What to know about Negro Leagues stats entering MLB record

May 29th, 2024

Major League Baseball’s embrace of the Negro Leagues is now recognized in the record book, resulting in new-look leaderboards fronted in several prominent places by Hall of Famer Josh Gibson and an overdue appreciation of many other Black stars.

Following the 2020 announcement that seven different Negro Leagues from 1920-1948 would be recognized as Major Leagues, MLB announced Wednesday that it has followed the recommendations of the independent Negro League Statistical Review Committee in absorbing the available Negro Leagues numbers into the official historical record.

"We are proud that the official historical record now includes the players of the Negro Leagues," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "This initiative is focused on ensuring that future generations of fans have access to the statistics and milestones of all those who made the Negro Leagues possible. Their accomplishments on the field will be a gateway to broader learning about this triumph in American history and the path that led to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut."

Gibson, the legendary catcher and power hitter who played for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, is now MLB’s all-time leader in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS and holds the all-time single-season records in each of those categories. Gibson is one of more than 2,300 Negro Leagues players -- including three living players who played in the 1920-1948 era in Bill Greason, Ron Teasley and Hall of Famer -- included in a newly integrated database at MLB.com that combines the Negro Leagues numbers with the existing data from the American League, National League and other Major Leagues from history.

“The Negro Leagues were a product of segregated America, created to give opportunity where opportunity did not exist,” said Negro Leagues expert and historian Larry Lester. “As Bart Giamatti, former Commissioner of Baseball, once said, ‘We must never lose sight of our history, insofar as it is ugly, never to repeat it, and insofar as it is glorious, to cherish it.’”

John Thorn, official MLB historian and chairman of the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, said the new database can be understood “by realizing that stats are shorthand for stories, and that the story of the Negro Leagues is worthy of our study.”

To help fans with that study, here are answers to questions you might have about this historic and unusual (though not unprecedented) development.

What were the Negro Leagues?

Prior to the debut of with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the American and National leagues were, like so much of society, segregated. Unable to pursue playing careers in those leagues, Black players formed leagues of their own, beginning in 1920 with the eight-team Negro National League, founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster.

Over the next 30 years, a variety of Negro Leagues came and went. The Negro World Series was held from 1924 to 1927 (featuring the champions of the Negro National League against the champions of the Eastern Colored League) and again from 1942 to 1948 (featuring the champions of the second iteration of the Negro National League against the champions of the Negro American League).

All told, the Negro Leagues produced 37 eventual members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Robinson’s re-integration of MLB marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.

Why are the Negro Leagues being added to the historical record?

Essentially, to right a wrong. It certainly was not the fault of Black baseball stars such as Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston that they were forbidden from participating in the AL or NL, and recognizing the Negro Leagues as Major Leagues is in keeping with long-held beliefs that the quality of the segregation-era Negro Leagues circuits was comparable to the MLB product in that same time period.

“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” Commissioner Manfred said at the time of the 2020 announcement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”

In recent decades, the tireless work of researchers combing through newspapers, scorebooks and microfiche led to the expanded availability of Negro League statistics (culminating most notably in the expansive database compiled by Seamheads) and made it viable to include these leagues in the historical record.

Which Negro Leagues will be included in the official record?

There are seven, and they operated between 1920 and 1948. The reason for the starting point is that attempts to develop Negro Leagues prior to 1920 were ultimately unsuccessful and lacked a league structure. And 1948 was deemed to be a reasonable end point because it was the last year of the Negro National League and the segregated World Series. After that point, the Negro League teams and leagues that had endured were stripped of much of their talent.

The seven leagues are as follows:

• Negro National League (I) (1920–1931)
• Eastern Colored League (1923–1928)
• American Negro League (1929)
• East-West League (1932)
• Negro Southern League (1932)
• Negro National League (II) (1933–1948)
• Negro American League (1937–1948)

This first release of the MLB database also includes independent teams that formerly played within a Negro League and subsequently returned. The database includes not only these clubs’ won-lost records as independents, against league opponents, but also their players’ statistics.

Is this the first time leagues have been granted “Major League” status long after they ceased to exist?

No. In 1969, MLB’s Special Committee on Baseball Records determined which past professional leagues should be classified alongside the AL and NL as Major Leagues in the first publication of “The Baseball Encyclopedia.” At that time, the committee concluded that the American Association (1882-91), Union Association (1884), Players’ League (1890) and Federal League (1914-15) all qualified.

Not only did that committee not grant Major League status to the Negro Leagues, but the Negro Leagues weren’t even given consideration in the meetings. MLB’s 2020 decision reflected the evolved attitudes toward and respect for the Negro Leagues.

Why did it take so long to incorporate the Negro Leagues into the statistical record?

Once the 2020 decision was made to include the Negro Leagues, MLB and its official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, had to complete a review process of the Seamheads data, and MLB and Seamheads had thorough and detailed discussions over how the data would be utilized.

MLB built upon the Seamheads database with the help of Retrosheet, an organization that computerizes Major League games from prior to 1984, and a 16-member Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee was formed to determine, among other things, what minimum standards would be put in place for Negro Leagues players to qualify for season or career leaderboards.

