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Counting The Negro Leagues

I never saw a Negro League game. By the time I was old enough to have more than a passing interest in baseball, there already were a number of Black stars sprinkled onto the rosters of Major League teams, and the Negro Leagues were defunct. While we never articulated the obvious, we inherently knew the Black guys could play. We saw that for ourselves.

Being a White Sox devotee, Minoso was our man. Not only were his statistics among the American League's elite, but he lit up the field with his electric energy, devout rapture for the game, and boundless enthusiasm. Minoso getting hit by a pitch could be just as exciting as a teammate legging out a triple. Minnie, a right-handed hitter, stood inches from the inside corner of the plate, not exactly a secure position for a Black, multi-talented ballplayer in those days. Not surprisingly, Minoso led the league 10 seasons in getting hit.

Minnie arrived on the South Side in 1951 via a trade with Cleveland in which the Sox swapped plodding, slow, sometime sluggers Dave Philly and Gus Zernial, and the Go-Go Sox were born. Of course, Jackie Robinson was then in his fifth season with the Dodgers, who had added former Negro Leaguers pitcher Don Newcombe and catcher Roy Campanella. Willie Mays debuted with the Giants the same year Minoso's home became Comiskey Park.

For the most part, the National League was far more progressive when it came to signing Black players. Ernie Banks, Henry Aaron, Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin, Sam Jethroe, Frank Robinson, Joe Black and Willie McCovey were just a few of the African Americans who first played in the NL in the 1950s.

As a sign that the times were, indeed, a changin', Campanella was voted MVP in 1951 while Mays was Rookie of the Year.

Further proof of the immediate impact that Black players made on the game was the annual All-Star Game. Introduced in 1933, the American League, relying on the dominant Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio, won 12 of the first 16 contests. But once the National Leaguers took the lead in employing Black players, they flipped the next 16, winning a dozen of those games. From 1960 to 1970, the National League held a commanding 13-1 advantage. (Two All-Star Games were played each season from 1959-62.)

That's probably more background than required to make the point that the announcement last week by Major League Baseball to legitimize the Negro Leagues is a meager attempt to tell us something we've known for many years.

Much of the criticism focused on the timing of this development. It's been almost 75 years since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers. It's been more than 50 years since MLB recognized six former leagues, including the Federal League, as legitimate major leagues. It mattered not that the Federal League was organized in 1913 and folded two years later.

The Negro Leagues stretch back to the 1880s, although the years 1920-48 are those now being recognized so that 3,400 players and their statistics can be entered into the record books. Wouldn't it be interesting to be able to question then-commissioner William (Spike) Eckert about the reasoning to omit the Negro Leagues back in 1968. However, Eckert died in 1971, a condition that was little different than what he exhibited during his short reign.

Today's commissioner Rob Manfred called the omission of the Negro Leagues 52 years ago an "error" when in reality it was the result of overt racism, fear and hate in which skin color dictated who could and could not play in the Major Leagues.

In this year of Black Lives Matter, social unrest, and a divided society, apparently Manfred and his associates decided it was high time to finally right a wrong. "[T]he Negro Leagues produced many of our game's best players, innovations, and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice," read the commissioner's statement in part. "We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record." While Manfred received plaudits in some quarters, especially from the descendants of Negro League players, cynics emerged.

ESPN writer Howard Bryant is a member of this latter group.

"They did not want to live next to Black people and they did not want to play baseball with them," Bryant wrote. "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."

Now comes the hard part. Since the White press and Sporting News devoted little coverage, if any, of the Negro Leagues, reconstructing the records and statistics of all those Black players could take years. Seamheads has given us a head start, but the task remains monumental.

Most of the Negro League players had agreements with their owners but no written contracts, and players jumped from team to team if they got a better offer. In fact, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, he inquired whether Robinson had any agreement in writing from the Kansas City Monarchs. None existed so Rickey felt no compulsion to compensate the Monarchs, a historical piece of larceny seldom reported. Once the top Negro League talent escalated to the Major Leagues without compensation to the Black clubs, the Negro Leagues headed on a steady downhill slide.

As if assembling the records of players who toiled for multiple teams isn't daunting enough, once those statistics are organized, how will they be used? For instance, one of the great Black players, Oscar Charleston, who played from 1915 to 1941, never played in more than 104 games in a season, according to Seamheads. A .350 lifetime hitter, Charleston hit .400 or higher in five different seasons. Yet in none of them did he have the required 502 plate appearances that MLB stipulates are needed to qualify for a batting title in a 162-game season.

The greatest power hitter of the Negro Leagues and very possibly of all-time, Josh Gibson, is credited with 238 round-trippers, according to Seamheads. One of the too few Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame - he was elected in 1972 despite the fact that his venue wasn't recognized as Major League - Gibson's HOF plaque claims he hit almost 800 home runs. Why the discrepancy?

This investigation very well could be most intense when it comes to Leroy (Satchel) Paige, called the greatest pitcher ever by no less than Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and many others. Paige is listed as having pitched for 15 different ballclubs between 1927 and '47 before Bill Veeck signed him in 1948 for the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians. Satch was a 41-year-old "rookie" who started or relieved in 21 games, going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA. He was the first Black pitcher to appear in a World Series.

The legendary Paige's final appearance came when he was 58 when he started one game for the Kansas City A's, hurling three scoreless innings against the Red Sox in late September. Carl Yastrzemski nicked him for a two-base hit, the only safety Satch gave up that day.

Because Paige pitched 12 months a year including barnstorming tours and winter ball all over the Caribbean, the pencil pushers will have to decipher which games count on his "official" record. This won't be easy as some accounts claim that Paige pitched as many as 400 games in a single year.

This move by MLB should have little effect for players as well-known as Paige and Gibson, but perhaps we'll learn more about some of the lesser publicized athletes which might be helpful.

In Minoso's case, he missed being elected by one vote to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Era Committee in 2014. Part of the reason was that no member of the Hall has less than 2,000 hits, a plateau that Minnie missed by 37 hits. Voters were instructed to consider only players' records at the Major League level. Minoso's Seamheads' ledger credits him with 158 hits while playing three seasons with the New York Cubans, pushing him over the magical 2,000 level. So one could argue that Manfred's maneuver came too late for my childhood favorite.

Bill James claimed that if Minoso had entered the Major Leagues five years before he did, Minnie would be one of the 30 greatest players of all time.

Thus, to declare at this time to the thousands of Negro League players and the fans that followed them that after all these years you are "legitimate" very well could be interpreted as just another instance of the White man calling the shots. This can't be the message Manfred intended. But for many of us, we're left scratching our heads and asking, "Why?" and "Why now?"

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Jan 11, 2021