Willie Mays had his 1948 Birmingham Black Barons teammates on his mind Wednesday, especially those who never played in the “major leagues.”
“Piper Davis. Artie Wilson. Ed Steele.(“Pepper”) Bassett. (Jack) Britton. Bill Greason. Norm Robinson. Alonzo Perry. Jimmy Zapp. We had a lot of good guys and a lot of good players,” Mays said in an emotional moment, reflecting on his old friends.
Most of Mays’ teammates didn’t get big-league opportunities because of their skin color, but their records and statistics now will be counted alongside those who played in the majors.
Wednesday, Major League Baseball announced it has reclassified the Negro Leagues as a major league, meaning the stats of the 1948 Black Barons — and others who played in the Negro Leagues — will be added to the big-league registers.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Mays said in a phone interview with The Chronicle. “It recognizes guys who played way back. I’m talking a lot of good ballplayers. These are just numbers now. There’s more to it. They were never part of the league.”
When Mays was a child, MLB didn’t permit African Americans. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, but integration was slow — the Boston Red Sox didn’t have a Black player until 12 years later — and teams adhered to quotas.
In most cases, only premier Black players got opportunities. So average players who at least could have been utility men in the majors were passed over because teams preferred white players when rounding out their rosters.
That kept many of Mays’ teammates and countless others in the Negro Leagues out of the majors. And, of course, none were permitted in the majors from the Negro Leagues’ inception in 1920 through 1946.
When Mays was informed of Wednesday’s news, his thoughts turned more to the careers of others who played in the Negro Leagues rather than his own. Mays was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, perhaps the greatest all-around player in history, but he understands the disappointments of so many others who weren’t afforded the same opportunity.
As for Mays’ stats, they won’t dramatically change. He’ll still have 660 home runs, but he’ll receive credit for 16 more hits (giving him 3,299 in his career), 12 more RBIs (1,915) and nine more runs (2,071). On the other hand, his lifetime average will drop from .302 to .301.
Mays played three seasons for the Black Barons, starting as a 17-year-old in 1948 when he was a sophomore at Fairfield Industrial High School outside of Birmingham, Ala. But his stats from 1949 and 1950 wouldn’t be included in his major-league career stats.
MLB is counting Negro League stats only through 1948, the last year of the Negro Leagues World Series, which no longer was played with interest waning as the top players in the Negro Leagues were joining major-league teams.
In the final Negro League World Series, Mays’ Black Barons fell to the Homestead Grays in five games. So in reality, Mays played in five World Series, not four.
“I’ll go along with the program,” Mays said after hearing the details. “I’ll have to look into this a little more. I was in high school playing with these guys, and most of them aren’t around anymore. It’s a difficult thing.”
Wilson, a fabulous Black Barons shortstop, played briefly for the 1951 New York Giants before Mays got called to the majors. And Greason, in 1954, became the St. Louis Cardinals’ first African American pitcher. But neither got much of a look.
Complete records weren’t always kept in the Negro Leagues, and Mays has said he recalls hitting home runs and stealing bases for the Black Barons in 1948. None are registered, however.
Also, Negro League teams played many exhibitions during a regular season and even between games of a World Series. Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states he hit “almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career,” but he’s credited with 238.
MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau have begun a review process to decide how to handle the Negro Leagues’ records and statistics and will work with historians and researchers before reaching conclusions.
In its announcement, coming in the 100-year anniversary of the start of the Negro Leagues, MLB said it’s “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history.” Seven Negro Leagues will be added to MLB’s records.
MLB could have done this in 1969 when many Negro Leaguers were alive. Instead, a committee on baseball records chose six official “major leagues” dating to 1876. The Negro Leagues were excluded.
Now, MLB calls that oversight “clearly an error that demands today’s designation.”
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., called Wednesday’s announcement a “well-deserved recognition of the Negro Leagues. In the minds of baseball fans worldwide, this serves as historical validation for those who had been shunned from the major leagues and had the foresight and courage to create their own league that helped change the game and our country too.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged baseball’s segregation when saying, “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.
“We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as major-leaguers within the official historical record.”
John Shea covers the Giants for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @JohnSheaHey
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