The Negro leagues are major league, but MLB can’t claim them

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 Hall of Famers talent such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown and Biz Mackie. (Wikimedia)

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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 Hall of Famers talent such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown and Biz Mackie. (Wikimedia)

Larry Lester grew up watching the Kansas City Monarchs at the ballpark near his home in late 1950s and early ‘60s. The Negro leagues had declined by then because of MLB’s racial integration, but their legends were part of his community. Buck O’Neil’s wife, Ora, was one of Lester’s grade-school teachers, and his classmates included Satchel Paige’s children.

“This is a part of my DNA,” said Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in his hometown.

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Lester’s upbringing and love of numbers ended up combining to spark a pursuit that became central to his life. Lester said his ah-ha moment came when he discovered Robert Peterson’s 1970 book, “Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams.” Reading it sent Lester “down a rabbit hole” looking for information about legendary players he’d heard about from his neighbors.

“It all came to fruition to, that, ‘Hey, all this stuff is real’,” Lester said recently during a virtual panel discussion of Negro leagues experts hosted by Baseball Reference. “The stories that I’ve been hearing from the neighborhood elders, it’s true.”

Major League Baseball didn’t acknowledge that reality until more than 70 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut.

In December 2020, MLB announced that the seven Negro leagues that operated from 1920-48 would gain major league status in its historical record. MLB characterized its action as “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history.” That made it sound as if the omission were accidental when it really was purposeful.

Baseball’s white power structure kept Black players out of MLB until 1947. The white baseball community dismissed their accomplishments in the Negro leagues as coming against lesser competition. Paige was among the former Negro leaguers who debunked that racist myth once he got his chance. Decades later, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the Negro leagues had been “elevated” to major league status when they’d been there all along.

The white players in MLB’s pre-integration era weren’t facing all comers because Black players (and dark-skinned Latinos) were excluded. Many of the statistical records from MLB’s earliest era are incomplete. Yet the same people who considered the Negro leagues to be inferior, or questioned the veracity of its players’ records, didn’t question the accomplishments of those white players.

The Baseball Reference panelists said they welcomed MLB’s late embrace of the Negro leagues as major league. But “the stories and accomplishments and achievements of the Negro leagues are their own,” said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois. Burgos was a member of the special committee in 2006 that elected 17 individuals from the Negro leagues to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Major League Baseball does not get to claim it,” Burgos said. “As a historian, I firmly believe that we ought not give the segregationists the credit for what the Negro leagues had to fight so hard to do and to accomplish and to survive.”

The systemic racism that kept Black players out of MLB also hindered the operations and recognition of the Negro leagues. Teams played a short official schedule because they had to generate revenue via exhibition games and barnstorming tours. The playing conditions, wages and mainstream media coverage were lacking. But, as Lester found, the quality of play in the Negro leagues was high.

Lester’s awakening after reading Peterson’s book led him to search for the statistics of Monarch players. He went to his local library and retrieved back issues of the Kansas City Call, a Black newspaper, looking for information: box scores, articles, editorials. Local coverage was scarce when the Monarchs were on the road, so Lester used the interlibrary loan system to order microfilm of Black newspapers in each of the cities they played.

Lester said he ended up reading every relevant issue of those newspapers from 1920 through the 1950s. His research received a boost when he joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 1985 and connected with Richard “Dick” Clark. The pair began the time-consuming process of adding the statistical data collected by Lester into a searchable database.

The numbers backed up what Lester had heard from the Negro league veterans who lived in his community. They confirmed the stories he’d read by pioneering Black sportswriters such as Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith.

“These ballplayers are as great as they (say),” Lester said. “The stats prove that out.”

While making the announcement about MLB designating the Negro leagues as major, Manfred commended Lester and the researchers who built the Seamheads Negro League Database. The commissioner said the evidence compiled by those investigators and others exceeded the criteria MLB used in 1969 when it designated six leagues as “major” since 1876.

The announcement generated “tremendous excitement and a lot of confusion” among people who contacted the Negro Leagues Museum, curator Ray Doswell said. They were happy that the Negro leagues were gaining recognition as major leagues. They were unsure what it meant in relation to MLB’s statistical record. MLB said it’s working on that issue with the Elias Sports Bureau, in consultation with historians and researchers.

Doswell said people who contacted the museum were especially interested to find out if Braves great Hank Aaron’s numbers in the Negro leagues would become part of his MLB record.

“They want him to retake the lead over Barry Bonds in the home run race,” Doswell said.

Aaron played briefly for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952. That season isn’t included within the time frame that MLB designated the Negro leagues as major. The available statistical record shows that Aaron hit five home runs for the Clowns. Even if those homers were added to his major league record, Aaron still would be two home runs short of Bonds’ record 762.

“That’s reverence for Aaron and on the flipside whatever animus they have for Bonds,” Doswell said of the public interest in adding homers to Aaron’s total. “And, of course, there is a discussion about whether MLB should have the right or the audacity to elevate these stats since they were in some respects complicit in the fact (that) they were omitted in the first place.”

A handful of Negro leaguers have been recognized for their greatness despite MLB’s previous exclusion of their statistical records.

Paige didn’t make his MLB debut until 1948, when he was 42 years old. He still was among the best relief pitchers in the American League over five-plus seasons. In 1971, Paige became the first player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame after spending most of his career in the Negro leagues. The next year catcher Josh Gibson and infielder Buck Leonard were elected on the strength of careers spent entirely in the Negro leagues.

O’Neil and Bud Fowler were elected to the Hall in December by its Early Era Committee. O’Neil played and managed in the Negro leagues for 10 years before working as an MLB scout for decades. Fowler played during the pre-Negro leagues era of the late 19th century. The Hall says he was the first black player in professional baseball.

The Hall’s Early Era Committee is scheduled to meet every 10 years. That means 2031 will be the next year that Negro leaguers will be considered for the Hall unless there’s another special committee formed before then.

“We do Hall of Fame committee selections every year,” Lester said. “Why exclude the Negro leagues for another 10 years? If you say there are no candidates, let me prove you wrong. I accept that challenge. That’s what we do here.”

The historical record of the Negro leagues is more robust because of the meticulous work of Lester and other proponents. That prodded MLB to end its racially biased policy of considering the Negro leagues as minor.

But MLB didn’t decide that the roughly 3,400 people who played in the Negro leagues were major leaguers. They already were. MLB is diminished by taking so long to recognize it.

“I love the fact that MLB finally said, ‘Yes, they, too, were major leagues,” Burgos said. “I heard it from the mouths of many Negro leaguers themselves. ... They already knew they were major leaguers. They (just) didn’t have the chance.

“As we celebrate this well-earned recognition, let’s not dilute the Negro leagues of what they accomplished. Because that is the story of perseverance, the story of struggle, the story of greatness.”