First set of findings from the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee

May 29th, 2024

The Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee (listed alphabetically):

  • Gary Ashwill, Seamheads Negro Leagues Database
  • Phil Dixon, Baseball Author and Negro Leagues Baseball Alive
  • Jeff Fannell, Major League Baseball Players Association
  • Sean Gibson, The Josh Gibson Foundation
  • Leslie Heaphy, Kent State University and Negro Leagues Author
  • Kevin Johnson, Seamheads Negro Leagues Database
  • Bob Kendrick, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
  • John Labombarda, Elias Sports Bureau, Official Statistician of Major League Baseball
  • Larry Lester, Baseball Author/Researcher and Negro Leagues Expert
  • Sonya Pankey, Founder of C. Belle LLC
  • Rob Parker,
  • Tony Reagins, Major League Baseball
  • CC Sabathia, Major League Baseball
  • Tom Shieber, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
  • Claire Smith, Longtime Baseball Journalist
  • Tom Thress,
  • Chairperson: John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball


On December 16, 2020, Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “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.” Now, a team of statisticians and historians proudly announce the first appearance of Negro Leagues players of the period 1920-1948 within Major League Baseball’s Official historical record.

Because the Black players who entered MLB after 1947 performed at a superior level, it is reasonable to suppose that in prior years, many had played at that level, too. By recognizing the status of their leagues, we have added more than 2,300 players to the permanent MLB database. In righting a historic wrong, we have restored Hall of Fame legends like Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and more to their rightful place among all-time recordholders.

The shorter regular seasons of Negro Leagues play belied the clubs’ longer seasons of barnstorming or exhibition games, played in midseason in between scheduled dates (a practice common in baseball’s early days). Yet because MLB will count only league games for which box scores exist, we have had to settle upon minimum qualifying standards for player/pitcher seasonal and career records. These are detailed below.

How are we to understand MLB’s new database? By realizing that statistics are shorthand for stories, that history is not product but process, and that the reasons for the very existence of the Negro Leagues are worthy of our study.

1. What were the Negro Leagues?

Before the signing of Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract, segregation was the legal custom and practice in baseball and society. During World War II, advocates for integrating America’s national pastime had asked the question, “If we can stop bullets, why not balls?” Black ballplayers, among the greatest ever, had long been barred from big-league competition with whites and so in 1920 created a league of their own, which endured as a testament to ancestry marked by the highest class of play. Before then, ever since the 1860s, African American ballclubs had to play against locals of varying ability. Even after Rube Foster’s formation in 1920 of the Negro National League, this practice, called “barnstorming,” remained a revenue lifeline. 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.”

2. How did play in the Negro Leagues compare to the level in the American and National Leagues?

Stars of Black baseball were universally regarded as the equivalent of their major-league cohorts. The dubious compliment of “If only they were white” was the verdict shared by many. But even after Major League Baseball was integrated in 1947, and Black players populated all its teams by 1959, the records of those who had played in the Negro Leagues were not visible — unless one read them in bronze on a Hall of Fame plaque, or riffled through contemporaneous African American newspapers. MLB or Cooperstown may have honored particular Negro League stars but the leagues themselves remained in a shadowland, undocumented and unrecognized as the major leagues they were.

3. What did the Negro Leagues have in common with other rival circuits accepted as major leagues, and how did they differ?

For 1968-1969, MLB appointed a Special Baseball Records Committee (SBRC) to draw up a code of rules governing irregular recordkeeping pro­cedures of the past and to identify which defunct rival circuits merited designation as major leagues. These included the American Association (1882-1891), the Union Association (1884), the Players’ League (1890), and the Federal League (1914-1915). Major League Baseball was declared to have begun with the founding of the National League in 1876, added onto by the American League, founded in 1901. The first professional circuit, the National Association of 1871-1875, was demoted due to its “erratic schedule and procedures,” features which might have doomed the major-league prospects of the Negro Leagues. However, their erratic schedules and paucity of statistics were not a consideration for the SBRC in its two meetings; the Negro Leagues never came up for discussion.

