At its core, baseball is a game of numbers, typified by the familiar phrase: “You are what the back of your baseball card says you are.”
For the better part of three decades, Black baseball players competed on identical fields under the same rules as their white counterparts, but were considered inferior — even if their style of play and level of competition said otherwise.
Last December, Major League Baseball took a giant step toward correcting that by officially elevating the Negro Leagues to major league status.
The transformation takes another step forward Tuesday with Negro League statistics now listed alongside those of the American League and National League on Baseball-Reference.com.
“This is an opportunity for America to learn about some of the greatest ballplayers who’ve ever played the game. They just happened to be of a darker complexion,” says Larry Lester, co-founder of Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
While the website has displayed the statistics of Negro League players for at least a decade, the most visible changes can be seen among the official single-season and career record leaderboards — with great Negro Leaguers such as Josh Gibson (who hit .466 in 1943) and Satchel Paige (who had a 0.72 ERA in 1944) featured prominently.
With assistance from the Society for American Baseball Research, Seamheads.com and the families of the former Negro League players, the project has now become a reality — even if it’s far from complete.
“Much remains to be done,” says Sports Reference president Sean Forman. “Statistics on our site will change as new information is discovered.”
With charismatic players and an exciting style of play, Negro Leagues history has long been celebrated in baseball lore. But the actual statistics have been hard to track down.
“For many years, we’ve heard those great stories. Some of it’s folklore and some of it’s embellished truth. Those truths have long been a staple of Negro League stats and narrative,” Lester says. “While these stories can be entertaining, now a dialogue can include quantified and qualified stats to support the authentic greatness of these great athletes like Josh Gibson.
“The beauty of the stats is that they now humanize these folk heroes. These stats legitimize their accomplishments.”
However, numbers can’t tell the whole story. For starters, the Negro Leagues played far fewer games in a season than the major leagues did. But by using stats that adjust for league averages and ballparks, it’s easier to compare players from different eras.
For example, the career OPS+ (adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage) leaderboard looks like this:
1. Babe Ruth 206
2. Ted Williams 191
3. Oscar Charleston 184
4. Barry Bonds 182
5. Lou Gehrig 179
Yes, that’s Negro Leagues star Charleston (1920-41) behind only the Sultan of Swat and the Splendid Splinter. Fellow Negro Leaguers Turkey Stearnes (177) and Mule Suttles (172) also rank among the top 10.
Lester says there’s even more information about the great Negro Leaguers just waiting to be verified by official records.
“I am so frustrated that we have not been able to find a box score in 1938 when Josh Gibson hit four home runs,” Lester says. “We have three newspaper accounts of him hitting four home runs in Zanesville, Ohio, but those four home runs are not included in the final stats because we had to have a full box score so that the data can be balanced.”
That’s partly why Gibson won’t be found on the career home run list. His official total of 165 is far fewer than the “almost 800 home runs” that’s listed on his Hall of Fame plaque. But his rate of one homer every 13 at-bats compares favorably with legendary sluggers Ruth and Bonds.
And that’s the point.
“There were several conversations I used to always have about black and white. It was like Josh Gibson was one of the greatest Black baseball players,” Gibson’s great-grandson Sean Gibson says. “Now we can say Josh Gibson is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time.”
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