Adding Negro League stats to Baseball-Reference is recognition that MLB’s past is still evolving

Adding Negro League stats to Baseball-Reference is recognition that MLB’s past is still evolving

Philly honors Negro Leaguers last season. Now their stats count for real.

Philly honors Negro Leaguers last season. Now their stats count for real.
Image: Getty Images

Baseball-Reference is the gold standard for record keeping in a game whose numbers are its lifeblood. The site that Sean Forman built has supplanted decades of encyclopedias, carving out a niche on the Internet as the most authoritative source for statistics to connect baseball’s past to its present. Any bar bet can now be settled with a few taps on a smartphone, any tidbit a baseball writer wants to include in a story is mere clicks away.

What’s remarkable about this week’s addition of statistics from the Negro Leagues to Baseball-Reference’s vast database, and properly including them as major league numbers, isn’t that it happened. As Forman wrote, “Our decision to fix this omission is just a tiny part of the story.” The big change is in logging onto Baseball-Reference and seeing numbers that you know are incomplete, because there is still research to be done.

But here’s the secret: The statistics for white players aren’t written in stone, either.

“I think we’re probably a little more aware of the ambiguity of the existing white major league stats than most of our users would be — probably all of our users would be,” Forman told Deadspin. “And I joke that Ty Cobb’s hit total is 4,191, plus or minus five. And so we don’t know, there’s always a little bit of ambiguity in those numbers and some kind of editorial discretion that goes into those values. And so, you know, there’s more of that, obviously, with the Black major league stats. And so it’s a case where we’re trying to pick good partners, like the Seamheads people. Gary Ashwill and his group are phenomenal researchers and really take their time, and have good reasons for the decisions that they make.”

The key differences in being able to accurately compile statistics for the Black players of 1920-48 are in the availability of contemporaneous records, as well as in the structure of the leagues and the amount of barnstorming that Black teams did. That’s the reason Josh Gibson’s plaque in Cooperstown refers to him hitting 800-plus homers, but Baseball-Reference lists him at 165. Only 598 games of Gibson’s from 1930-46 are part of the record, so while he had a career high of 20 dingers, you’re still talking about a catcher with 40-homer power who led his league 11 times.

Gibson hit .466/.560/.867 with 20 homers and 109 RBI for the Homestead Grays in 1943 — in 69 games. And that season represents Gibson’s career high for games played, at least as far as the recorded statistics say. Those numbers may or may not be among those that get updated by more research, but knowing the limitations of the numbers that exist surely is better than not having the numbers at all.

“We want to kind of set people’s expectations that these numbers are going to change,” Forman said. “They’re never going to be 100% complete in the way that we might think of the American League at the time. And so, you know, and I tried to stress that, we want to treat them as equivalent, but we have to understand that it’s different as well. And part of that is due to the context that they were forced to play under due to the racism of the time. And part of it is just that things were structured differently, for both systemic and other reasons as well. So we’re trying to be up front about that and kind of lead with that we’re in the process, and still hopefully give them the weight and the heft that we feel they deserve.”

Forman cited the example of the 1931 Kansas City Monarchs, who had five Hall of Famers on their roster and “played a schedule that was major league quality, but they were not in a league structure.” Those teams’ stats are not included, but “that may change as we go forward.” Gibson didn’t play for the Monarchs, but he did hit 17 homers for the unaffiliated Homestead Grays from 1930-31, plus eight for the Pittsburgh Crawford in 1932. The fullest accounting of Gibson’s career on Baseball-Reference, then, has him down for 190 homers — it’s just a question of when and if those extra 25 are added to the record, or if those seasons remain excluded from being considered major league performances.

One change that’s already on the horizon is the figures for wins above replacement, which will fluctuate as Baseball-Reference computes park factors for the Black major leagues and adds them to the WAR recipe.

“David Neft, I know a little bit, and he edited The Baseball Encyclopedia and kind of ran that project in 1969,” Forman said.”I always thought he kind of had all the fun getting to do that research and build you these profiles of these players. We’ve enjoyed doing that work here and having a chance to do that. … We’ve been digging in, and it’s like a sweater where you pull on one string, and find all kinds of different things that come up. You have to deal with that and those considerations. So that’s been a significant part of the process for us, and will be.”

With the site being built on a love of both research and the game, Baseball-Reference is coming from the right place. The stats for Black baseball stars of the first half of the 20th century may never be fully complete, but the point is to get the best information possible, just as is the case when going back in history to look at 19th century white baseball. We’ll probably never know the first name of Jones, the third baseman who played one game for the New York Metropolitans on April 30, 1885, but we know he went 1-for-4, made two putouts, and recorded four assists at the hot corner. It doesn’t make Jones any less a major leaguer, but we have to accept what we have for history, unless and until research turns up more.

What this addition to the history we have access to might do, tangibly, is push a couple of Hall of Fame cases over the line, such as the long-snubbed Minnie Miñoso and Don Newcombe. Whether or not it results in additional plaques in Cooperstown, including Black baseball in the records, as equal, not as “elevating,” is a significant change in how people will learn about the game going forward.

For most adults now, “modern baseball” starts in either 1901, with the formation of the American League, or 1920, with the dawn of the live ball era. Not only are we now further out from those dates, with the game having changed significantly in the last century, but a greater spotlight on the era of segregation should lead to thinking of MLB’s modern era as starting later.

Maybe it’s 1947, when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby debuted in the National and American Leagues. Maybe it’s 1959, when Pumpsie Green joined the Boston Red Sox and there were finally no more all-white major league teams. Maybe it’s just a couple of years later, in 1961, with the start of the expansion era.

“We’ve had a preset on the season finder for Integration Era on our finders for Stathead (Sports Reference’s premium service),” Forman said. “It’s for that very reason. Some of the criticism that you see is, you know, they only had 60 games, but there should be equal criticism of Babe Ruth’s numbers. And you do see it on occasion. People make that point. But there are lots of arguments that go both ways — anything you can say about the Black major leagues, you can say about the white major leagues. So I do think — I hope — this will lead to a lot more discussion about these players. And I think it has already, and I think that more discussion and more information is going to be a good thing. That’s what we’re looking for. We want to provide a resource to users who are interested in this material and want to find out about this material. That’s really always been our goal, ever since I started the site 21 years ago.”

The goal remains the same. Adding the records of Black baseball was just the next step in working to make as complete a record as possible of a sport that connects itself across the centuries through its numbers.

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