4. How might we view and understand their statistics now?

Since the SBRC ruling of 1969, many sleuths have engaged in box-score archeology. Today the 1920-1948 Negro Leagues records are estimated to be nearly 75% complete. While questions endure about the competitive status of the Union Association of 1884, the parity of Negro League play with that of the American and National Leagues is beyond dispute — except to note that many clubs played exhibition contests amid their league schedules. Barnstorming games (see Item #1) will not count, nor will World Series or All-Star games. This practice has applied to player and pitcher registers throughout MLB history, and to some degree will account for the differences in the Official MLB record from that displayed elsewhere.

5. Why did they play so few league games in a season that ran from May to October?

While midseason barnstorming games were banned by Major League Baseball after 1920, they provided a revenue lifeblood for financially straitened Negro Leagues clubs. The irregularity of their league schedules, established in the spring but improvised by the summer, were not of their making but instead were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices. To deny these clubs and players major-league status now would be to exact a double penalty. Their seasons usually ran for roughly 60 to 80 games, which frequently led to leaderboard extremes. Fans won’t see Negro Leaguers much on leaderboards for “counting” stats, such as home runs, RBIs, or pitcher wins. (For example, Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque estimates he hit 800 home runs, but many of those came in independent or barnstorming games and will not count in MLB’s Official record.) However, Negro Leaguers will feature prominently among the leaders in “rate” stats (expressed with decimals) such as batting average, slugging percentage, on-base average, and ERA.

6. How did the events of 2020 cause MLB to review its decision-making process, especially that of the SBRC in 1968-1969?

MLB made its announcement to regard the Negro Leagues of 1920-1948 as equivalent major leagues on the heels of a 2020 season that was shortened to 60 regular-season games due to the global pandemic. (MLB had also played 60-game seasons in 1877 and 1878.) The condensed 2020 campaign provided a guide for how Negro Leagues records might be contained within the MLB database, including what minimums must be met for a Negro Leagues player to qualify for single-season or career records. The current standard for qualifying for batting titles is 3.1 plate appearances (PA) times the number of team games scheduled. For the ERA title, it’s one inning pitched (IP) per game scheduled. Both of these guidelines continue for seasonal accounting. Using a 60-game minimum as an informal guide for all-time single-season leaders, that’s a minimum of 186 plate appearances and 60 innings. [Actual standards reflect each league season’s scheduled games; see below, Section 9.] The current standard for career leaders is 5,000 at bats (AB) and 2,000 IP; both equate, nearly, to ten full seasons as currently defined. Career-record eligibility for ten full seasons in the Negro Leagues equates to roughly 1,800 AB and 600 IP.

7. Which leagues, seasons, and games will MLB count as “major league” and place in its dataset?

The seven leagues that comprised the Negro Leagues of 1920-1948 were the:

  • 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) and
  • Negro American League (1937–1948).

Included in this first release of the MLB database will be independent teams, formerly playing within a Negro League and subsequently returned. The newly updated MLB database will include not only these clubs’ won-lost records as independents, against league opponents, but also their players’ statistics.

8. Will there be asterisks or other annotations alongside Negro Leagues records in the MLB database?

No. Item 4 of the SBRC ruling of 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 sees no reason to deviate from that policy.

9. What minimum standards will be applied to batting, pitching, and fielding stats for inclusion in leaderboards?

Single-season Negro Leagues leaderboards will observe a standard of 3.1 PA and 1.0 IP per scheduled game, as currently mandated by Official Baseball Rule 9.22. Rather than resort to asterisks and footnotes, MLB has settled upon minimum standards for inclusion (see above, Section 6).

The minimum qualifier for each league and season is based upon the average number of games played by each team as found in the most credibly available final standings for each league and season, multiplied by 3.1 PA for hitters and 1.0 IP for pitchers. Those values are subject to change as new data is discovered and incorporated:

A player may qualify for the all-time single season MLB leaderboards if he meets the minimum standards of any league in any season in which he played, or if his combined PA or IP meet the highest standard of any league in any season in which he appeared for multiple teams across multiple leagues.

