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Major League Baseball made a historic — and long overdue — announcement Wednesday, elevating the Negro Leagues to a major-league level. The decision is validation for more than 3,000 players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920-1948 when MLB didn’t allow Black players. They’re now in MLB’s official record book. Their stats count. Their teams are officially recognized — their records officially stacked up alongside the established MLB numbers.
With this comes a new issue to sort out: How will adding all these stats to the all-time record book change baseball history as we know it?
MLB, its chief historian John Thorn and its official statistician Elias Sports Bureau are just starting down this path. The announcement didn’t come with any sweeping declarations of changes in the record books — and frankly, they aren’t expected to cause a tectonic shift — but there’s still a lot of research to be done before anything becomes official.
The league endorsed the work of the Seamheads Negro League database, which has been digging up Negro Leagues box scores and stats for 20 years. But it continues to unearth new information, so there’s not an endpoint in sight.
Unofficially, the news of the Negro Leagues going into the record books already has fans and pundits considering what changes could be coming. Here are five notable ones.
Where does Josh Gibson rank in homers?
Gibson, referred to as the Black Babe Ruth in his day, is the best hitter the Negro Leagues ever saw. He’s one of the most widely recognized Negro Leagues stars, a Hall of Famer already and a man with his own mythology. While folklore has him hitting 800 homers, lots and lots of those weren’t during what’s being considered the major leagues here. His official homer count for this time period, as currently verified and counted by the Seamheads database, is 238. That ties him for 264th all-time with the likes of Ray Lankford and J.D. Martinez.
Is Josh Gibson’s .441 season the best ever?
Where Gibson may have a claim to history is the single-season batting average mark and the most recent .400 season. He hit .441 in 1943, which would top Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894 and be a more recent .400 season than Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941.
The big difference here is the length of seasons. Gibson’s .441 came in 78 games with 342 plate appearances, while Williams played 143 games with 606 plate appearances. Duffy’s mark came in a season with 125 games and 616 plate appearances.
Willie Mays, now with more hits and possibly more homers
Willie Mays is one of the biggest stars who also played in the Negro Leagues, albeit for a short time. Before he debuted with the New York Giants, Mays played one season for the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons and had 17 hits, 10 of them coming during the playoffs. Nonetheless, this merging will affect his career hit total.
It won’t really move him around the all-time hit list at this point. He’s No. 12 all-time with 3,283 and would need 32 more hits to tie Eddie Collins at No. 11, but it could affect who’s coming next. Albert Pujols is currently 15th all-time with 3,236.
Mays also hit at least one home run during that season with the Black Barons, but as The Ringer notes, a box score hasn’t been found to accompany the game story that has been uncovered. That could eventually change his home run total, which memorably stands at 660.
Bob Feller has some company in Leon Day
While the list of official no-hitters is certainly getting longer — Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams and others threw them — one noticeable change will be that Bob Feller won’t be the only pitcher with an opening day no-hitter anymore.
Leon Day threw one in 1946 for the Newark Eagles, and his comes with a little bit of added historical coolness: Day hadn’t pitched since 1942 after being drafted into World War II. That opening day start in 1946 was his first since returning from duty.
Satchel Paige’s legacy gets much stronger
Paige is perhaps the most well-known pitcher from the Negro Leagues, having pitched in MLB for five seasons in his 40s (and returning for one game at 59 years old!). He’s already a Hall of Famer, but the record books will now be a more accurate representation of his career.
With the merging of the stats, he stands to gain 115 wins over 18 seasons. Added to that are 112 complete games, 25 shutouts, 1,524 strikeouts and a fantastic 2.36 ERA over 1,536 innings. Again, shorter seasons in the Negro Leagues limit him from matching the cumulative numbers of some of MLB’s great starters (his win total is 143), but his story is now better told as one of the most important pitchers in baseball history.
One stat that won’t change: Hank Aaron’s home run total
One thing that would have caused a tectonic shift in the record books was if Hank Aaron’s 1952 season in the Negro Leagues counted. He hit either eight or nine home runs that season, depending on the source, but Barry Bonds sits atop the all-time home run leaderboard by seven, so either one of those being accepted would have made Hank No. 1 again.
Alas, the 1948 cutoff was chosen because most of the top talent fled the Negro Leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, making the leagues more like the minor leagues than the majors by the time Aaron arrived.
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