Major League Baseball has long celebrated the legacy of the Negro Leagues. But for the first time, MLB is officially recognizing that the quality of the segregation-era circuits was comparable to its own product from that time period.
Addressing what MLB described as a “long overdue recognition,” Commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday bestowed Major League status upon seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. The decision means that the approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues during this time period are officially considered Major Leaguers, with their stats and records becoming a part of Major League history.
“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,” Manfred said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.
”The seven leagues are the Negro National League (I) (1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the Negro National League (II) (1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48). Those leagues combined to produce 35 Hall of Famers, and the result of MLB’s decision is that Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell have achieved the Major League status denied to them in their living years by the injustice of segregation.
The decision took into account discussions with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a 2006 study by the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group and an expanding historical record of Negro League statistics, among other factors. In its announcement, MLB specifically commended historian Larry Lester, a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, as well as Gary Ashwill, Scott Simkus, Mike Lynch and Kevin Johnson for their construction of Seamheads’ Negro Leagues Database, which has pieced together newspapers, scorebooks, photo albums and microfiche to provide the most complete statistical record of the Negro Leagues to date.
As part of the decision, MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau — MLB’s official statistician — have begun a review process to determine the full scope of the designation’s effect on records and statistics. Historians and other experts will be consulted as part of that process.
The Negro Leagues’ status change was applauded by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick.
“For historical merit, it is extraordinarily important,” Kendrick said. “Having been around so many of the Negro League players, they never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them. But for fans and for historical sake, this is significant, it really is. So we are extremely pleased with this announcement. And for us, it does give additional credence to how significant the Negro Leagues were, both on and off the field.”
The Negro National League is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and there would have been a lot of commemoration of it in MLB this year had it not been for the coronavirus. As such, the timing of this makes sense, and was widely expected to happen. The stats of some future MLB players like Willie Mays will change as a result, as The Ringer documents in its story on how this came to be.
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.”
Read the rest, and read their August story as well. And then, go read this less sanguine view of the situation, and maybe ponder how much better off we’d all be if the Negro Leagues and the men – and women! – who played in them had been treated as the true major leaguers they always were all along.