MLB is Adding Negro League Stats to its Historic Record. Is That the Best Way to Honor Negro League Players?  

Baseball is the oldest sport in this country – America’s pastime – and as a byproduct, the best and most documented sport as well. Then-New York Clipper sportswriter Henry Chadwick printed one of earliest iterations of the box score in 1859 – documenting runs, hits, outs, assists, and errors of one of his local teams, the Brooklyn Excelsiors. This was a great way to illustrate what happened in the game in an era without the modern technology used today. Since that day, statistics have been meticulously collected and used to compare and contrast different eras of Major League Baseball.

After May 29, those history books will never look the same. Major League Baseball officially “elevated the Negro Leagues to ‘Major League’ status” in December 2020. Now, MLB is combining Negro League statistics into its historical record despite fierce opposition to integrating baseball at the time the games occurred. This move is a step in the right direction but ultimately a half-measure in documenting the history of the rise and fall of Black baseball.

The Negro Leagues should be recognized, and deserve the respect of being touted as one of the best leagues in the world at the time. Its former players deserve pensions and back pay from the MLB, which excluded those players for years. The recent addition to the MLB pension fund is allowing the league to move in the right direction but it’s incomplete. As Negro League expert and historian Larry Lester told, “The Negro Leagues were a product of segregated America, created to give opportunity where opportunity did not exist.” There’s no doubt that some Negro League players would have the best in Major League baseball.

Josh Gibson, who surpassed Babe Ruth to be the new career leader in slugging percentage (.718) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.777) with the integration of stats, was the only man who hit a ball out of the old Yankee stadium.

josh gibson
Josh Gibson, 1945. Image: Bettmann / Contributor.

Could James “Cool Papa” Bell, a career .331 switch hitter with 330 stolen bases in 1,468 career games, have patrolled center field at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park instead of bouncing around from the Negro National League to the Dominican Republic to the Mexican League back to the Negro American League? Of course.

There’s little doubt Satchel Paige would have dominated the Major Leagues. No pitcher in professional baseball had a higher strikeouts per nine innings ratio than Paige from 1927 to 1947, and when Paige made his Major League debut in 1948 at 42 years old, he finished with a 2.48 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 72 and 2/3rds innings pitched.

From the integration of baseball in 1947 to 1961, 10 of the 14 National League MVP awards went to Black ballplayers: Robinson (1949), Roy Campenella (1951, 1953, and 1955), Willie Mays (1954), Don Newcombe (1956), Hank Aaron (1957), Ernie Banks (1958-59), Frank Robinson (1961) – all former Negro Leaguers.

Combining the statistics pays homage to those players, but paints over how these leagues were stolen from in both personnel and strategy – a point that cannot be lost to history.

“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. So we are extremely pleased with this announcement. And for us, it does give additional credence to how significant the Negro Leagues were, both on and off the field,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick told

Dennis Biddle, one of the youngest members of the Negro Leagues, recounted this memory in a speech at Mesa Community College in 2018. “The style, the technique of play [in the Negro Leagues] was different than that of the major leagues,” he says. “Thousands of people would come out to watch [Negro Leagues games] because of that. “It was more exciting, more daring… owners and managers from the Major Leagues would sneak into our games, study the techniques we were using, and implement them.”

negro leagues
Image: Clarence Gatson/Gado / Contributor.

Both Black and White baseball changed forever when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rickey found the Negro Leagues to be illegitimate and “in the zone of a racket” and as a result, sent no compensation to the Monarchs.

Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, outlined the practice in a 1977 interview. “When he [Rickey] took those three Negro ballplayers from Negro baseball and didn’t give us five cents or say ‘thank you’— Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe—we couldn’t protest. The fans would have never forgiven us, plus it would have been wrong to have prevented them from going to the Majors.”

After 1947, such subterfuge described by Biddle was no longer necessary. After Major League general managers picked through the top talent, the Negro Leagues folded in 1960 – after operating as a defacto minor league from 1948 to 1960. The biggest reason baseball is truly “America’s pastime” is everyone played the sport during segregation. The United States has not been able to sustain two professional leagues in the same sport for any extended period of time since.

Instead of the MLB manipulating its historical record to show equality, it should promote the rich history of Black baseball in America. Pensions and back pay should not be limited just to those living and who played in the Negro Leagues for less than four seasons, instead for all Negro Leagues. It should elevate the stories told by Dennis Biddle and other historians who dedicated their lives to ensuring the stories, both oral and written, lived on while the leagues died. It should create more events and awareness besides Jackie Robinson Day and a few throwback jerseys. But for now, congratulations to Josh Gibson – the “new” all-time batting leader.

Updated: May 30, 2024 — 9:02 am