Negro Leagues Baseball Records To Prevail Over MLB Records
Print Friendly and PDF

From the Washington Post news section:

Josh Gibson will dominate MLB’s record book as Negro Leagues stats are added

Starting Wednesday, the Homestead Grays star will stand atop MLB’s career leader boards in batting average and slugging percentage.

By Chelsea Janes
Updated May 28, 2024 at 8:31 p.m. EDT

Baseball history will change forever Wednesday. Major League Baseball plans to officially incorporate Negro Leagues statistics into its record book, according to a person familiar with the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity Tuesday night because MLB was planning an announcement for Wednesday morning.

The move comes 3½ years after MLB said it would consider the Negro Leagues as major leagues, meaning all Negro leaguers would be considered major leaguers from that point forward. On Wednesday, the players from Negro Leagues in operation from 1920 to 1948 will be fully incorporated into MLB’s statistical record.

Just one example: When looking up the highest career batting averages in MLB’s record book, the leader will be Josh Gibson, whose average of .372 in Negro Leagues play is higher than the .367 Ty Cobb posted to lead all MLB players.

Gibson, the Homestead Grays star with legendary power whose career was cut short when he suffered a stroke and died at 35 in 1947, will be at the top of several lists. His .718 slugging percentage is higher than the .690 that kept Babe Ruth as the leader for nearly a century. And the .466 batting average he accumulated with the 1943 Grays is higher than Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894 — and 60 points higher than Ted Williams’s legendary mark of .406 in 1941.

There’s no question that the Negro Leagues greats were among the best ballplayers of all time. For example, Satchel Paige signed a Major League contract with the Cleveland Indians on his 42nd birthday in August 1948 for $20,000 per month, the highest in all of baseball: Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were being paid $11,000 per month. Paige then brought in the biggest crowds in baseball history, up to 78,000, and went 6-1 with a fine 2.48 ERA. Four seasons later in his mid-40s he made the American League All Star team.

Still. I think that MLB is missing the point of MLB statistics, which is that they are a fairly standardized product: since 1901, 16 to 30 teams have played 154-162 games per season, with schedules being fairly balanced. And they have all the box scores. This means you can make good quantitative arguments on all sorts of baseball questions.

Granted, records have diminished in importance as we have a better sense now of how much conditions have changed. For example, statistics for most wins by a pitcher in a season have fallen steadily since Old Hoss Radbourn’s 60 in 1884. Nobody has won 30 since Denny McClain in the pitcher’s year of 1968. Justin Verlander’s 24 in 2011 is the most in the last 20 years, and seems increasingly antediluvian.

But some records are still fun, such as the American League home run record, set by Babe Ruth in 1927 with 60, famously topped by Roger Maris in 1961 with 61, and finally broken in 2022 by Aaron Judge with 62.

Moreover, the outstanding completeness of MLB stats means we can continually come up with more sophisticated numbers to argue about. For example, how good was 20-year-old pitcher Dwight Gooden’s 1985 season: 24-4 and 1.53 ERA (along with good hitting and base-running: I saw him knock a pitch over the outfielder’s head at Wrigley Field and he likely could have had a triple)?

Baseball Reference says Gooden’s 1985 was the fourth best in terms of Wins Above Replacement since 1901 at 13.3 behind only two of Walter Johnson’s and one of Babe Ruth’s. On the other hand, FanGraphs argues that Gooden was a lucky pitcher in 1985, with players hitting into more than the expected number of outs, with his WAR only 9.7.

Thus, it’s not hard for a baseball fan to remember that hitting .300 in 1930 wasn’t as much of an achievement as hitting .300 in 1968.

Similarly, if you say that somebody hit 30 homers in 1948 or in 1988, I may not know off the top of my head how that compares to MLB averages in those years, but I can guess realistically that 30 homers is a good but not great total.

In contrast, people don’t pay much attention to the history of college football or college basketball statistics because they change a lot over time, because team schedules are wildly different, and because sample sizes are small.

In contrast, the best efforts of sabermetricians have only come up with about 75% of the box scores of Negro League games. And the number of games per season is much smaller and thus single season rate records are more extreme.

In contrast, if you tell me that Josh Gibson batted an all-time record .372, well, I dunno. Baseball Reference credits Gibson with 2,168 at-bats in his lifetime, compared to Ty Cobb’s 11,440 AB.

Obviously, Josh Gibson was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. But when I read about him, I note that his accomplishments tended to be popularly recorded, like those of Paul Bunyan: Gibson hit a 520-foot home run here and a 560-foot home run there. From Wikipedia:

It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro league game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate.[citation needed] Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left-field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium.[citation needed] There is no published or film account to support this claim. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium‘s distant left field bleachers than the entire American League.[17] A 2020 article published by the Society for American Baseball Research provides the supporting details for his homers in major league parks.[18]

His fans weren’t really into close analysis of his statistics. And that’s fine. I can quite believe he was the greatest catcher of all time, but I also don’t think we know enough to enter into the kind of debates we have over Bench vs. Carter or Berra vs. Dickey.

How many games did Gibson play in 1943 when he is said to have hit .466? Whom did he play against? How badly was competition hurt by the war? In the MLB, virtually all the inner circle Hall of Famers like Feller, DiMaggio, Williams, and Spahn were in uniform, everybody except Musial. But I have no clue about the Negro Leagues. MLB offensive stats were down in 1943, probably because of fewer and poorer quality baseballs being put into play. Were they playing with extra-bouncy rubber coated baseballs in the Negro Leagues that year? Beats me.

I don’t know that much about Josh Gibson’s career, but I see that Satchel Paige, the most famous Negro Leagues pitcher, only played in the Negro Leagues for five of the 10 seasons during the 1930s, the heart of his career. He intermittently skipped out of the Negro Leagues to play in North Dakota’s integrated semi-pro league, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.

In contrast, Major League Baseball had a virtual monopoly on all the best white players during this period. The main exception I can think of is that of Lefty Grove, the best pitcher between the wars, who spent five seasons, age 20-24, with the then minor league Baltimore Orioles, because the owner of the Orioles, Jack Dunn, was valiantly resisting St. Louis Cardinal executive Branch Rickey’s cunning plan to reduce minor league teams to farm teams servicing the big league clubs at the cost of their own aspirations to put on exciting teams. Dunn regretted selling Babe Ruth to the Boston Red Sox in 1914 and thus resolved to hold on to Grove from 1920-1924.

Dunn envisioned a setup more like soccer in England today, in which excellent lower division clubs can move up to the Premiere League rather than the extreme stability of the MLB.

Dunn lost to Rickey, which is probably unfortunate, but one by-product is that MLB statistics are remarkably comprehensible. The same cannot be said for Negro League stats.

Similarly, what about Japanese statistics? Japanese baseball is usually considered roughly in-between American Triple A minor league and American MLB baseball, with the best Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani, being sensational even by American standards. In 1985, Pete Rose famously broke Ty Cobb’s career base hit record. But if you credit Ichiro with both his MLB and Japanese hits, then he is the career record holder.

[Comment at]

Print Friendly and PDF