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No matter what the MLB said, the Negro Leagues were never less than great

A chapter in the 1991 edition of “Total Baseball,” written by sports scholar Jules Tygiel, whom I interviewed a few times for his groundbreaking research on the Negro Leagues, tells of offseason whistle games pitting white baseball stars against their league counterparts played. Black competitions.

This section came to mind this week after the MLB’s Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, led by official MLB historian John Thorn, concluded that the achievements of black players during the 60-year segregated era should be included in the official statistics of what, despite that racist history, is celebrated as America’s pastime.

“Postseason tours against big league stars offered black players the opportunity to prove their equality on the diamond,” Tygiel wrote in 1991. “Matchups between the Babe Ruth or Dizzy Dean ‘All-Stars’ and black players were common. The most famous of the interracial barnstorming tours occurred in 1946, when Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller organized a Major League all-star team and toured the country accompanied by the Satchel Paige All-Stars.

“Survivor data shows that blacks won two-thirds of all interracial games,” Tygiel noted.

In other words, as I argued Wednesday in “Around the Horn”: “The Negro Leagues were never less than great. They weren’t minor leagues.”

Black people don’t need white institutions to validate our greatness. But the work of Thorn’s 17-member committee — as well as Bob Kendrick, chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and great-grandson of Negro Leagues Josh Gibson, Sean Gibson, to name a few of late — is commendable. It further proved how talented black ballplayers were who weren’t allowed to play in the white majors and, as Tygiel revealed long ago, how high the talent was in both halves of segregated baseball.

Or, as I further argued in “Around the Horn,” “The big leagues may not have been as big as we mythologized them.”

The achievements of the first half of the 20th century deserve an asterisk as prominent as any in sports. They all—Babe Ruth’s home runs, Ty Cobb’s hits, Walter Johnson’s strikeouts—occurred in their own racial vacuum.

Their statistics should always have suffered the same suspicion as those of black players, whose opponents noted that their achievements were only against players of the same racial progeny.

But not enough people dared to wonder, for example, whether Ruth could have hit as many home runs if he had regularly faced Willie Foster, who, according to Thorn’s investigative committee, won at least 150 games in the Negro Leagues with 39 shutouts and a 2.59 ERA. followed. Foster was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

Not enough people dared to wonder whether Johnson would have racked up all those strikeouts had he regularly pitched against players like Gibson, long considered the Negro Leagues’ greatest hitter. This week, many of the details of Gibson’s career were confirmed by Thorn’s committee. As a result, Gibson was elevated to the Major League leader in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS, ahead of Ruth and the irascible racist Cobb.

Thorn told Clinton Yates of Andscape that the committee could not verify Gibson’s 800 home runs, however.

“We had no trouble getting (Sean Gibson) to agree that the 800 or nearly 800 home runs attributed to his great-grandfather on his Hall of Fame plaque were probably foolish and, if not foolish, then a whole bunch of games that we couldn’t possibly consider Major League baseball quality,” Thorn explained.

That inability was also a byproduct of segregated baseball. The white press rarely covered Negro Leagues baseball, and the black press sometimes had no space reserved for box scores when so many pages were reserved for news that sought to free black people from Jim Crow.

On a few occasions, Black sportswriters even used their space to point out the ridiculous assumption of the white majors, as Phil Dixon noted about Associated Negro Press sportswriter Al Monroe in his 2019 book “The Dizzy and Daffy Dean Barnstorming Tour: Race, Media, and America’s National Pastime.”

“This Wednesday the Cards and Detroit start the world series, in which the world champions must be named. For some, yes,” Monroe reported in 1934. “I really don’t understand how any team can call itself champion of the world if it hasn’t fought Satchel Paige, ‘School Boy’ Jones, Bill Foster and (Ted) Trent. And I wonder if the Dean Brothers can boast about their strikeout records and World Series wins over teams that didn’t include Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearns, Jud Wilson, Oscar Charleston and others.”

The harms of baseball’s long-standing segregation have not been properly recognized, given that the sport — like any corner of society — has endorsed, promoted and popularized racial discrimination in this country. When it finally decided to tear down the wall of separation, the equal talent between white and black ballplayers was revealed.

After Jackie Robinson won the inaugural award in 1947, five of the first six National League rookies of the year were black. After Robinson won the National League stolen base title in 1947 and 1949, players of color in the NL such as Mays, Maury Wills and Lou Brock won every title but one until Craig Biggio in 1994.

Tygiel quoted Judy Johnson, one of the legendary players of the Negro Leagues, about those games against white stars in the 1930s and 1940s when black teams so often had the upper hand. Johnson said, “That’s when we played the loudest, to let them know and to let the crowd know that we had the same talent as them, and sometimes probably a little better.”

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