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MLB Is Finally Recognizing the Negro Leagues as the Major Leagues They Always Were

Negro League statistics from 1920 to 1948 will now be officially classified as “major league,” marking a long-overdue acknowledgment of the accomplishments of players who didn’t have the opportunity to play in the American or National Leagues

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On August 29, 1973, 42-year-old Met Willie Mays smacked a fifth-inning single to left off Padres southpaw Rich Troedson, driving in Bud Harrelson from second to put the Mets ahead 2-0. That hit, the last Mays ever recorded during the regular season, raised his career total to 3,283. That mark has stood ever since, undisturbed except for the passage of the few players who’ve subsequently hurdled him on the all-time leaderboard, where he ranks 12th.

Soon, though, that career count will climb slightly higher. Before he debuted for the New York Giants in 1951, Mays played for the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. The fleet center fielder’s hits—17 of which have been documented, although seven of those came during the NAL Championship Series—helped propel that team to a pennant, but they aren’t represented in Mays’s major league résumé. More than 70 years later, The Ringer can report that Major League Baseball is belatedly designating the Negro Leagues as major leagues and adjusting its records accordingly. Mays is one of a multitude of Black or Hispanic players whose performances in the seven leagues collectively called the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948—a period during which thousands of Black players were barred from joining the segregated National and American Leagues—will finally be afforded the designation they deserve.

“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,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement provided by the league. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as major leaguers within the official historical record.”

Negro Leagues players and historians have advocated for reclassification for decades. As Hall of Famer James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell once said, “The Negro Leagues was a major league. They wouldn’t let us play in the white leagues and we [were] great ballplayers in the Negro Leagues, so how can you say we [weren’t] major league?” In the decades after the 1970 publication of Robert Peterson’s influential book about Black baseball, Only the Ball Was White, researchers such as John Holway and Larry Lester led painstaking efforts to assemble comprehensive statistics from long-buried box scores. Last year, a collection of Negro Leagues scholars and researchers published a book of essays called The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues, which laid out the strong statistical and ethical case for inclusion. But until 2020—when the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues coincided with sweeping societal protests of racial injustice and an abbreviated, jury-rigged MLB regular season—MLB hadn’t considered the subject.

In response to an inquiry from The Ringer earlier this year, the league began exploring the possibility of reclassification, as we reported in August. Later today, the league will officially announce the results of that effort and proceed with plans to assign the same major league status enjoyed by the AL and the NL to the Negro Leagues—and, in the cases of players like Mays who played in the Negro Leagues between 1920 and 1948 and later joined the AL or NL, integrate records produced in segregated leagues.

“I’m turning cartwheels and excited about a lot of hard work that I’ve put in over the years to get the leagues recognized as a major entity on par with the American and National League,” Lester says. “I don’t know what to say other than, why did it take them so long?”

The causes of the long delay aren’t much of a mystery. As we detailed in August, the exclusion of the Negro Leagues from the official list of major leagues stemmed from the findings of MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee, which commissioner William Eckert convened in 1968 as part of the preparations for the landmark Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia. In 1969, the all-white, five-man body bestowed major league status on six circuits, including some (such as the 1884 Union Association) whose level of play was far lower than that of the Negro Leagues. But because of the prejudices of the day, the SBRC didn’t even discuss the candidacy of the Negro Leagues.

The SBRC’s ruling remained in effect until today’s announcement, which MLB’s forthcoming press release acknowledges is “long overdue.” For years, the SBRC’s stated standards for major league classification made the chances of reconsideration for the Negro Leagues seem tenuous. In assessing candidates’ qualifications, the committee considered factors including scheduling irregularities, inconsistent playoff formats, the frequency of unofficial games and uncompleted campaigns, media coverage, ballpark capacity, player skill level, and the number of crossover former or future AL or NL players. In recent years, more historians have noted that the Negro Leagues’ shortcomings in those areas were largely products of the racism that spawned segregated leagues in the first place, and that to exclude them on the basis of barnstorming, inconsistent schedules, or a lack of coverage would doubly penalize already-ostracized players for hardships that white baseball authorities imposed.

The existence of the pandemic-altered 2020 season—which, of course, counted as “major league”—made it harder to defend the exclusion of the Negro Leagues on account of scheduling quirks or a lack of consistency in format. MLB’s centennial celebrations of the Negro Leagues, conducted amid swelling public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and national demonstrations against police violence and structural racism, only made it more glaring that the league was still snubbing those past players by neglecting to sanction their status as major leaguers. Those circumstances gave rise to a rapid reappraisal.

“In all the years that I worked on this, I didn’t really think that it was going to eventually result in something like this,” says Gary Ashwill, the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database’s cocreator and lead researcher. “It really never entered my head, to be honest.” Ashwill—who has conducted Negro Leagues research for more than 20 years, launched the database in 2011, and continues to update it in collaboration with Lester and several other researchers—sees MLB’s admission of the SBRC’s error as “movement toward rectifying some historic injustices amid the biggest historic injustice in the history of baseball. And also, at least symbolically, it’s a move toward a kind of reckoning with the history of racism in the United States.”

As our report this summer explained, the increasingly comprehensive stats offered by Ashwill and others have made it much easier to demonstrate that Negro Leagues players more than held their own in exhibition contests against white major leaguers, in addition to excelling in the AL and NL after integration. “In my eyes, the only thing that has ever separated the Negro Leagues and the major leagues, beyond the color barrier, was finances,” says Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “The major leagues had more money, so they had their own stadiums. The Negro Leagues didn’t have that kind of financial wherewithal, but man, that’s really the only difference. When you start to talk about talent, there is no difference.”

Only a handful of former Negro Leaguers from the 1920-48 era are still living, including the 89-year-old Mays, his former Black Barons teammate Bill Greason, Clyde Golden, and Ron Teasley. MLB’s official historian, John Thorn, who says it’s “both imperative and satisfying to see MLB admit to a mistake and try to right it,” notes that the reclassification may still be welcome “for the families of more than 3,400 Negro Leagues players between 1920 and 1948 who can point to their ancestors’ statistical line not in a segregated section of, but within the major league baseball record.” (Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman has committed to unifying Negro Leagues stats and other major league stats at his site.)

Correcting the record reverses course on a long-standing mistake, but MLB’s imprimatur merely ends the league’s failure to recognize reality. Negro Leaguers considered themselves major leaguers even though the leagues that excluded them said otherwise. “In all of my years of having known so many legendary Negro League players, I never heard them even questioning whether or not they would be viewed as ‘major league,’” Kendrick says. “They didn’t need the validation. They knew how good they were. They knew their league was as professional as any. But for history’s sake, this is significant. And I can’t help but think that the spirit of all of those who are now passed away, and the few remaining players, will take a great deed of gratitude by what many believe is a wrong being righted.”

Reached in Detroit on Wednesday morning, the 93-year-old Teasley, who played outfield for the 1948 New York Cubans of the second Negro National League, greeted the news with enthusiasm. “I think it’s a wonderful thing, it’s a great thing,” Teasley says. “It’s a good thing for baseball in general.”

Teasley can recall hearing Buck O’Neil, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, and Bob Feller talk about how evenly matched many exhibition games between Black and white major leaguers were. “Growing up, my father would talk to me about the teams and the caliber of play, and … after the teams integrated, [former Negro Leagues] players were most valuable players and brought the different teams to greater heights,” he says. Teasley was signed by the Dodgers but never appeared in the National League. Now, though, the records will reflect that he’d already made the majors. “That’s a great feeling,” he says. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”

In pursuing this step, MLB faced—and still faces—some difficult decisions about which leagues, years, and games to include and how to display the updated data. The history of Black baseball begins long before 1920, and the Negro American League persisted in diminished form through roughly 1960. MLB’s inquiry, spearheaded by Thorn, came to its conclusions by reviewing the records of the Seamheads database and the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s earlier, Lester-led efforts to compile stats, as well as by perusing published research and consulting with partners including Kendrick and the Elias Sports Bureau, the league’s official stat keeper.

In setting the cutoffs at 1920 and 1948, MLB is following the leads of the researchers at Seamheads and the authors of The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues, who settled on the same period. “There was no enduring league prior to 1920,” Thorn says. And although some historians have made the case for fixing the end date at 1950 or 1951, integration and the resulting raiding of Negro Leagues rosters by AL and NL clubs quickly took a toll on the Negro Leagues’ talent levels and financial viability after Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers prior to the 1946 season and debuted in the big leagues in 1947. 1948 also marks the last year in which the Negro World Series was played, as well as the final year of operation for the second Negro National League. “It seems to us [that] to extend the end date into the ’50s when there was very little league structure and a lot of barnstorming and a lot of clubs coming and going would make the results more amorphous,” Thorn says.

Because the cutoff is set at 1948, the newly expanded major league corpus won’t include some historically significant features, such as the home runs Hank Aaron hit for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 or the stats of Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, and Connie Morgan, the three women who played for Indianapolis in 1953 and 1954. And because Negro Leagues seasons were shorter than those of the AL and NL, this decision won’t rewrite any prominent career records. But it will force fans to reframe the way they think about certain careers and accomplishments—and, in the process, could encourage them to devote more attention to long-overlooked leagues.

Mays went deep at least once in his rookie campaign for the Black Barons, but a box score hasn’t been found. Until one is located, his famous mark of 660 homers will stay the same. But the single Mays celebrated as his 3,000th hit in July 1970 will no longer be considered his 3,000th; instead, it may end up as hit no. 3,010 or 3,017, depending on whether his hits in the ’48 NAL Championship Series are counted toward his tally. His “new” no. 3,000 might be a hit he believed to be no. 2,983 or 2,990. His first major league hit will no longer be the homer he launched off of Warren Spahn on May 28, 1951, but—at least for now—his single off Leniel Hooker on July 25, 1948. And the stories about how he started his big league career by going 1-for-26 will need an addendum—or, perhaps, a preface (although Mays did go 0-for-13 in his first four documented Negro Leagues games).

There’s plenty of precedent for revisions to major league stats; early AL/NL record keeping could be spotty, and even high-profile figures have been subject to change. “Some fans were upset when the hit totals for Cap Anson, Eddie Collins, and Honus Wagner—or the win totals for Cy Young, and Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson—changed, but history is process, not product,” says Thorn. Lester is bracing for blowback. “It’s going to create a firestorm before it is accepted,” he says, adding, “The cynics and naysayers will claim that these stats are not valid. Which is OK—it creates more work for me, and I’m ready for the challenge.”

He’s also ready for single-game or single-season feats to garner greater recognition. “We’re going to have all these no-hitters by Satchel Paige and Smokey Joe Williams and Andy Cooper and Willie Foster and Hilton Smith and Leon Day now as part of the record book,” Lester says. “Instead of saying Bob Feller pitched the only opening day no-hitter—well, he did in modern baseball in the American League. But Leon Day also pitched an opening day no-hitter in the Negro League. So I want to see Leon Day placed on that pantheon next to Bob Feller. He achieved the same extraordinary event, just in different leagues.”

Lengthening the list of no-hitters is an easy call, but MLB will face stickier situations when it comes to single-season rate stats. Fans are accustomed to citing Ted Williams, who batted .406 in 1941, as the last .400 hitter, but Hall of Famer and Homestead Grays great Josh Gibson batted .441 in 1943, and Artie Wilson batted .431 in 1948, albeit in a shorter season. Gibson’s 1943 mark would edge out Hugh Duffy’s .440 in 1894, which currently leads the all-time list.

