Negro Leagues box scores have been added, and as more are tallied, the numbers will update accordingly. 

    Larry Lester, a Negro Leagues researcher and author who served on the committee responsible for collecting the statistics, told the outlet that the move might make some people uncomfortable.

    “People will be, I don’t know if upset is the word, but they may be uncomfortable with some Negro League stars now on the leaderboards for career and seasons. Diehards may not accept the stats, but that’s OK. I welcome the conversations at the bar, the barbershop or the pool hall. That’s why we do what we do.”

    Lester also explained why barnstorming games, or games the Negro Leagues teams typically played against Major League competition or local teams in rapid succession, would not count toward the statistics. 

    “For example, the Kansas City Monarchs travel to Chicago, and once they get into town, they play as many games as possible,” Lester said. “So instead of a three-game series, they play five — and on the way there, they might stop in Moline and play the local team to pick up some change.”

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    Lester continued, “Based on players that I’ve interviewed, they say they played almost every day, sometimes two or three games a day, and not in the same location. So they were playing probably 150 to 175 games a year, but only 60 to 80 games counted in the league standings.”

    Arguably, the biggest beneficiary of the reshuffled statistical records is Josh Gibson, who many baseball scholars and historians consider the greatest hitter ever to pick up a baseball bat. Gibson is now acknowledged as the all-time career leader in batting average, (.372) slugging percentage, (.718), and On Base Plus Slugging (1.177). As Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick says in Gibson’s “Storylines” introduction in MLB The Show 24, “There are many who call (Gibson) the Black Babe Ruth, but there are others who saw Josh swing that big bat of his, who would call Ruth the white Josh Gibson.” In fact, Kendrick says during the presentation that in exhibition games against Major League competition, Gibson batted over .420. 

    Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean Gibson, told USA Today that it’s important not only to their family but to the many Black baseball players who never got an opportunity to showcase their talent on an integrated baseball diamond.

    “When you hear Josh Gibson’s name now, it’s not just that he was the greatest player in the Negro Leagues,” Sean Gibson said, “but one of the greatest of all time. These aren’t just Negro League stats. They’re major-league baseball stats. This means so much for not only the Josh Gibson family but representing the 2,300 men in the Negro Leagues who didn’t get the opportunity to play [in the Major Leagues].”

    Lester also told The Athletic that though some baseball purists may be upset at the inclusion of the Negro Leagues players, one thing they could not deny was the work and the numbers. 

    “It takes me roughly 30 minutes to input one box score — line by line, number by number, and then I run data integrity checks at the end of the season,” Lester said. “I roughly have about 16,000 box scores in my database, so it took years to perform the task. But it’s fun. We welcome the critics, the doubters. But we know the numbers are solid.”

    Lester continued, responding to several potential criticisms. Decades back, Lester said, he was told “that African-Americans were apathetic about recording baseball history.” Lester told The Athletic that it was a point of pride to prove that stereotype false and to bring the names of Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Bullet Rogan, and others into the light as he did it. 

    Lester added, “Critics will say, ‘Well, (Gibson) only played against other Black teams.’ Well, Babe Ruth never hit a home run off a Black pitcher, and Josh Gibson never hit a home run off a white pitcher. So I guess my point is, the amount of melanin or the lack thereof does not indicate the greatness of a ballplayer.”

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