Major League Baseball’s decision to alter the status of the Negro Leagues to major league and incorporate Negro Leagues statistics into a historical record in which they did not participate is consistent with two opposing but defining forces of our time. One is the racial reckoning that has defined America post-George Floyd’s killing. The other is the routine bombardment by powerful institutions and individuals of ahistorical misinformation — the death of truth that has accelerated over the past four years.
Adding Negro League statistics to baseball’s official record in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues’ founding appeared to be a positive step toward racial justice, and indeed was motivated by the politics and climate of 2020. The decision was met with great applause, but in addition to being reconciliatory, it was also a spectacular display of historical distortion and institutional arrogance. Baseball has now decided that the threadbare, survivalist Negro Leagues — plural because there were so many Black leagues between 1920 and 1948, often unconnected to one another — are now the honored, rehabilitated equivalent of the National and American Leagues. The 1943 New York Yankees won the World Series with a 154-game schedule. According to the Negro Leagues database Seamheads.com, in 1943, Josh Gibson is credited with hitting .441 in 342 plate appearances, which wouldn’t qualify for a batting title. Because of lost record-keeping, Gibson’s walks are recorded — but his strikeouts are not.
When Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, he was offended by the very existence of the Negro Leagues because of their necessity and because the scheduling was so irregular — it was difficult to determine which games were official games and which were exhibitions. He couldn’t accurately calculate his batting average.
The poor scheduling and record-keeping, unreliable data and inferior conditions are not the fault of the Black players. Indeed, no one over the past half-century has questioned their ability. In addition to their exclusion from playing against their white peers, the totality of conditions stands as embarrassing testimony to what the major leagues forced Black players to endure, and that cannot be erased with a procedural merger a century later.
ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant joins Brad Mielke, host of the “Start Here” podcast powered by ABC News, to discuss Major League Baseball’s decision to reclassify the Negro Leagues as a major league. Listen
Baseball has sent the message: Generations of Black men who were denied the opportunity to play against the world’s best competition might have had to carry the devastating price of segregation with them to their graves, but the institution does not. Instead of accepting its history as a reminder of its past and its human cost, to remain as an institutional conscience, baseball took the easy way out. It decided to make itself feel better by rewriting the history books.
MLB’s news release referred to the decision as “correcting an oversight.” But the Negro Leagues were not the result of an “oversight,” and to frame their exclusion as such is stunningly offensive. It was a deliberate system. The major leagues destroyed a half-century of Black baseball history, and baseball history in general, with one unrelenting purpose in mind: to do their part in reinforcing Black inferiority to the rest of the country.
It is a playbook still employed today. The Negro Leagues served baseball well for decades. The players, fans and owners were used the way some politicians and their operatives use Black people today: to create fear of integration, fear of Black people among whites. The backbone of maintaining segregation was the belief that allowing Black players into the game would ruin the integrity of the sport — no different from the belief that allowing Black people into the suburbs would ruin the suburbs. In his 1996 book, “Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953,” G. Edward White dissects the distinct purpose the Negro Leagues served for baseball:
When the Negro Leagues had come within the consciousness of Organized Baseball, they had been seen as a reverse mirror image. If Organized Baseball was free from gambling and corruption, the Negro Leagues were run by racketeers. If Organized Baseball was premised on the roster stability of the reserve clause, the Negro Leagues were the province of contract jumpers. If Organized Baseball was structured around permanent franchise cities and regular schedules, the Negro Leagues were kaleidoscope of changing franchise and whimsical scheduling. If Organized Baseball was clean, wholesome, upwardly mobile sport, Negro League games were the scenes of rowdy, disorderly, vulgar behavior. By being the opposite of Organized Baseball’s idealized image, the Negro Leagues served as their own justification for the exclusion of blacks from the major leagues. They appeared to demonstrate just how “contaminated” major league baseball would become if blacks were allowed to play it.
Even the name, “Organized Baseball” — how baseball referred to itself before its incorporation as Major League Baseball — tacitly ridiculed Black players, who if not under the umbrella of organized ball must be disorganized, corrupt, illegitimate.
MLB’s actions today might have been more appropriate if the games, leagues, teams and schedules of the Black leagues would have contained the structure and record-keeping that could be construed as separate but equal. The game engineered a similar retrofit in 1969, when baseball added the statistics of the Federal League and the American Association to the historical record.
