Negro Leagues became major league with the help of groundbreaking research
In many ways, the genesis of that proclamation can be traded to a group of authors and researchers who – with the backing of the Hall of Fame and MLB – began putting together the official Negro Leagues record two decades ago.
“Negro Leagues baseball only existed because of the bias of Major League Baseball. They had no choice but to create their own leagues, and they were modeled on Major League Baseball,” said Larry Lester, author of multiple books and articles on the history of Negro Leagues Baseball, and along with Larry Hogan and Dick Clark, served as a coordinator for the Negro Leagues Researchers and Authors (NLRAG) group during the first decade of the current millennium.
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Never before had such numbers on the Negro Leagues been organized in this fashion. The NLRAG, Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball did not want this material gathering dust on a library shelf, but it was rather expensive to produce a 9,700-page encyclopedia. So the spreadsheet was made available to Baseball-Reference.com, where it was loaded into their website and is available today – for free – to anyone with access to the internet.
According to Lester, “All indications were that the data was solid and comparable to MLB. On a year-to-year basis, there tends to be a variance of no more than five percent between MLB and NLB statistics.”
Not every player was a superstar, the Negro Leagues had their own collection of utility players, cup-of-coffee guys and others who were average ballplayers. Not everyone was of Hall of Fame caliber. But like MLB, those players that were stand out. Since 1971, many have been recognized with induction into the Hall of Fame.
Some myths were also shattered. For example, Josh Gibson is credited with only 113 home runs, but he achieved those in just 1,957 at bats. This is one homer for every 19 at bats, a ratio which places him in the same class with all the great home run hitters in major league history. This comparison proved to be a solid indication of the similar level of play between the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball.
In fact, the study resulted in the creation of a special committee which reviewed the data and elected 17 new Hall of Famers in 2006. This special committee included multiple members of NLRAG, so their work not only resulted in an expansion of baseball scholarship, but also in the addition of new members to the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery. Their efforts have forever added to the pantheon of baseball heroes.
It was not easy, but it was a labor of love for many on the NLRAG team. After the study was completed and the numbers submitted, many of these researchers continued digging, and the data at Baseball-Reference.com continues to be updated. There is also a comparable database at the Seamheads website. While the players from the Negro Leagues are the heroes of this story, the individual researchers involved in this massive and continuing project should also receive their share of the accolades for this wonderful contribution to baseball history.
“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. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record,” said Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred.
The announcement mentioned Lester and others, and gives full credit for their combined efforts that help make this decision a reality.
“Negro Leagues players used the same baseballs as Major League Baseball, they ordered their bats from Louisville Slugger, their uniforms came from Wilson, they played at major league ballparks, using the same game rules,” Lester said. “The basic infrastructure of the game was the same. That they were a major league is not debatable. The only difference was the color of their skin.”
James L. Gates is the Librarian Emeritus at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum