MLB compiles Negro League statistics, shakes record books

NEW YORK — Josh Gibson became Major League Baseball’s career leader with a .372 batting average, surpassing Ty Cobb’s .367, when the Negro League records for more than 2,300 players were combined Tuesday after a three-year study program.

Gibson’s .466 average for the 1943 Homestead Grays became the season standard, followed by Charlie “Chino” Smith’s .451 for the 1929 New York Lincoln Giants. They surpassed Hugh Duffy’s .440 for the National League’s Boston in 1894.

Gibson had a slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.177), ahead of Babe Ruth (.690 and 1.164).

“This initiative is focused on ensuring that future generations of fans have access to the statistics and milestones of everyone who made the Negro Leagues possible,” baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “Their accomplishments on the field will serve as a gateway to broader learning in American history about this hit and the path that led to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut.”

In 1969 a Special Committee on Baseball Records decided to recognize the six major leagues dating back to 1876: the National (which began in 1876), the American (1901), the American Association (1882–1891), the Union Association (1884), the Players’ League ( 1890) and the Federal League (1914–1915). It excluded the National Association (1871–75), citing “irregular schedules and practices.”

MLB announced in December 2020 that it would “fix a longstanding oversight” by adding the Negro Leagues. John Thorne, MLB’s official historian, chaired a 17-member panel of Negro Leagues experts and statisticians.

“The shortened 60-game season for the 2020 calendar year for the National League and American League has prompted speculation that shortened Negro League seasons might fall under the MLB umbrella,” Thorne said.

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An updated version of MLB’s database will go public before the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants play a June 20 tribute game to the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

The standards for season leaders are the same for the Negro Leagues as for other leagues: 3.1 plate appearances or one inning for each game played by a player’s team.

Gibson’s .974 slugging percentage in 1937 became the season record, and Barry Bonds’ .863 in 2001 tied for fifth, and trailed Mules Suttles’ .877 in 1926, Gibson’s .871 in 1943 and Smith’s 18279 in 1927.

Bonds’ previous OPS record of 1.421 in 2004 fell to third behind Gibson’s 1.474 in 1937 and 1.435 in 1943.

Willie Mays had 10 hits from the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, raising his total to 3,293. Minnie Minoso surpassed the 2,000 hit mark, with 150 hits for the New York Cubans from 1946 to 1948, bringing her total to 2,113.

Robinson, who broke MLB’s color barrier with the 1947 Dodgers, had 49 hits with the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs, bringing his total to 1,567.

Among the pitchers, Satchel Paige had 28 hits, bringing his total to 125.

The committee met six times to address issues such as the meaningless of compiled league statistics, such as the league having more wins than losses and missing walks. Researchers must identify whether players with the same name were one person or separate, track dates of birth, and identify those listed by nicknames. Documenting transactions and identifying ballparks, uncovering statistics for independent teams continues to be an ongoing process during the era when neutral sites were used more frequently.

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Kevin Johnson and Gary Ashwill, researchers who spent nearly two decades assembling the Seamheads Negro Leagues database, were added to the project.

Thorne estimated that 72% of Negro Leagues records date from 1920 to 1948, and he said additional research could lead to future changes. Gibson’s four-homer game in 1938 and the home run by Mays in August 1948 were not included because complete game accounts could not be found, Thorne said.

“Without a box score, we can’t really balance the stats,” Johnson said. “Those games are kind of on hiatus at the moment.”

Entries include First Negro National League (1920-31), Eastern Colored League (1923-28), American Negro League (1929), East-West League (1932), Negro Southern League (1932), Second Negro National League (1933). including -48) and the Negro American League (1937-48).

Some sports details were obtained from newspapers covering black communities. Johnson found complete accounts for 95% of games in the 1920s, but coverage dropped during the Great Depression of the 1930s and never fully recovered.

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