MLB rights a wrong: The Negro Leagues are finally recognized as 'major league'

·4 min read
MLB has officially recognized the Negro Leagues as a "major league," evaluating the careers of players like Robert Vickers (left) and Charlie Harris. Shown here in 2013.
MLB has officially recognized the Negro Leagues as a "major league," evaluating the careers of players like Robert Vickers (left) and Charlie Harris. Shown here in 2013. (REUTERS/Verna Gates)

Major League Baseball announced Wednesday that it would be righting a decades-old wrong by officially recognizing the Negro Leagues as a “major league” — putting Negro League stats into the record book and giving thousands of Black players the official designation of being major-league baseball players.

The news was announced by the commissioner’s office as part of its yearlong celebration of the Negro Leagues’ 100th anniversary. In its announcement, MLB said:

With this action, MLB seeks to ensure that future generations will remember the approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues during this time period as Major League-caliber ballplayers. Accordingly, the statistics and records of these players will become a part of Major League Baseball’s history.

This long overdue recognition is the product of evaluation throughout this year, which included consideration of: discussions with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and other baseball entities; the previous and ongoing studies of baseball authors and researchers; the 2006 study by the National Baseball Hall of Fame (the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group); and an overall historical record that has expanded in recent years.

While the Negro Leagues existed in different forms for many years, MLB is recognizing 1920-1948 as its “major league” period — specifically validating the pre-integration players who weren’t allowed into MLB at the time.

Players of that era like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Oscar Charleston, who never played in MLB, have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. But this further cements their legacies and the legacies of thousands of other players who may not necessarily be Cooperstown-worthy but whose contributions should be official just the same.

Reacting to the decision, John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball said in a statement:

“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. Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”

How this affects the record book

One of the biggest changes to come is figuring out how this will affect MLB’s official records. These changes haven’t become official yet, as MLB and its statisticians say there is more work to do. But the league has endorsed the Seamheads Negro Leagues database, which has already done exhaustive research on the topic.

One example of the type of changes we could see revolves around the great Willie Mays. Mays played for the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons and has 17 documented hits, which would raise his career total beyond 3,283. So what was celebrated as his 3,000th hit may not actually be his 3,000th hit anymore.

There don’t appear to be any cases like Ichiro — who essentially had two careers, one in MLB and one in Japan — where merging the two could radically affect the record book as we know it.

Josh Gibson is the Negro Leagues’ all-time home run leader with 238, according to the Seamheads database. Gibson was never allowed to play in MLB, so his 238 homers will stand alone, putting him alongside Ray Lankford and J.D. Martinez on the all-time list.

Because stats weren’t kept in those days like they are today, MLB says it will take more time and more research to make official statistic designations. From the league statement:

MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau have begun a review process to determine the full scope of this designation’s ramifications on statistics and records. 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.

According to The Ringer, one event that will require further is review is a Mays homer in 1948, but since a box score hasn’t been found, it won’t be added to his home run total yet. Likewise, events that happened after 1948 won’t be included — Hank Aaron played for Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, but his stats there won’t count.

While the stats and records will be a fun, ongoing part of this, for many people who care deeply about the Negro Leagues just the validation that came with Wednesday’s announcement is enough.

“In the minds of baseball fans worldwide, this 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,” Bob Kendrick, the President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said in a statement. “This acknowledgement 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.”

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