A Complete Guide To MLB's Insane Decision To Combine Statistics with the Negro Leagues

This is a layered discussion, so I'll start with my conclusion. MLB was wrong to merge Negro League stats because it masks baseball's ugly history. 

Hopefully somebody learns something from this dissertation. 

These are my 26 considerations: 

1. Few of us, including me, are well-read enough to intelligently comment on Negro League baseball without doing some homework. My calculations say there's a substantial difference between (1) what today's average sports fan generally believes re: Negro League competition vs. (2) the actual quality of said competition. That universal gap is a near-promise.

2. Major League Baseball excluded black players for decades on the express grounds of institutional racism. That is a simple fact and very important to remember. 

3. A tremendous present day source on the Negro Leagues is Joe Posnaski. He’s written, in-depth, about the measures taken against black players deep into the 20th century. You can disagree with his sentiment (I guess?), but you can’t deny the research and presentation behind his arguments while rearranging your ruffled feathers.

4. Specifically - Posnaski included Oscar Charleston as the 5th best player of all time. He listed Satchel Paige 10th, Josh Gibson 15th and Pop Lloyd 25th. In total, he named 14 Negro League players to his Top 100 baseball players all-time.  

5. Hank Aaron (4th) and Willie Mays (1st) began their careers in the Negro Leagues and are included in the 14. They have 1,415 combined home runs that would have never existed if they were both born 10 years sooner. 

6. There’s a number of light bulb realizations that went off in my head while reading Posnaski’s Top 100. I'm compelled to refashion them in a way that might reach you too, although I can't recommend the source material enough. It's an outstanding view of baseball history. 

7. More specifically, here's a brief list of players you'd never know if born in a previous generation of professional baseball: (again) Willie Mays & Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Fergie Jenkins, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, Derek Jeter, Kirby Puckett, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, Jim Rice, Doc Gooden, Crime Dog and on it goes. 

8. Let's turn to an important distinction: Are you good because you play in the Major Leagues? Or are you in the Major Leagues because you’re good? Please pick one. 

I picked the 2nd one

9. A narrow modern example to consider: Trevor Bauer is one of the better pitchers in the world, but not in the major leagues. Do you think less of Trevor Bauer’s talent or ability to dominate an MLB lineup? 

I don't particularly like Trevor Bauer and it's painful to use him as an example. But it's relevant enough to make the point

10. The parallel = most of us agree that Trevor Bauer would do very well in MLB, but we don't know because he's excluded. Obviously for different reasons than why black players were excluded for decades. But he's excluded nonetheless, which allows for more context and this important point: some of the game’s best players existed entirely outside of MLB. Josh Gibson could have spent his entire life playing on the Moscow Mules for Joseph Stalin and it wouldn't change the fact that he was still one of the world's best players. Similarly, Trevor Bauer doesn't need to be in MLB right now for me to know that he would absolutely carve an MLB lineup. 

11. Let’s now remind ourselves, again, that this historical distinction is a direct result of MLB excluding black players. However redundant that may be, it’s critical to everything else. So let's once again acknowledge that there are two different leagues at the same time, and both possess exceptionally talented players. 

12. The quality of the Negro Leagues is easily evident. You could ask the first wave of MLB’s black players and you'd hear they were far from the best in the Negro Leagues. That would be the most credible source to the depth of talent in my opinion. But keep going a little further and consider Jackie Robinson’s immediate dominance. Or that Satchel Paige spent 20 years in the Negro Leagues before making his MLB debut at age 41, then posted a 124 ERA+ over 5 seasons dominated by the likes of Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams. 

13. So then how good was Satchel Paige in that previous lifetime of baseball? And how much would you trust his personal opinion that other Negro League pitchers were even better? Combining his 1952-1953 seasons at age 45/46 respectively: 255 innings, 3.41 FIP, and a 123 ERA+ for a club that won 38% of their games.


14. Bob Feller was on the same staff as Satchel Paige in 1948-49. Bob Feller is widely considered one of the greatest pitchers ever and earned 93.5% of the HOF vote. In their time together, Satchel Paige pitched 155 innings for Cleveland to a 146 ERA+ and 2.98 FIP - mostly in relief and objectively better than Bob Feller’s 3.79 FIP and 111 ERA+ over 491 innings. 

15. Maybe Satchel levels out over more innings. And then maybe Bob’s numbers would be better in relief. Those are natural considerations, but so is the fact that Satchel was THIRTEEN years older than Bob Feller. That certainly says something. 

16. So does the success of black players that immediately followed Jackie Robinson. He won MVP in 1949. Roy Campanella followed in 1951, ’53 and ’55. Willie Mays won his first in 1954. Hank Aaron had his 1st in 1957 followed by Ernie Banks’s back-to-back MVPs in ’58 and ’59. Then Frank Robinson in 1961, Maury Wills in 1962, Elston Howard (AL) 1963, Willie Mays again in ’65 and then Frank Robinson in ’66. Are you following me? 

17. It would take a complete absence of logic to consider any of this with an open mind, and then conclude that the best players in the Negro Leagues were any less deserving or talented. How else can you explain the immediate success of the black players that would have been excluded if born one generation sooner? 

18. Another important consideration from Posnaski to understand the quality of the Negro Leagues is the function of word of mouth in baseball. Statistics are of course the prevailing source in identifying good baseball players. But we’d still know the best of the best in a world without statistics. You'd still recognize Nolan Ryan’s fastball and Babe Ruth’s power and Ted Williams’s discipline. We’d know Joe Dimaggio raked and Mickey Mantle was a maimed freak of nature. The numbers wouldn't change the nature of the stories or how often they got told.

19. So then extend that same basic logic to the Negro Leagues. Could you honestly discount Josh Gibson’s legend if MLB’s best are the ones who spoke of it? And doesn’t it matter that baseball’s elite players pointed to Oscar Charleston before anyone else in their day? If you saw them play, you would know just as easily, allegedly. That's what they said. 

20. I wasn't around, but the logic checks out. There’s decades upon decades of talented players that would have dominated MLB. And it should bother real baseball fans on some level that we’ll never know to what extent. We can only hypothesize and even then, it’s a futile exercise. 

21. That’s the nature of history. You can’t know a different past any more than you can change one. Which brings me back to my original conclusion that it’s the wrong decision to commingle statistics under one unified MLB header. 

22. Why? Because it didn’t exist. It's that simple. Building a new world that reflects upon the Negro Leagues in the same context as MLB is complete bullshit. Not because Ty Cobb was a better hitter or the record keeping wasn’t uniformly applied, or any of that garbage. 

23. It’s bullshit because the Negro Leagues occupy a profound place in the pantheon of global sports, and that’s now undeniably eroded by this merger. Whatever the benefit, it's a wild and dangerous cost to incur on baseball's history. The immovable reality is that MLB actively excluded the exact players they’re now honoring, and that’s nothing short of insane to me.

24. Hank Aaron tells a story about going to a diner on the road while playing in the Negro Leagues. It's 1951 and four years after Jackie Robinson's MLB debut. After the meal, Hank and his teammates could hear the cook staff breaking the plates and throwing them in the garbage. The diner couldn’t serve food on the plates again because they were touched by forks that had been in the mouths of black men. 

I hope we can all agree that’s so completely fucked up. 

25. But alas - I don’t have an alternative path to honoring the accomplishments and history of the Negro Leagues. I'll concede the stat merger intends to honor that goal. But at what cost to the reality of baseball history? And how does it even make sense to anyone? 

Giphy Images.


26. Someone smarter can answer. For now and based on what I understand to be true, I’ll just say this all feels like a big reach. 

PS - One more time. Highly recommended: