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On Monday, Baseball Reference, the online hub for such matters, would have told you that Stan Musial led the major league in 1943 with a batting average of .357 majors in strikeouts per nine innings between 1927 and 1945, and that the top three bats in career Adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage were Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds.
A day later, everything looks very different. Now Josh Gibson of the Homestead has surpassed Grays Musial with an average of .466 in 1943. Satchel Paige, a dominant pitcher for more than 20 seasons, has taken on eight of these strikeout titles. And Oscar Charleston, perhaps the best all-round player in Negro league history, has pushed Bonds for the third best career brand in customized OPS
“There will be a lot of new baseball trivia books coming out over the next few years,” joked Sean Forman, founder and president of Sports Reference, on a video call before his baseball site announced Tuesday that it had changed dramatically and expanded its own Accounting for the negro leagues. The move precedes Major League Baseball’s own plans to include the stats in their historical records of what could happen in the upcoming off-season.
The reason the Baseball Reference was adjusted dates back to August when Forman said he had read an article that players from the Negro leagues were not counted among the official major leagues and that the MLB was considering making several of those leagues official equivalent to their American and National Leagues.
By 1947, black players had been banned from the major leagues. And long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the accomplishments of most black players were overlooked. A committee of five white men granted major league status to four defunct organizations in 1969 but opted not to include the Negro leagues, an omission that MLB described as “clearly a mistake” in December when it announced it would The past racial error finally made amends and gave “long overdue appreciation” for more than 3,400 players from seven different negro leagues who were active between 1920 and 1948.
Baseball Reference has long had stats from the Negro leagues, but they weren’t complete, the numbers weren’t included in features like the Major League Leaderboards or the advanced search tool, and the players’ pages looked different from other Majors League players.
Forman said Sports Reference began speaking to people at Seamheads last summer about a possible licensing of their extensive Negro leagues database. But doing so and raising those leagues on his website didn’t crystallize until Forman read Ben Lindbergh’s article in The Ringer.
“It just didn’t cross my mind and I’m ashamed to say something,” said Forman.
Soon, Forman and his team embarked on the largest project Sports Reference had ever undertaken, with half of the company’s workforce busy in the past four months increasing the representation of the Negro leagues. The company asked for input from the families of players and researchers in the Negro leagues, commissioned articles from them, and sought interviews for a new podcast.
Although the Elias Sports Bureau is the official custodian of MLB stats and has been researching how best to incorporate Negro league statistics, given the dispersed nature of the various leagues and inconsistent records, the efforts of Baseball Reference, though unofficial, have been significant. This is because the website is perhaps the most accessible and widely used baseball almanac, visited by fans, players and front office executives alike.
“As baseball reinvents itself, every fan should embrace this statistical reorganization toward social redemption,” said Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues Committee, in a video call.
“The nice thing about these statistics is that they are now humanizing these folk heroes, and they are no longer mythical figures like Paul Bunyan or the steel-wrenching John Henry. These statistics legitimize their services. “
Lester said MLB’s December announcement was bittersweet because it followed what he described as the country’s awakening to social issues like police brutality and systemic racism. Adding the accomplishments of Negro League players to Baseball Reference, he said, is an opportunity for America to learn more about its history.
“Many of the websites need to be updated to include the size of the Negro League players,” he said. “You’ll discover great homerun hitters alongside Josh Gibson.”
However, the Major League rankings won’t change drastically on Tuesday due to several aggravating factors and inherent inequalities. First and foremost, Lester said, the negro leagues played between 50 and 70 games per season – less than half as many as the other major leagues – and therefore players from those leagues did not have the same opportunities.
Because of this, Lester says, odds stats like at-bats per home run or strikeouts per nine innings are better ways to show the talent of players like Gibson and Paige.
Gibson was a power hit catcher whose Hall of Fame plaque said he “made nearly 800 home runs in league and independent baseball,” but only 165 were listed on the Baseball Reference as of Tuesday.
Other barriers to negro league statistics: players often took part in games outside of league play, such as barnstorming shows – some of which were played against players from American and national leagues – and there are gaps in documentation. While Lester estimates the researchers have stats from at least 90 percent of the games in the Negro leagues from the 1920s and 1940s, they have roughly 60 to 75 percent of the games in the 1930s with holes caused by the Great Depression.
A frustrating example for Lester is the belief, supported by at least three newspaper reports, that Gibson achieved the rare feat of getting four home runs in one game. The game is said to have been played in Zanesville, Ohio 1938, but Lester was unable to find a full score for success – and the entire game – to be officially counted.
Game-by-game data from the Negro leagues is not currently available on Baseball Reference, but Forman said he hopes to expand the site’s offerings as further research is completed, including from other organizations such as Retrosheet, a website that which has documented the boxing results of almost every game in American and National League history.
“We hope that our publication of these initial statistics will stimulate further research and when the research is complete the accuracy and completeness of our presentations on the website will increase,” said Forman, who warned that player totals could change such as Gibson’s 1943 batting average, which, barring significant new insights, may set Hugh Duffy’s .440 mark of .440 as the official Major League record in 1894.
When the MLB made its Negro League announcement this winter, Gibson’s great-grandson Sean said there were many unanswered questions about how the recognition would come. He said the inclusion in this way in Baseball Reference was an example of the importance of the change. He imagined how excited one of the few living Negro League players, former outfielder Ron Teasley, 94, would be to see his side listed online in the Major Leaguers. Gibson also wondered if the change could bolster the fall of the Hall of Fame for players like Rap Dixon, a star outfielder in the 1920s and 1930s.
For his own family, Sean Gibson said he was excited to see how his great-grandfather’s accomplishments stand in major league history. On Tuesday, there were several new additions to the top of Josh Gibson’s baseball reference page: two-time Triple Crown winner, 12-time All-Star, two-time World Series winner, and three-time batting champion.
“It always used to be, ‘Was Josh Gibson considered one of the best black baseball players?'” Sean Gibson said on a video call. “Well, now we can say that Josh is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time.”