By RAY SANCHEZ
Josh Gibson, one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the Negro Leagues, could become big league baseball’s single-season batting average record holder with the .441 mark he set 77 years ago.
That’s because Major League Baseball this week sought to correct a longstanding wrong by recognizing the Negro Leagues as its equivalent and counting the statistics and records of thousands of Black players as part of the game’s storied past.
The announcement came during the centennial celebration of the founding of the Negro Leagues, which showcased larger-than-life figures such as Gibson and Leroy “Satchel” Paige, a pitching legend who made his MLB debut in 1948 at the age of 42.
The long overdue acknowledgment quickly prompted speculation over the decision’s impact on the record books.
Will Gibson become the new “home run king,” surpassing Barry Bonds’ career record of 762? Will he edge Hugh Duffy’s .440 average in 1894 with the Boston Beaneaters?
Scott Simkus, one of researchers credited by MLB with compiling and constructing the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, the leagues’ most definitive record, said he doesn’t expect major records to be shattered. Some Negro League players will appear among leaders in categories such as batting average, slugging and on-base percentage but the key is “recognizing gentlemen who played in the Negro Leagues as equals.”
“Many people have heard of Martin Dihigo and Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. But what about the thousands of other men who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948? They’re being recognized finally as major league caliber ballplayers. Their statistical records, their careers are going to be considered equal to anybody who had played in the National League or American League during that period of time.”
Thousands of names to be added
MLB said it has begun a review, along with the Elias Sports Bureau, to “determine the full scope” of the major league “designation’s ramifications on statistics and records.” The bureau is the official statistician of Major League Baseball.
“MLB and Elias will work with historians and other experts in the field to evaluate the relevant issues and reach conclusions upon the completion of that process,” the statement said.
“As for what records are going to be broken, there’s no way to tell yet until we have seen all the data,” said John Labombarda, head of the editorial department at the Elias Sports Bureau.
“Yes, I’ve already seen tweets that Josh Gibson hold now holds the major league record for highest batting average in a season. That’s fantastic. But we have not, and Major League Baseball has not, made any announcement like that.”
Gibson’s Baseball Hall of Fame plaque – he’s one of 35 Negro League stars enshrined in Cooperstown – says he “hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball.”
But the majority of those homers came not in league-sanctioned games (about 50 to 75 per season) but in exhibitions played against former big leaguers and White semi-pro teams.
“Right now Josh has maybe 235, 240 home runs,” said Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “We’re still compiling statistics. We got a few more seasons left, and he is, right now, the all-time leader in Negro Leagues history.”
MLB’s historic recognition coincided with the Cleveland baseball club’s decision this week to remove “Indians” from its name as U.S. corporate brands reexamine their use of racist caricatures and stereotypical names.
“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,” MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr. said in a statement.
“We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
MLB said it was “correcting a longtime oversight” by elevating the status of the Negro Leagues – which consisted of seven leagues and about 3,400 Black and Latino players from 1920 to 1948.
“It’s sad this great history has been kept from them,” Lester said.
‘Historical validation’ for Black players
The decline of the Negro Leagues began when Jackie Robinson became MLB’s first Black player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
In 1969, the Special Committee on Baseball Records did not include the Negro Leagues among six “Major Leagues” it identified since 1876.
“It is MLB’s view that the Committee’s 1969 omission of the Negro Leagues from consideration was clearly an error that demands today’s designation,” MLB said.
“The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates prior to Satchel Paige’s induction in 1971,” John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, said in a statement.
“Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said the recognition “serves as historical validation for those who had been shunned from the Major Leagues and had the foresight and courage to create their own league that helped change the game and our country, too.”
The acknowledgment is “a meritorious nod to the courageous owners and players who helped build this exceptional enterprise and shines a welcomed spotlight on the immense talent that called the Negro Leagues home,” he said in a statement.
The museum, on Twitter, called MLB’s move “extraordinarily important” but added that Negro League players “never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them.”
Indeed, former Negro Leagues player Ron Teasley, 93, who played for the New York Cubans in 1948, said on the phone from his home in Detroit that the recognition merely confirmed what Negro League players had long known.
“We always felt that we were part of a higher caliber game and this just more or less certifies it,” he said. “I just didn’t think it would take so long to come.”