Complicating the process was the understandably scattershot nature of the Negro Leagues schedules, which we will cover in a sec.

What are the minimum standards for inclusion in leaderboards?

For single-season Negro Leagues leaderboards, the minimum standard is 3.1 plate appearances or one inning pitched per scheduled game, consistent with the standard we are familiar with in the AL and NL.

However, because of the inconsistencies of Negro Leagues team schedules (or the available data), the minimum qualifier for each league and season is based upon the average number of games played by each team, multiplied by 3.1 plate appearances for hitters and one inning for pitchers. Those values are subject to change as more data is discovered.

As for career leaderboards, the current standard for career MLB leaders is 5,000 at-bats and 2,000 innings pitched, which roughly equates to 10 full qualifying seasons (5,020 at-bats and 1,620 innings). Therefore, for Negro Leagues players, this standard has been set at 1,800 at-bats and 600 innings -- roughly the equivalent of 10 seasons’ worth of 60-game seasons.

What if no players met the minimum in a given league and season?

This is the case in three Negro American League seasons (1944, 1946 and 1948). In these cases, MLB applied the Rule 9.22 (a) exception in which theoretical hitless at-bats are added to non-qualifiers’ totals for the purpose of determining a batting rate stat champion.

For this league in these seasons, only one player is listed on MLB’s database under rate stats (average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS), while counting stats (home runs, RBIs, etc.) will show all players.

Why was a 60-game minimum chosen as the standard?

Because it has precedent in the existing MLB historical record. In addition to the COVID-condensed 2020 season in which each AL and NL team played a 60-game schedule, the National League had also played 60-game seasons in 1877 and 1878.

Why did Negro Leagues teams play so few games?

The short answer is segregation. Because of the times, Negro Leagues teams often had to resort to barnstorming exhibitions to keep the business afloat or cut their seasons short when they were out of contention, leading to erratic league schedules.

Generally speaking, Negro Leagues teams played roughly 60 to 80 games per season. This is why you won’t see Negro Leagues players much near the top of leaderboards for counting stats such as home runs or pitcher wins, but you will see them featured prominently in rate stats such as batting average or ERA.

What changes have been made to single-season records as a result of the Negro Leagues’ inclusion?

There are notable changes in five key categories:

Batting Average: Hall of Famer Josh Gibson’s .466 average for the 1943 Homestead Grays is now the highest mark in Major League history, followed by Charlie “Chino” Smith’s .451 mark for the 1929 New York Lincoln Giants. Both of these averages eclipse the previously recognized record held by Hall of Famer Hugh Duffy (.440, 1894 Boston Beaneaters).

On-Base Percentage: Though Barry Bonds’ .609 mark in 2004 still leads, Gibson (.564, 1943 Grays) and Smith (.551, 1929 Lincoln Giants) enter the top five, with Gibson in third place and Smith fourth.

Slugging Percentage: Four slugging marks now eclipse Bonds’ .863 mark with the 2001 Giants. The top spot now belongs to Gibson (.974, 1937 Homestead Grays), followed by Hall of Famer Mule Suttles (.877, 1926 St. Louis Stars), Gibson (.871, 1943 Grays) and Smith (.870, 1929 Lincoln Giants).

On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS): Gibson also tops Bonds (1.421, 2004 Giants) here, with a 1.474 mark with the 1937 Grays and a 1.435 mark with the 1943 Grays.

Earned Run Average: The single-season best still belongs to Hall of Famer Tim Keefe (0.86), of the 1880 Troy Trojans, but the legendary Satchel Paige now ranks third, with a 1.01 mark for the 1944 Kansas City Monarchs.

What changes have been made to career records?

Again, there are notable changes to these five key categories:

Batting Average: Gibson’s .372 career mark in 2,255 at-bats takes the top spot, surpassing Hall of Famer Ty Cobb’s .367 career average. Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston (.363), Jud Wilson (.350), Turkey Stearnes (.348) and Buck Leonard (.345) are also in the top 10.

On-Base Percentage: Gibson now ranks third all-time at .459, behind Ted Williams (.482) and Babe Ruth (.474). Negro Leaguers Leonard (.452), Charleston (.449) and Jud Wilson (.434) also join the top 10.

Slugging Percentage: Gibson’s .718 mark eclipses Babe Ruth’s .690 mark for the top spot, with fellow Hall of Famers Suttles (.621), Stearnes (.616) and Charleston (.614) also in the top 10.

On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS): Gibson’s 1.177 mark is now the all-time best, ahead of Ruth’s 1.164 mark. Charleston (1.063), Buck Leonard (1.042), Stearnes (1.033) and Suttles (1.031) also enter the top 10.

Earned Run Average: Left-hander Dave Brown, who posted a 2.24 ERA in 711 innings from 1920 to 1925, now ranks eighth all-time.

Where can the full leaderboards be viewed?

At MLB.com’s newly integrated database.

Didn’t Josh Gibson hit 800 home runs? Why isn’t he the new home run champ?

