Cote: MLB finally adding Josh Gibson & Negro Leagues ‘an historic moment’ too long in coming | Opinion

Time may fly, but progress often seems in no hurry at all.

The United States abolished slavery in 1865 but all of those generations later too many in America still feel the weight of racism, with civil rights an ideal not yet fully attained.

Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 and it took 77 years — until this week — for the sport to become fully integrated.

“Better late than never” is a phrase almost always bittersweet or said sarcastically, and that applies here.

The sport’s Negro Leagues thrived from 1920 into the late ‘40s, until MLB signaled, with Robinson, that its overt segregation finally was ending and that outstanding players of color would now be allowed.

Players such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell before then had become legends in leagues of their own, which grew from necessity because they were banned from the whites-only majors.

Yet it wasn’t until 1971, almost a quarter century after Robinson made history, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame at last began opening the hallowed doors of Cooperstown to stars from the Negro Leagues.

Work remained to be done. In baseball as in America, progress toward equality does not always move at the speed of a fastball.

It was not until 2020, amid the start of the pandemic and a nation coming to grips with racial injustice over the police killing of George Floyd, that MLB officially “elevated” the seven Negro Leagues that played between 1920 and 1948 to major-league status, a largely symbolic gesture granting full citizenship, as it were, for some 3,400 men (nearly all of them now deceased) who toiled in the Negro Leagues.

This week, that symbolism became reality in a tangible way as “America’s Pastime” incorporated the Negro Leagues into its official record book. Baseball is our most historical sport, its barometer of statistics stitching time, and finally the great players that the game once blacklisted as second-class human beings are welcomed as part of that history.

This is baseball’s version of reparations, not with money, but with statistics.

Better late than ever.

“I think its huge. It’s the Negro League players officially counted in as Major Leaguers,” Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, Miami born and raised, told the Herald on Wednesday. “It’s a validation of their accomplishments. It was an oversight of their achievements before. Now this is a verification. It’s an historical moment.”

(The sport’s belated full acknowledgment of the Negro Leagues comes at a time, by the way, when the number of Black players in MLB has dropped to a modern low of 6 percent. It was 18 percent when The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida began tracking such things in 1991.)

Dawson, now 69, wasn’t yet born when the Negro Leagues existed, but his respect for his baseball forebears was such he recalls going to an autograph signing to meet Bell. Dawson was himself then an established big-leaguer, a star. He went as a fan, an admirer.

“It was just before he passed away. He was in a wheelchair,” recalled Dawson. “They said he was so fast he could turn the lights off and be in bed before the room got dark. I had heard the stories about him.”

Larry Doby, who followed Robinson as the second Black player signed in MLB, was Dawson’s first major-league hitting coach.

Another former Negro League great, Buck Leonard, scouted Dawson and recommended him to the Chicago Cubs, the team that would enjoy his greatest seasons.

Leonard belatedly was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

“We in the Negro Leagues felt like we were contributing something to baseball, too,” Leonard said in his induction speech. “We played with a round ball and we played with a round bat. And we wore baseball shoes and wore baseball uniforms and we thought we were making a contribution to baseball. We loved the game. If we didn’t we wouldn’t have played because there wasn’t any money in it.”

Josh Gibson, a catcher who played for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, this week became newly recognized as MLB’s all-time leader in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS and also the all-time single-season record holder in those categories.

And MLB stars who also played in the Negro Leagues saw their career stats grow — including Willie Mays,. whose official record now includes 10 hits from his 1948 season with the Birmingham Black Barons at age age 17.

Gibson’s career average of .372 supplants the .367 mark that had Ty Cobb No. 1 for more than 100 years.

Even Cobb’s own great-grandson approves of baseball’s tectonic shift to the right side of racial history.

“Baseball history is a part of U.S. history, and I think [the] Major Leagues acknowledging and incorporating the Negro Leagues is a huge step in kind of bringing all the parts of baseball history together,” Tyrus Cobb told the Associated Press. “It’s actually pretty exciting that there’s a new statistical batting average leader.”

Gibson got his last hit in 1946. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in ‘43 but refused surgery and played his last four seasons beset by recurring headaches. Gibson died of a stroke on January 20, 1947, at age 35 and was buried in Allegheny Cemetery near Pittsburgh.

He lay in an unmarked grave until a small plaque was placed there in 1975.

This week, 78 years after his last base hit, Josh Gibson became baseball’s all-time batting leader.

Better late than never.