For Larry Lester, Wednesday’s announcement that Major League Baseball would recognize the Negro Leagues as “major league” was bittersweet.
The co-founder of Kansas City’s Negro League Baseball Museum, Lester cried tears of joy that his more than half-century of work was recognized, and that a greater air of legitimacy might be lent to the statistics of Black ballplayers deprived the chance to compete in a league bent on maintaining segregation.
And he cried tears of sadness that so many of his friends and Negro League legends – be it Larry Doby, who integrated the American League, Cuban trailblazer Minnie Minoso, or Giants great Monte Irvin – did not live long enough to see the day.
Above all, though, he felt heartened that the task ahead – quantifying and making official the statistics and records of the Negro Leagues – would better illuminate an era where many of the greatest players in baseball history weren’t even afforded separate, but equal status within the game.
Willie Mays retired with 660 career home runs but may get one more from his time in the Negro Leagues. (Photo: Associated Press)
“The beauty of it is it’s going to send a lot of historians and fans back in that time machine,” Lester, 71, said Thursday. “To find out more about these great men that they’d never heard of.
“To discover greatness.”
The symbolic power of the announcement certainly hit home for the scant surviving Negro Leaguers and their families. It also forged a partnership among MLB and its official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, and a group of dogged researchers who all will take on a potentially nettlesome task – incorporating Negro League statistics into MLB’s official records.
Lester and his partners in the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group collaborated with data and research experts Gary Ashwill and Kevin Johnson to form the Seamheads Negro Leagues database, widely regarded as the definitive online tome for the Negro Leagues.
'THEY TRULY DESERVE IT:' Families of Negro Leaguers rejoice in MLB's decision to recognize league
The data covers seasons from the 1880s through 1948, though MLB denoted the period from 1920 to 1948 – one year after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier – as the Negro Leagues’ “major league” period.
The data are culled from newspaper accounts and box scores, but lacks the official league accounts that documented American and National league games of that era. There will be discrepancies, but the Elias Sports Bureau is prepared to work through them.
“That might cause some problem, but we’re going to trust the data they have, take it and do the best we can with it,” says John Labombarda, the editorial head of the Elias Sports Bureau. “This will be an evolving project. As more data is unearthed, we will add it — and that’s true of Major League Baseball history — finding holes, correcting mistakes. This will be no different.
“We may be frustrated by some things. The nature of our company is we like things to balance out. Is there a game where a pitcher gave up 10 hits but the opposing team only had nine? That’s possible. But we’ll have to work through it as best we can with the information given. Seamheads, I know MLB endorses it so we’re starting at a good point.”
Says Lester: “Statistically, I’m ready to debate the worthiness of what I’ve done.”
Lester and Labombarda both don’t anticipate changes to all-time or single-season records. Negro League seasons ran fewer than 100 games, and while slugging catcher Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque notes that Gibson hit “almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball in his 17-year career,” his ledger counts only 238 home runs.
It is something of a Pandora’s box, aiming to quantify statistics that aren’t uniformly recorded.
“There’s some negative comments out there in social media, and I welcome those. I expected them,” says Lester. “Some of my Black audience, they’re upset that Josh Gibson did not hit 800 home runs on his Hall of Fame plaque, because we only include league games.”
But many numbers will change, including some synonymous with baseball history. Willie Mays’ 660 home runs once ranked third all-time; he’s now sixth, just two behind active slugger Albert Pujols.
Mays played in the Negro Leagues as a teenager but has no recorded home runs. Lester has unearthed a newspaper account of a home run Mays hit in 1948, but has not been able to corroborate it with a box score from the game.
It is not a coincidence: Robinson integrating Major League Baseball in 1947 lured much of the Black press that chronicled the Negro Leagues, a harbinger of its gradual demise.
MLB’s decision to elevate the Negro Leagues’ status is largely viewed as a rebuke to the Special Committee on Baseball Records’ 1969 exclusion of the Negro Leagues when it added six teams to “major league” designation.
Two years later, Satchel Paige earned induction into the Hall of Fame, which might not have happened were it not for Ted Williams’ endorsement of Negro League stars in his 1966 induction speech.
“We were the invisible leagues,” says Lester. “As a student of the game I used to read The Sporting News religiously, in the ‘50s and ‘60s and 70s and there was never any mention of Negro League games. The media controls the narrative and they chose not to recognize the Black leagues and therefore, in 1969, that was probably never on their agenda to discuss.
“They probably thought, ‘The Bible of Baseball didn’t discuss it, so why should we?’”
It’s challenging to get past the better-late-than-never feel of this week’s recognition. Lester is appreciative that his years of “laboring in obscurity” will be recognized.
And he welcomes any debate over the validity of his statistics, or the accomplishments of the players. Lester has copiously compared league-average data between the Negro Leagues and the American and National leagues in that era – batting average, ERAs, number of hitters batting better than .300 or worse than .200, to name a few – and sees virtually identical league environments.
That summation is only further confirmed by the greatness of Mays and Irvin, Minoso, Doby and Roy Campanella, when they were granted the chance to play in the other league.
“The data that I’ve captured is solid,” says Lester. “The size of the baseball is the same, the field is the same, they played in the same stadiums, got their uniforms from the same manufacturer, got their bats from Louisville Slugger.
“The infrastructure is identical. They just happened to be two different complexions.”
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