But there was nothing separate but equal about the Negro Leagues, and MLB’s statistical adjustment ignores the real-time conditions of the league and the motive for their exclusion. Just as in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was inherently unequal, separation devastated the Negro Leagues. It devastated the people. It devastated the record book. It did what it was intended to do.
Conveying Black inferiority was the cultural justification for the separation, and this statistical rehabilitation in 2020 also slyly attempts to rehabilitate baseball’s architects of segregation as having been respectful of Satchel Paige, and Rube Foster and Oscar Charleston, when they were not. They did not want to live next to Black people and they did not want to play baseball with them. The Negro Leagues did not play alongside the major leagues. They survived despite the major leagues. That intentional subjugation cannot be undone with a pen stroke. It cannot be forgotten that baseball spent a half-century undermining the credibility of the Negro Leagues.
The Negro Leagues also contained a certain irreverent beauty in their independence from Major League Baseball. They didn’t need baseball’s validation to be special. There is magic in standing alone. Whether turning the worst parts of the pig into soul food, the worst urban conditions into a billion-dollar rap music industry or making an often itinerant baseball life into the iconic treasure that is the Negro Leagues, the beauty of Black people is in the ability to be unwanted and still create gold. No inclusion of “official statistics” or the imprimatur of baseball can ever compare to that.
The better remedy, of course, would have been to tell the truth. But America does not do the truth very well. A century from now, because of what baseball has done, the record books will show an equality, a form of separate-but-equal fiction that at first glance absolves MLB of its active hand in destroying the careers of Black baseball players — and a Black institution. Historians will have to circumvent the now-public record to recover the truth.
Baseball could have elevated the Negro League classifications as a professional league without altering the record books. It could have retroactively elevated the pensions, to financially assist Negro League descendants. Baseball should have taken the honest road, which would be to carry its stain and leave the tattered, piecemeal records of the various Negro Leagues as a historical reminder of its own destructiveness. Baseball did not do that — not because it was so important to give Josh Gibson a posthumous batting title but because like most of white, mainstream society, it does not want to carry its share of the responsibility for the condition it created.
While baseball has taken what it considers to be a step toward reparation, it has taken another away from accountability. Part of the strength of an institution is in its acknowledgment of where it has failed, and who suffered because of that failure.
Josh Gibson should not be acknowledged as a major league batting champ because Josh Gibson never played in the major leagues. His statistics were never considered on par with the big leagues because Major League Baseball did not respect the institution of the Negro Leagues, even though Gibson’s individual talent was unquestioned. The reason was not an oversight, but a mandate from the very top of the game. This year, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America took the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis off of its annual Most Valuable Player awards. Landis was baseball’s inaugural commissioner whom Paul Robeson pressured in a 1943 meeting to integrate when the entire sport knew Landis would never allow integration on his watch. If Gibson and several generations of Black men had to carry that injustice to their graves, the institution of baseball can carry it too.
At some point, baseball, like the rest of the country, must wear what it has done to Black people. As much as it must acknowledge that the massive Black underclass the country’s two political parties fight over every four years was created by America and not the lack of drive or industry on the part of African Americans, it must also acknowledge that the tattered, unreliable statistical and historical record of the Negro Leagues was not the byproduct of Black baseball’s poor business acumen. It was born from baseball’s racism, and the effects of that racism cannot be retrofitted into the record books. Not knowing Slim Jones’ full statistics is not his stain but baseball’s. The reason the Negro Leagues are so steeped in legend is because no one knows precisely what happened.
The legend that Josh Gibson perhaps hit 800 home runs carries more power than what is left of the shredded, surviving statistical record because it gave these Black men their poetry. It gave them their dignity. The legend was more important than being anointed legitimate 100 years later by the very industry that excluded them. They became bigger than the numbers that were denied them. Legend has given them back what MLB took.
For those who lived during the time, the history is obvious, but future generations will not know the history because it will not be theirs, and certainly, that historical erasure of combining MLB and Negro League statistics is the point — that one day no one will know the difference. Black and white players will, over generations, become indistinguishable statistical slash lines at first glance. The sport will be credited with making these Black players “whole,” white people will feel better about themselves, and thus the Negro Leaguers’ experiences as proud and humiliated professionals — and more important, who humiliated them — will all be forgotten.
Baseball can change its record books, but it cannot choose how long it will recognize what it did to these Black players. The Negro Leagues, and the scattered and incomplete logbook, is and always will be the game’s eternal burden. The sport must carry it, and it cannot be undone. Instead of carrying its historical share as we all must, baseball preferred distortion, reminding us that in America, all remedies are an option — except the truth.
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