NEW YORK – Thousands of baseball players are finally going to get their due as major leaguers, held back for generations because of the game’s “unwritten rule” of desegregation.
Major League Baseball, noting that it was “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history,” announced Wednesday it was reclassifying the Negro Leagues to major league status. In a news release, MLB said it will include records from the seven leagues that made up the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948. Those leagues produced 35 Hall of Famers.
The elevation of the leagues to major league status occurs on the centennial of the Negro Leagues’ founding. The leagues began to dissolve shortly after Jackie Robinson became MLB’s first Black player in the modern era of baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
MLB’s decision means that the statistics of Negro League greats such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and nearly 3,400 other players will be accorded major league status. It also means that the major league records of Hall of Famers such as Willie Mays and Monte Irvin will be adjusted to reflect their Negro Leagues statistics.
The seven leagues that MLB is adding are the Negro National League (first version, 1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the Negro National League (second version, 1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48).
“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,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in the statement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
“The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates prior to Satchel Paige’s induction in 1971,” John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, said in the release. “Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”
The move was the result of years of study by researchers from the Seamheads Negro League Database, including historian Larry Lester, a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, as well as Gary Ashwill, Scott Simkus, Mike Lynch and Kevin Johnson, The New York Times reported. The group examined newspaper reports, box scores and other historical records to compile statistics, The Washington Post reported. The decision also took into consideration research by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Society for American Baseball Research.
Wednesday’s decision amends the decision of MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee — a five-person, all-white group commissioned in 1969 to codify the historical standards that define the major leagues, the Post reported. That committee awarded major league status to six leagues, including the Union Association (1884) and Players League (1890), which only lasted one season; and the Federal League (1914-1915).
“It is MLB’s view that the Committee’s 1969 omission of the Negro Leagues from consideration was clearly an error that demands today’s designation,” MLB said in the statement.
MLB will work with the Elias Sports Bureau to review Negro Leagues statistics and records and will determine how to incorporate those figures into major league history, ESPN reported. There was no streamlined method of record-keeping for the Negro Leagues, but there are enough box scores and records, the network reported.
“The Elias Sports Bureau supports Major League Baseball in its conferral of Major League status on the Negro Leagues,” John Labombarda, Head of the Editorial Department at the Elias Sports Bureau,” said in the statement. “We look forward to working with John Thorn and the people who worked on the research and construction of the Seamheads Negro Leagues database.”
Mays could be credited with 16 hits from his 1948 season with the Alabama Black Barons. Irvin, a teammate of Mays’ with the New York Giants, could see his career average climb from .293 to .304 if his career numbers recorded at Baseball-Reference.com from his nine Negro League seasons are accurate. Paige, who is credited with 28 major league wins, could add at least 146 to his total, ESPN reported.
MLB’s decision was welcome news for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, although Bob Kendrick, the museum’s president, said the leagues were already legitimate to those who competed in them, the Times reported.
“For historical merit, today it is extraordinarily important,” Kendrick said in a statement. “Having been around so many of the Negro League players, they never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them. But for fans and for historical sake, this is significant — it really is.”
Depending on what Elias and MLB rule, though, Gibson could be awarded a notable record. His .441 batting average in 1943 would be the best season mark ever, edging Hugh Duffy’s .440 from 1894, ESPN reported. Gibson’s line came in fewer than 80 games, however.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled by this recognition of the significance of the Negro Leagues in Major League Baseball history,” Edward Schauder, legal representative for Gibson’s estate and co-founder of the Negro Leagues Players Association, told ESPN. “Josh Gibson was a legend who would have certainly been a top player in the major leagues if he had been allowed to play.”
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