Due to inconsistent recordkeeping of the times, and the incomplete nature of ongoing research, there may not be sufficient data to determine minimum qualifiers for a given league and season. In such cases MLB will apply the Rule 9.22(a) “exception” to designate a league leader in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and/or on-base plus slugging percentage, as the case may be, in any given league season.

10. What all-time records of MLB (as understood prior to 2020) will be affected?

Negro Leagues data will be considered Official MLB stats, without asterisk or qualification, but within logical minimum standards. (No one, for example, has believed that John Paciorek with his five times reached base in five plate appearances in 1963, his only game, is the all-time leader in On-Base Average.) For example, Hugh Duffy’s record .440/.438 batting average in 1894 will be overtaken by Josh Gibson (.466 in 1943) and Charlie “Chino” Smith (.451 in 1929). New stars, and the stories behind their stats, will emerge.

11. How may we view and understand Negro League statistics?

Negro League stats may be viewed separately and/or jointly: player and pitcher pages, no matter how infrequently these individuals may have played; within a team’s record in a given league year; within all MLB records for a given year; or by a given league season.

In sum, Negro Leagues stats may be viewed just as presents the records of other rival leagues, cited above in No. 3.

Negro Leagues statistics have not been thrown into an MLB “melting pot,” from which the identity of an individual, or team, or league may not be viewed distinctly. It is useful and necessary to comprehend these newly added records in the context of rival leagues struggling to survive and, because of their players’ skin color, being unwelcome in MLB. Resort to an underlying story is the best way to comprehend Negro Leagues statistics, but that has also been true for many seasons in what we previously understood as MLB. Consider the explanations necessary for understanding records in, for example, the statistically anomalous seasons of 2020, 1968, 1945, 1930, 1906, 1894, or 1877.

12. Same Milestones -- With Different Dates On Paper

Major League Baseball will continue to celebrate milestones and their anniversaries as they were understood at the time. For example, with the addition of 10 Birmingham hits to Willie Mays’ career total as a Major League player, the dates of such milestones as his 3,000th career hit may change on paper, but not in practice. This product of recordkeeping is not a deterrent when pursuing the goal of accuracy. Baseball history includes many retroactive adjustments that altered the way that a statistic or an achievement lives on paper. For example, Christy Mathewson’s career wins total changed years after the fact. We can look back on historic milestones as a reflection of our understanding at the time.

13. Version 1.0

This version of the updated MLB database -- and it is not the last -- will be made public before the special "MLB at Rickwood: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues" game on June 20th. Box scores, game logs, and schedule information will not be included in the initial launch. Minimum qualifiers for season or career leaderboards may change. An imbalance between league games played by team and batter records, as well as pitcher starts, may await another day.

14. Upshot

Quoting the SBRC document of 1969: “Major League Baseball shall have one set of records, starting in 1876, without any arbitrary division into nineteenth- and twentieth-century data.” To this may now be added: “or that of skin color.” Pioneer researcher John Holway wrote in 2002: “Black baseball history remains a separate ghetto outside the mainstream history of white baseball. Actually, the two are parts of the same common heritage and eventually will be recognized as one intertwined whole.”

15. Our Thanks to the Baseball Research Community

This additional recognition of Negro Leagues players became possible because of the tireless efforts of Negro Leagues experts and the baseball research community. Major League Baseball sends its gratitude to all the researchers and historians who have discovered and documented additional facts, statistics, and context, which allows for a greater understanding of the game’s evolution and acknowledgment of all those who contributed to its history. As more information is gathered in the future, there will be more opportunities to evaluate its place in baseball history. Major League Baseball also thanks the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee for committing their time, energy and expertise to a thorough analysis of the statistics and application of the necessary context.

The accomplishments of Negro Leagues players deserve to be just as visible and accessible to the game’s current and future fans as those statistics of any players of the American and National Leagues. These numbers will build upon the public’s understanding of some facets of the Negro Leagues. Even more importantly, it is our hope that the statistics will open doors to broader storytelling about the persistent courage evident throughout this extraordinary chapter in the history of the game and our country as a whole.