How Negro Leaguers may alter leaderboards
Jackie Robinson played in 1,382 regular-season games in the National League, all for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and collected 1,518 hits along the way. For now, anyway.
In the wake of Wednesday's long-overdue news that the Negro Leagues -- specifically a collection of seven leagues that played at various times between 1920 and 1948 -- would retroactively be given "major league" status, we will be seeing some changes to baseball's record books over the next few months. That's because in 1945, Robinson got into 26 regular-season games for the Kansas City Monarchs, for whom he had 38 hits, batting .384/.445/.606.
So, maybe he didn't get into 1,382 regular-season major league games, with 1,518 hits. Maybe he played in 1,408 games and had 1,556 hits. Maybe, nearly five decades after his death in 1972, Robinson's already stellar batting line is about to get even brighter. And since he's hardly the only player who appeared in both Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues -- there were dozens, including Larry Doby, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige -- that means there are going to be some legends with new stat lines on the backs of their electronic baseball cards.
Which all made us start to wonder: If there are now 29 seasons worth of newly recognized major league history, including approximately 3,400 players -- which, by the way, suddenly puts us over 20,000 all-time major leaguers -- are we about to suddenly see some new records? Is there a new all-time home run king, or single-season batting champion? (Spoiler: Yes! Probably.)
Let's see if we can take an educated guess, and we do mean exactly that, because the answers are not yet finalized. As Ben Lindbergh wrote about extensively for the Ringer, much of the work that spawned this classification change came from the creators of the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, who have painstakingly spent years attempting to create as full a listing of Negro League stats as possible. They've accumulated box scores for nearly 75% of known Negro League games during those 29 seasons, and more are added every day -- including 16 from 1945 just this week.
So while we investigate the available database, do note that these are tentative findings. As more data is uncovered and as decisions of what to include are finalized, these are subject to change. (It's not like that's never happened before, anyway; in 1999, it was found that Hack Wilson had really had 191 RBIs in 1930, not 190.)
But first, let's explain what this move really means.
What is a major league, anyway?
This is where the distinction between Major League Baseball and major league baseball is going to be of critical importance, and why numbers accrued within MLB and the Negro Leagues are going to be considered of equal value.
Fortunately, we have some precedent here, because there isn't just one "major league." There never was. Up until now there were six, according to a "Special Committee on Baseball Records" that convened in the winter of 1968-69. In addition to the current American and National leagues you know today, four other leagues -- the American Association (1882-91), the Union Association (1884), the Players League (1890) and the Federal League (1914-15) -- were granted "major league" status.
Shamefully, that group at the time failed to even consider the inclusion of Negro League baseball. Wednesday's decision by MLB undoes that mistake.
To understand how the inclusion of both MLB and non-MLB numbers works, consider the example of Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. After spending his rookie season with the Cardinals, the pitcher spent nine seasons (1904-12) with the Cubs before being traded to Cincinnati. From there, he jumped to the new Federal League, where he spent two seasons (1914-15) with three franchises. When the Federal League folded, Brown returned to the Cubs for 12 final games in 1916.
In total, he pitched in 411 games for the Cardinals, Cubs, and Reds in the National League, and 70 more for his trio of Federal League franchises. But since the Federal League was granted "major league" status in that 1968-69 committee meeting, you won't see 411 as his career games pitched total on his player page at MLB.com or Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs. You'll see 481 -- his combined total. The two years in the Federal League are listed seamlessly with his time in the National League.
And that, we imagine, is how this will work, too. If you look at Robinson's page on Baseball-Reference, his time with the Monarchs appears under a separate tab titled "Negro & Minor Lg Stats," along with his season spent with the Dodgers' top farm club in Montreal. Soon enough, those Kansas City stats will live right alongside -- and on an equal footing with -- those from his years with Brooklyn.
“There’s no distinction to be made," said John Thorn, MLB's official historian. "They were all big leaguers.”
So, keeping in mind those caveats, here's what you might see -- and might not. We're just scraping the surface, either way.
A new single-season batting average leader
Let's start with the big one here. Gibson is sometimes known as "the Black Babe Ruth," but it might be as accurate to call the Great Bambino "the white Josh Gibson." While he was known more for his prodigious power than anything, Gibson posted a wild .466 average in 69 games for the 1943 Homestead Grays.
(This is where this gets a little murky. Seamheads shows a .441 total average for Gibson in 78 games in '43, but if you split it up, that includes appearances in the East-West All-Star Game, the North-South All-Star Game, and the Negro World Series. We're sticking only with what he did in the Negro National League regular season.)
That .466 would put him atop a list that currently looks like this:
.440 Hugh Duffy, 1894
.429 Ross Barnes, 1876
.424 Willie Keeler, 1897
.424 Rogers Hornsby, 1924
While it may seem like Gibson's 69 games and 302 plate appearances don't stack up, realize that Barnes played in 60 games with 340 plate appearances in 1876. If the standard of having 3.1 plate appearances per team game is applied, then Gibson easily surpasses the 210 required by the Grays' 68-game Negro National League season. Put another way: DJ LeMahieu just won the 2020 AL batting title ... with 216 plate appearances. It counts.
