It’s official: statistics from several Negro Leagues are now recognized as Major League statistics. As a result, we have a new all-time career and season batting leader in the great Josh Gibson. Officially, Gibson surpasses Cobb with a .372 career batting average, to Cobb’s .367. This is not the most important part of the statistical integration story. But understandably, it is the headline we are seeing today. I’ll use it as well…it’s challenging in a useful way.

MLB Official Statement

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred explains in a statement that “This initiative is focused on ensuring that future generations of fans have access to the statistics and milestones of all those who made the Negro Leagues possible . . . Their accomplishments on the field will be a gateway to broader learning about this triumph in American history and the path that led to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut.”

I wish Manfred went further to fight for legitimacy of these stats, instead of couching the integration as more or less symbolic. It is symbolic, but it is not merely so. And it’s not just about a path to Jackie and to integration. It’s  also about recognizing these leagues, players, and stats for what and who they were, period.

The Process of Integrating Negro League Stats

As a collector of mostly Cuban cards of Negro Leaguers (here’s a feature on my favorite set), I have been following this statistical integration story for years. While I’m reading many knee-jerk reactions, the process itself has been detailed, political, and fascinating. But most of all I would say that it has been careful.

The groundwork for MLB’s announcement started in the early 2000’s but gained steam in 2020, when after careful study, a team of 16 decided to officially recognize the following Negro Leagues as Major Leagues:

  • Negro National League (I) (1920-31)
  • Eastern Colored League (1923-28)
  • American Negro League (1929)
  • East-West League (1932)
  • Negro Southern League (1932)
  • Negro National League (II) (1933-48)
  • Negro American League (1937-48)

The question then became how to proceed with the difficult task of gathering and integrating the statistics. You can read more backstory on the long, detailed process directly from MLB. The integration of stats means that MLB officially gains about 3,400 former players, and so the work involved is staggering.

Reactions and Counterpoints

As predicted, I’m reading lots of backlash in comments regarding the incorporation of Negro League stats into MLB statistics. Most of them are ill-informed: “I thought Josh Gibson had 800 home runs!” These oft-quoted loose stats are part lore, and include alleged dingers launched during barnstorming tours, often played against locals. The stats MLB recognizes are only for sanctioned games, and only for games played in the U.S.

Most Negro League stars, Gibson included, played hundreds of games in top pro leagues in Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican. This was in part due to limited opportunities in the U.S. Those stats against top-tier professional competition–on par with anything in the U.S. at the time–are also not included in MLB stats. Negro Leaguers did not get the opportunity to “compile” the way white players did. There was no stability season to season, with new leagues coming and going, and other leagues competing for talent.

“But Negro League pitching was not great–so those batting stats are inflated!” Counterpoint: “MLB pitchers were not pitching to Gibson–so those pitching stats are inflated!” See how that works?

Hard to Compare

Of course, we will never be able to compare apples to apples between historical MLB and Negro Leagues. Both leagues were certainly diluted by segregation. And the Negro Leagues were plagued by deplorable conditions all around: pay, travel, lodging, nutrition, equipment, field conditions, and more. Despite these challenges, Negro League teams competed well against “MLB” teams when given the opportunity, winning about as many as they lost, according to most accounts.

Further, it is also difficult to compare MLB players and statistics across different eras (from dead ball to steroids, or pre-integration to post-integration, for example).

And yet those statistical discrepancies don’t seem to bother folks as much as the idea of Josh Gibson as the batting leader. Food for thought.