Gibson amassed his stats that season in fewer than 80 games, but Thorn favors treating it like any other individual major league season that clears the long-established playing-time minimum for batting-title qualification of 3.1 plate appearances per team game. “The idea of having white major league records and an additional line for Black major league records will be very tough for me to accept,” he says, citing the “separate but equal” overtones and the similarity to an ill-conceived (and eventually abandoned) plan to display the plaque of Satchel Paige, the first Hall of Famer from the Negro Leagues, in a separate section of the museum. MLB’s press release states that the league and Elias “have begun a review process to determine the full scope of this designation’s ramifications on statistics and records,” and that the two entities “will work with historians and other experts in the field to evaluate the relevant issues and reach conclusions upon the completion of that process.”

Some parts of the process may never be quite complete. Seamheads crossed off the last missing season and league from the 1920-48 era in January, when the data for the 1932 Negro Southern League went live, but work is far from finished. Ashwill says the archive currently includes 9,137 of 12,525 known Negro Leagues games from 1920-48, or 73 percent, ranging from close to 100 percent in the 1920s to roughly 50 percent in the 1940s, when newspapers printed fewer box scores. It also encompasses 3,448 players. But those figures change from week to week as researchers track down elusive games played in obscure locations or uncover biographical details. On Wednesday, Ashwill added 16 games from the 1945 season.

“No other sport holds to its history like baseball does,” Kendrick says. “It is that beautiful game of comparison and statistics, and the statistics have not always been readily available. So in the minds of many, it discounted the Negro Leagues, because they would say, ‘Aw, that’s just legend and lore.’ And yeah, there is a lot of legend and lore that surrounds it. And I love that, but now you get a quantifiable look at the greatness of these players.” That quantification may lead to more Hall of Famers from the Negro Leagues (who remain underrepresented) or reevaluations of vague claims like the “almost 800 home runs” referenced on Gibson’s Cooperstown plaque. “Using that hyperbole to exaggerate someone’s greatness is unnecessary when his basic stats are good enough,” Lester says.

Like Sean Gibson, Josh’s great-grandson and the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, Kendrick hopes the reclassification will lead to upticks in appreciation and support for Negro Leagues players and programs. “As much as our mission is about preserving this history and hopefully enlightening people to a piece of Americana that had for so long been forgotten, we are a teaching institution as well,” he says. “As people are seeing these names, likely for the first time, hopefully the curiosity will be to learn more about who they are. And perhaps that will steer even more folks to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to learn the story in its entirety, to understand the profoundness of what these leagues represented both on and off the field.”

The museum endured pandemic-dictated shutdowns and postponed some centennial celebration plans earlier this year, but Kendrick says this development softens some of those blows. “It’s a perfect way for us to finish the year, in a year that has been so challenging not just for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, but for everybody. … For baseball to make this acknowledgement at the end of the actual 100th-anniversary year, it just kind of gives us more momentum as we move into next year with the Negro Leagues 101 celebration.”

This was a year in which MLB players sat out and spoke out more than ever before. Members of the Players Alliance donated their salaries from Jackie Robinson Day to help combat racial inequality, and MLB and the MLBPA donated $10 million to support the group’s initiatives. The BBWAA stripped segregation-upholding commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s name from the MVP award and is mulling a change to the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for similar reasons. On Wednesday, the Society for American Baseball Research announced the formation of a task force that will study Negro Leagues reclassification independent of MLB. (“We would prefer that we came to the same conclusions,” says Mark Armour, president of SABR’s board of directors.) Not every initiative has heft, and as was the case with Miami’s hiring of Kim Ng or Cleveland’s commitment to retiring its team name, it’s impossible to separate the heartening aspects of this news from the fact that it took too long. But taken together, these steps suggest a positive pattern, if far from a fix.

“We know that there are going to be some that you ain’t going to ever satisfy, because they just got in their minds that this was a lesser league,” Kendrick says. “And my job is to try to hopefully help them understand now that this league was as major as it comes.” That job may have just gotten a little less difficult.