In just this past week, Major League Baseball made a monumental shift in the way that fans will think about baseball history forever more. As first reported at The Ringer, the organizations known historically as the Negro Leagues as they were run from 1920 to 1948 are now considered part of Major League Baseball history.
Black players and teams cast out will now be considered on the same level as the American and National League that played throughout those same years. The likes of Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and countless others will be considered on the same level playing field as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Lefty Grove. If they couldn’t play on the same field in their lifetimes, at least we can consider their numbers and history as equals.
And that’s exactly how they should be considered. Equals. There is absolutely nothing of historical value that would suggest in any way that the level of skill performed in the Negro Leagues was anything less than what was achieved by their white counterparts.
Schedules may have been irregular. League operations may have been chaotic. Barnstorming might have been the bread and butter of a lot of the Negro League teams’ operations, but even those barnstorming runs would prove fruitful in proving the Negro League’s worth. One study referenced in this Bleacher Report article suggests that Negro League teams even held a record of 132-110 against teams of white professionals in their barnstorming affairs. We also know that barnstorming for Negro League players was no picnic. The league and its teams lived off of volume, often traveling to two separate city for a doubleheader on the same day with buses full of rest-deprived players. One account suggests that the Kansas City Monarchs traveled the country playing at least one game for 40 straight days. Any effort to defeat white professional teams on these trips was likely all that much harder due to the difference in comfort and resources.
Further, consider that the American and National Leagues of the time were in fact their own separate entities with their own league presidents underneath the umbrella of the Commissioner. This practice continued throughout the 20th century. The fact that the Negro League was a separate entity is irrelevant.
Consider that at times Negro League teams would actually outsell the American or National League teams that they would shared ballparks with. If fan interest or admission numbers are a matter to be considered in whether the Negro Leagues were “Major” or not, they certainly pass.
Consider that MLB already considers other early baseball leagues like the American Association, Union Association (1884), Players League (1890) and Federal League (1914 and 1915) as Major Leagues based on the pull those leagues were able to have on star players and in turn the caliber of play those players caused. The Negro Leagues too have a rich history of high-quality talent. Immediately following integration in the years 1948 to 1950, Jackie Robinson, a former member of the Negro Leagues, had the 3rd highest Wins Above Replacement for position players in AL/NL baseball only behind Stan Musial and Ted Williams. The first black player in the American League, Larry Doby (Negro League stats, including a 174 OPS+ in 64 games in 1946 here), is listed as 10th on the same list. Starting in that same year of 1948, 10 of the following 15 National League Most Valuable Players were black (mind you, at a time when perhaps there was still some bias against them in the voting as well). All but two of those ten awards were won by a Negro Leaguer. If that isn’t the definition of having star players, then I don’t know what is.
Consider that there is not a single solitary thing besides their skin color that kept them off of the field for AL/NL play before 1947. Literally. Sincerely think about that. Did the Negro Leagues suddenly start spontaneously developing high caliber talent in the late 1940s? I don’t think so. If there was no color barrier and players like Gibson or Bell were able to play for the Yankees or Cardinals, there is absolutely no reason we are having this conversation today.
So, what does this all mean? It means that MLB has taken a small step to right a wrong that will never be fully righted. I can only speak for myself, but for me it means that the way I think about baseball history is going to absolutely change. This isn’t all bad. There is a whole new side of the game that I knew existed but have never really explored. It should not take a step like this by MLB, but perhaps this can be the impetus for baseball fans all over to think differently. 1927 doesn’t just have the champion Murderer’s Row New York Yankees. It also has the Negro League Champion Chicago American Giants. Bob Feller (who often spoke of the high caliber of players he barnstormed against that were Negro League counterparts) is no longer the only man to pitch a no-hitter on Opening Day, now being accompanied by Leon Day. Those are only two examples of many.
Unfortunately, and for no good reason that I can think of, the thought never crossed my mind to ever consider the stats or happenings of the Negro Leagues to be on par with the American and National Leagues. I regret that. I should have known better. We all should have known better. This speaks to a larger lesson about how those with power and privilege get to decide what is “legitimate” and what isn’t. Even now with this distinction that Major League Baseball is rightfully making to include the Negro Leagues in their history, what really gives MLB the power to legitimize the Negro Leagues? What inherent superiority do they hold that suggests that they are able to do that?
I guess the answer to that would be that MLS is the one that still exists. Still, what’s to keep an organization such as the Negro League Hall of Fame from responding to MLB’s statement and saying “we now see you as equals too”? I once again can only suppose, and in that supposition my answer is that the people of the Negro Leagues and those that now support their history never felt that vile kind of ill will or distaste for their white counterparts despite receiving it themselves. They knew what we didn’t. That all these players were Major Leaguers no matter their color. And they knew it literally a century ago.