Gibson is the perfect example of the lines that were drawn in this process.

It may well be true that Gibson hit 800 home runs in his career, as his Hall of Fame plaque estimates. But many of those home runs came in “barnstorming” exhibitions that were not part of the official league season and therefore are not included in MLB’s official record.

Officially, Gibson is credited with 174 career homers in league games.

Does this process update the MLB totals for AL/NL players who also played in the Negro Leagues?

Yes, as long as the league in question is one of the seven listed above and from the relevant time period.

Willie Mays, for example, has 10 hits added to his career total (from 3,283 to 3,293) as a result of the known data from his time with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons. (Though there are newspaper reports of Mays homering for the Black Barons, there are no accompanying box scores to include in the official record. So Mays remains at 660 career MLB home runs.)

On the other hand, Hank Aaron’s career home run total remains at 755, because his Negro Leagues experience came with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 -- a time by which MLB had been integrated and the Negro Leagues have been ruled to have not been of Major League quality.

Won’t this affect some milestone dates?

Yes and no. Let’s again use Mays as the example. His 3,000th hit was supposedly swatted and therefore celebrated on July 18, 1970. Now that MLB has added 10 hits to his ledger, we can go back in his game log and see that his 3,000th Major League hit actually occurred 15 days earlier.

But the original milestone is what MLB will continue to celebrate. Baseball history is rife with retroactive adjustments to how players and stats are perceived, and this is no different. July 18 will continue to be recognized as the anniversary of Mays’ 3,000th hit, because that’s what it was understood to be at the time he swatted it.

Is the Negro Leagues data complete?

No. Researchers estimate that the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues records are about 75% complete.

So what if more statistics are discovered?

Should additional box scores come to light and be verified by MLB’s statistical partners -- Agate Type Research (formerly the Seamheads Negro Leagues group), Retrosheet or Elias -- they will share them with MLB’s data team. This could ultimately result in additional modifications to the game’s all-time leaderboards.

This is also not without precedent in MLB’s history. The official record has been updated many times as newly discovered data or discrepancies have been brought to the fore, such as when Christy Mathewson was credited with his 373rd victory in 1940 -- 15 years after his death -- to pull him into a tie with Grover Cleveland Alexander for the all-time National League record.

Why does the MLB data differ in some places from what is presented on other sites?

MLB followed the practice that is customary in the AL/NL by not including barnstorming games, World Series games or All-Star Games in the player and pitcher registries. This accounts for many of the differences you might find between a player’s totals listed in the official database and the data presented by other sources.

Where are the box scores and game logs?

The Statistical Review Committee is dubbing this updated database “Version 1.0.” There are sure to be updates to come.

Will there be asterisks attached to the Negro League numbers because of the relatively smaller statistical samples?

No. Here again, the aforementioned inclusions of the American Association, Union Association, Players’ League and Federal League in the official record provide precedent. The Special Committee on Baseball Records ruling in 1969 stated: “For all-time single season records, no asterisk or official sign shall be used to indicate the number of games scheduled.” The Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee adhered to that ruling.

But should these stats and records be viewed differently than AL or NL records?

As with all statistics, this is up to the beholder. We can already consider the context of leagues such as the American Association or Federal League and view their statistics either separately from the AL and NL or jointly with the AL and NL. In this regard, the Negro Leagues are no different.

Furthermore, within the AL and NL, we can understand that certain seasons – be it the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 (prior to the alteration of the mound), a strike-shortened season like 1994 or the pandemic-impacted 2020 – are statistically anomalous and therefore worthy of added context in discussion. With the Negro Leagues, the most important context is that these players were ignored by MLB because of their skin color and their leagues were left to fend for themselves financially.

Ultimately, the Special Baseball Records Committee that convened in 1969 ruled that “Major League Baseball shall have one set of records, starting in 1876, without any arbitrary division into nineteenth- and twentieth-century.” The Negro Leagues, at long last, now fold into this record set.

What about postseason records?

Stats for the Negro Leagues World Series and the East-West All-Star Games do not count in the batting and pitching registers, just as postseason and All-Star stats do not count in those registers in the AL and NL. But while these stats are not included in “Version 1.0” of the official Negro League stats, they will be recorded and contemplated for subsequent iterations of this ongoing project.

Who are the members of the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee?

Seamheads Negro Leagues database researcher Gary Ashwill; author Phil Dixon; MLB Players Association representative Jeff Fannell; Josh Gibson Foundation executive director Sean Gibson; Kent State professor and author Leslie Heaphy; Seamheads Negro Leagues database researcher Kevin Johnson; Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick; Elias Sports Bureau director of research John Labombarda; author and researcher Larry Lester; Jackie Robinson Foundation director Sonya Pankey; MLBBro.com founder Rob Parker; MLB chief baseball development officer Tony Reagins; former Major League pitcher CC Sabathia; National Baseball Hall of Fame senior curator Tom Shieber; journalist Claire Smith and Retrosheet president Tom Thress.

The chairperson is official MLB historian John Thorn.