Become a Patron!

MLB honors Negro Leagues legends by integrating their stats, celebrating African American baseball history, and recognizing extraordinary achievements.

By Darius Spearman (africanelements) | June 1, 2024

Support African Elements at patreon.com/africanelements and hear recent news in a continuous playlist. Additionally, you can gain early access to ad-free video content.

Major League Baseball Recognizes Negro Leagues Statistics in Historic Move

The fourth Negro League All-Star Game, a battle between the best of the East and West at Chicago's Comiskey Park on August 23, 1936. The game featured Baseball Hall of Famers such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, and Biz Mackey, each of whom is pictured here.
The fourth Negro League All Star Game a battle between the best of the East and West at Chicagos Comiskey Park on August 23 1936 The game featured Baseball Hall of Famers such as Josh Gibson Satchel Paige Cool Papa Bell Willard Brown and Biz Mackey each of whom is pictured here Image public domain

In a groundbreaking decision, Major League Baseball (MLB) has officially incorporated the statistics of more than 2,300 Negro Leagues players into its historical record. This move, announced on Wednesday, marks a significant milestone in acknowledging the accomplishments of Black baseball players who were excluded from playing in the major leagues due to racial segregation (SOURCE: MLB).

Josh Gibson Crowned as MLB’s All-Time Batting Leader

The most notable impact of this integration is the ascension of Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson to the top of MLB’s all-time leaderboards. Gibson, a catcher who played primarily for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, now holds the highest career batting average (.372), slugging percentage (.718), and OPS (1.177) in MLB history, surpassing the records previously held by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth (SOURCE: AP News).

Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean Gibson, expressed his excitement about the recognition, stating:

“When you hear Josh Gibson’s name now, it’s not just that he was the greatest player in the Negro Leagues, but one of the greatest of all time. These aren’t just Negro League stats. They’re major-league baseball stats.” (SOURCE: USA Today)

The Negro Leagues: A Bittersweet Chapter in Baseball History

The Negro leagues were a collection of professional baseball leagues formed in the early 20th century. They served as a beacon of hope and resilience for African American players. However, racial segregation excluded these players from the major and minor leagues. From their humble beginnings in the 1920s to their eventual decline in the late 1940s, the Negro leagues left an indelible mark. Their impact extended beyond baseball and into the African American community.

The Early Days and the Negro National League’s Formation

African Americans began playing baseball in the late 1800s on various teams. However, the rise of racism and “Jim Crow” laws forced them to form their own teams by 1900. Consequently, these teams “barnstormed” across the country, playing anyone who would challenge them (SOURCE: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum).

On February 13, 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster and other team owners took a historic step. They established the Negro National League (NNL) in Kansas City, initially consisting of eight teams (SOURCE: Baseball Hall of Fame). Later, in 1923, the Eastern Colored League (ECL) emerged as a rival league (SOURCE: Britannica).

The Golden Age: A Showcase of Exceptional Talent

The 1920s through 1940s marked the golden age of the Negro leagues. From 1920 to 1948, the Negro Leagues consisted of seven leagues and approximately 3,400 Black and Latino players who were denied the opportunity to play in the American and National Leagues (SOURCE: NPR).

During this time, legendary players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell showcased their incredible talents. Moreover, the leagues gained prominence, attracting large crowds and featuring exciting events. One such event was the East-West All-Star Game, which rivaled the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in popularity (SOURCE: MLB.com).

During this era, the NNL and ECL met in the Colored World Series from 1924-1927. Additionally, the Negro World Series took place between the champions of the NNL and Negro American League (NAL) from 1942-1948 (SOURCE: Wikipedia).

The Decline and Demise of the Negro Leagues

The signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 marked a turning point. When he broke the MLB color barrier in 1947, it signaled the beginning of the end for the Negro leagues. As more star players were recruited by MLB teams, the quality of play in the Negro leagues diminished. Consequently, Black fans followed their favorite players to the major leagues (SOURCE: Philadelphia Phillies – MLB.com).

The NNL folded after the 1948 season. Although the NAL continued to operate until 1962, it was a mere shadow of its former self. The Indianapolis Clowns, the last Negro league team, ceased operations in the 1980s (SOURCE: Wikipedia).

A Legacy of Resilience and Excellence

The Negro leagues not only showcased exceptional talent on par with white major leaguers but also served as the heart of African American communities. They drove economic development in cities across the country (SOURCE: National Endowment for the Humanities). Over their history, the leagues produced more than 30 players who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (SOURCE: MLB.com).

In December 2020, MLB took a significant step by granting the Negro leagues “major league” status. They also announced that they would incorporate the leagues’ statistics into the historical record (SOURCE: Wikipedia). This recognition serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of the Negro leagues and the players who showcased their excellence in the face of adversity.

The leagues’ demise was ultimately a positive step for integration. However, it also represented the bittersweet end of an era and the loss of thriving African American institutions. Today, the few remaining Negro league stadiums stand as monuments to this significant chapter in baseball and American history.

Acknowledging the Legacy of the Negro Leagues

The incorporation of Negro Leagues statistics into MLB’s record books serves as a long-overdue acknowledgment of the significant contributions made by Black players during the era of segregation. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred emphasized the importance of this decision, stating:

“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s finest players, innovations, and triumphs against the backdrop of injustice.” (SOURCE: NPR)

Ongoing Research and Future Updates

MLB estimates that the available Negro Leagues records from 1920 to 1948 are just shy of 75% complete, implying that further changes to the leaderboards could be on the horizon as more data is uncovered and verified (SOURCE: USA Today).

The 17-person Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, chaired by MLB’s official historian John Thorn, has been tasked with reviewing thousands of box scores, data, and information to integrate the provable statistics from the Negro Leagues into the MLB database (SOURCE: The New York Times).

This historic decision by Major League Baseball is a significant step towards recognizing the true scope of baseball history and ensuring that the accomplishments of Negro Leagues players are celebrated alongside those of their white counterparts in the annals of America’s pastime.

About the author

Darius Spearman has been a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at africanelements.org.