MLB Finally Welcomes the Negro Leagues, But Will Baseball Fans?

Major League Baseball has decided, far later than justice demands, to join its own records to those of the various associations known collectively as the Negro Leagues. When I heard the news, my thoughts went at once to my late father. He’d have approved this corrective to generations of willful ignorance.

As a baseball-mad kid in the 1960s, I loved nothing as much as the statistics and records of the game. I would impress my friends by listing every World Series winner since the event had existed, or by reciting upon demand such arcane trivia as the number of games Lou Gehrig appeared in during his final season (eight).

Of the Negro Leagues I knew little, and my impercipience irritated my father no end. My unawareness that the Negro Leagues used to play a World Series of their own was bad enough; that I’d never heard of Josh Gibson or Turkey Stearnes compounded my offense.

My father used to say that all MLB records from before the early 1950s should be accompanied by asterisks to show that they’d been accomplished in a racially segregated game where the White players didn’t face the strongest competition. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, pick a star: My dad wanted asterisks for each.

He knew what he was talking about. While growing up in Harlem, he used to attend contests regularly at the Polo Grounds, home not only of the New York Giants but also the New York Cubans of the National Association of Negro Baseball Clubs. The Cubans were owned by the colorful numbers-runner Alex Pompez. The Cubans, my father always said, played better ball than the average major league team.

Why was his dividing line the early 1950s? Because that’s when the trickle of Negro League players into the theretofore segregated majors became a flood. Superstars like Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella and Willie Mays arrived within a few years of each other. Only after integration, according to my father, did MLB’s record book come to deserve its cherished status.

Think about it this way: The classic argument for the inefficiency of employment discrimination is that the discriminating company denies itself the best people. The discriminator always claims there’s no nonwhite person out there who can meet its rigorous hiring standards. Eventually, competitive pressure forces the discriminator to abandon this lie.

Before 1947, the clubs acted as a racialized cartel, each willing to forego the employment of potential stars who happened to be Black, as long as the others would too. But just as the theory of discrimination would predict, once the floodgates opened, everybody had to grab Negro League stars in order to stay competitive.

Until recently, there was a general view among baseball purists that the Negro Leagues, although certainly producing some great players, were overall at roughly the level of the minor leagues. Even today, I suspect many fans still think this is true, and will respond to this week’s announcement with mutterings about affirmative action and political correctness.

But they’ll be wrong. Statistics guru Bill James points to the arrival in the late 1940s and early 1950s of Aaron, Campanella and Mays, along with fellow superstars Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks, and poses a reasonable question: “If those leagues could produce five players like that in seven years, what about the previous forty?”

A 2019 collection of essays on what counts as a “major” league delves more deeply. In one of the most useful contributions, baseball historian Ted Knorr points out that once the majors began integrating in 1947, the overall batting average fell — that is, hitting got worse — but it was White, not Black, players whose averages began to drag. In other words, against the improved competition, many of the White stars turned out to be less super than previously thought.

In another essay in the book, researcher Todd Peterson compiles the available data from games in which Negro League clubs faced either full major league teams or barnstorming all-stars and finds that the sides were evenly matched. This and similar findings lead Knorr, the historian, to conclude his essay with my father’s question: “Were the Major Leagues prior to the integration of the game truly major?”

I’d say no, they weren’t — a fact that makes it truly tragic that few baseball fans, even now, know the names of the great Negro League players who never got to play White baseball.

Consider Oscar Charleston, whom Hall of Famer John J. McGraw called the best player he ever saw. When Bill James set out to list the greatest players of all time, he placed Charleston fourth, behind Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays, but ahead of (among others) Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. James pointed out that there were plenty of books about Joe DiMaggio, but none about Charleston. (James was writing twenty years ago; there’s a fine book on Charleston now.)

The problem isn’t that hardly anybody knows of Charleston. The problem is that even now, when fans hear about him, they’ll likely think of him not as a great major league player but as a great Negro Leagues player. Fixing that perception isn’t just a matter of merging the records of the leagues; it’s a matter of persuading fans that the Negro Leagues were every bit as good.

And even merging the records is a challenge. The Negro Leagues Database created by the baseball analytics site constantly publishes new statistics, the fruit of careful research. Others are catching up. But the data are still thin. Teams came and went, players changed their names, records were kept of some games and not of others, statistics were exaggerated or downplayed. Getting the record book right will be a mess.

But plaudits to baseball for the determination to try.

As for the asterisk my father wanted to apply to all the records of major leaguers before the 1950s, I hope baseball’s rulers will still consider it. Because the critics are right: Until integration, Major League Baseball wasn’t major at all.

Oh, and what happened to Alex Pompez? His multi-million dollar numbers business was finally smashed by police raids organized by my grandmother, who was a prosecutor in New York. Pompez fled the country, then came back, gave evidence, and escaped trial. He even went back to running his beloved New York Cubans. After integration wrecked the Negro Leagues, Pompez persevered in baseball. Eventually he became a scout for the Giants, and is credited with discovering, among others, Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. Pompez, as it happens, is also in the Hall of Fame. As far as we know, he’s the only numbers-runner to gain entry.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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