It might also make him "the last man to hit .400," coming two years after Ted Williams did it in 1941. (Probably, anyway. Again, the uncertainty reigns. In 1948, Artie Wilson hit .437 for the Birmingham Black Bombers of the Negro American League, but in only 136 plate appearances, which would be below the 3.1 plate appearances per team game threshold.)
A new top two in career batting average
You know the names atop the list of career batting average leaders:
.367, Ty Cobb
.358, Rogers Hornsby
.356, Joe Jackson
Move over, Rogers. If we're counting Gibson's Negro National League career, he's in there at .361, just behind Cobb.
A new top two in OPS+
All-time, with a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances, it's a who's who of what's what:
206 -- Babe Ruth
191 -- Ted Williams
182 -- Barry Bonds
179 -- Lou Gehrig
176 -- Mike Trout
Gibson, in his Negro National League time, came in at ... 200. That's "twice as good as league average" during his time. It's the second best of any major leaguer ever. Gibson is going to be all over these leaderboards.
Here's one he's not going to be as high on as you'd like, though.
Probably not a new all-time home run king
Gibson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, and it's right there on the plaque: "Hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career." That would put him well above Barry Bonds' record of 762.
Except for that pesky word "independent," which is the sticking point. Gibson, like many players of the era, spent plenty of time "barnstorming" -- going on the road, usually in the offseason and sometimes internationally, to earn extra money playing exhibition games against all sorts of pro, semi-pro, and amateur competition. Those aren't considered official league games, and even if they were, the numbers would be impossible to count, so it seems likely Gibson will be credited with 194 major league home runs.
(If you've seen "238" floating around, that's a possibility too, but that would include postseason and Mexican League games, which we're assuming will not be counted. As we said, this is all a moving target until it's finalized.)
Two dozen new no-hitters, including a special one
There have been 305 no-hitters in major league history, from George Bradley in 1876 to Alec Mills this past September. Of those, 283 of them, or 92.7%, came in the National or American League, with the rest coming from the other long-ago major leagues we noted above.
But now, that list of 305 looks like it might be 329, at least according to author and no-hitter aficionado Dirk Lammers, who has dutifully kept track of such things. According to Lammers, there are 24 known no-hitters to have taken place during the Negro Leagues' eligible seasons. Not included within that 24, but notable nonetheless: the time in 1937 when "Schoolboy" Johnny Taylor threw a no-hitter for the Negro National League All-Stars at the Polo Grounds in New York. We've never had an All-Star game no-hitter. That would be the first.
That aside, the most interesting one here belongs to Leon Day, who tossed a no-no on Opening Day for the Newark Eagles in 1945. To this point in history, Bob Feller owns the first and only major league Opening Day no-hitter when he did it for Cleveland in 1940. He'll likely have company soon.
In addition, Don Larsen (1956) and Roy Halladay (2010) no longer have the only postseason no-hitters, or the first two. “Red” Grier threw one in Game 3 of the Negro World Series in 1926. Incredibly, he did so on no rest, having been bounced from the previous day's Game 2 in the midst of a seven-run second inning.
Willie Mays' first Major League hit was his 11th major league hit
Mays went hitless in his first three MLB games in 1951, but he made his first one count, connecting for a homer off of future Hall of Famer -- and future teammate -- Warren Spahn on May 28, 1951. But Mays collected 10 hits for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, and those will likely be considered his first major league tallies. (He had seven more in the playoffs that year; we're assuming only regular-season numbers will be included.)
Mays' iconic total of 660 career homers isn't likely to change ... yet. As Lindbergh noted, one of those 10 hits was reported to have been a home run, but as no box score has yet been found, it's not included in the database. One day, that "iconic 660" might actually be an iconic ... 661. (Update, Dec: 18: That day might be coming a lot sooner than we thought.)
Speaking of iconic numbers, could you imagine if Hank Aaron didn't have 755 homers? If, when everyone celebrated his breaking of Babe Ruth's record with his 715th home run in 1974, everyone was actually a few dingers behind schedule? That's not going to happen here. While Aaron did hit five homers for the 1952 Indianapolis Clowns before signing with the Braves, only the time span from 1920-48 will be considered "major league."
Minnie Miñoso tops 2,000 hits
Miñoso, the "Cuban Comet," who probably should have been in the Hall of Fame long ago, retired with 1,963 hits. Or he may have thought he did, because he collected 154 more for the New York Cubans from 1946-48. Add those and the total becomes 2,117. Might that have changed some minds of the Cooperstown voters?
Along the same lines, Roy Campanella retired with 856 RBIs for the Dodgers, but 171 more in Negro Leagues play pushes him over the 1,000 mark, to 1,027. Doby should get 129 more RBIs to his total of 970, giving him 1,099. And let's not forget the great Satchel Paige, who is going to have his major league record go from 28-31 with a 3.29 ERA to 140-91 with 2.58 ERA. That's just a little more impressive, no?
Again, this is just scraping the surface, coming up with what we could eyeball. We don't actually have a combined database available to look at right now, but when we do, more interesting updates are certain to stand out. Either way, it's not like you can simply tell the story of the Negro Leagues with numbers, because you certainly cannot. But now -- soon, anyway -- when you look atop some of the most important leaderboards in baseball history, these players will deservedly be there. They were really always there.