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MLB is officially recognizing the Negro Leagues as major leagues

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This is a big deal.

Cool Papa Bell, one of the greatest Negro League players, slides into third base
Getty Images

For many decades, Black players could not play in Major League Baseball due to an unofficial “color line.” Instead, they formed their own leagues, generally known as “Negro Leagues.” The quality of baseball was quite good and many Negro League players would likely have been big stars in MLB had they been permitted to play.

Jackie Robinson, of course, broke that line in 1947 and Black players soon became some of the best players in MLB, including Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron and others.

Until now, though, the Negro Leagues had been consigned to kind of a limbo in baseball history. They weren’t minor leagues in any sense; they existed only because their players couldn’t move to MLB clubs. But MLB had not recognized that the quality of baseball played there was Major League.

Today, MLB announced via press release that they would officially recognize the seven Negro Leagues formed around 1920 — the centennial was honored this year — as Major Leagues. In the release, they said:

MLB is proud to highlight the contributions of the pioneers who played in these seven distinct leagues from 1920-1948. With this action, MLB seeks to ensure that future generations will remember the approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues during this time period as Major League-caliber ballplayers. Accordingly, the statistics and records of these players will become a part of Major League Baseball’s history.

Commissioner Manfred said in a statement: “All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”

John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, said in a statement: “The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates prior to Satchel Paige’s induction in 1971. Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”

Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, said in a statement: “The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is thrilled to see this well-deserved recognition of the Negro Leagues. In the minds of baseball fans worldwide, this serves as historical validation for those who had been shunned from the Major Leagues and had the foresight and courage to create their own league that helped change the game and our country too. This acknowledgement is a meritorious nod to the courageous owners and players who helped build this exceptional enterprise and shines a welcomed spotlight on the immense talent that called the Negro Leagues home.”

This is a big, big deal. Of course, most of the Negro Leaguers who played in that era are gone now, but at least their feats and their numbers will now be given equal standing with those from major leaguers then and now. MLB’s release commended the work of Gary Ashwill, Scott Simkus, Mike Lynch, and Kevin Johnson, who drove the construction of the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, and Larry Lester, whose decades-long research underlies and adds to their work. MLB credits all of the baseball research community for discovering additional facts, statistics, and context that exceed the criteria used by the Special Committee on Baseball Records in 1969 to identify six “Major Leagues” since 1876. It is MLB’s view that the Committee’s 1969 omission of the Negro Leagues from consideration was clearly an error that demands today’s designation.

The seven Negro Leagues being designated today are the Negro National League (I) (1920–1931); the Eastern Colored League (1923–1928); the American Negro League (1929); the East-West League (1932); the Negro Southern League (1932); the Negro National League (II) (1933–1948); and the Negro American League (1937–1948).

Statistics were kept somewhat haphazardly for those seven leagues in that time frame, but the release says that MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau have begun a review process to determine the full scope of this designation’s ramifications on statistics and records. MLB and Elias will work with historians and other experts in the field to evaluate the relevant issues and reach conclusions upon the completion of that process.

Some Negro League statistics can already be seen at baseball-reference.com, but as you can see (for example) on this page for Josh Gibson, one of the greatest Negro Leaguers (and a Hall of Famer), numbers are incomplete. Hopefully researchers can now complete the record of the Negro Leagues.

It was shameful for baseball’s moguls to keep good Black players out of their game for so many years. Nothing can be done to change that, but today’s recognition of the Negro Leagues is a big, big deal and a huge step in the right direction.

Incidentally, if you are ever in Kansas City, don’t fail to stop at the Negro Leagues Museum, a wonderful tribute to these great ballplayers. It’s a must-see.