The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baseball’s record book is beloved, but not sacred. Including Negro Leaguers is long overdue.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige pitching during an all-star game at Yankee Stadium in 1961. (Harry Harris/AP)
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When I type the name Tim Keefe into baseball-reference.com, the modern de facto bible of baseball statistics, I discover that Keefe ranks 10th in the history of Major League Baseball in wins, ahead of Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan.

Though he was born in 1857, Keefe is, in a baseball sense, immortal, recorded, honored. Though he pitched for the Troy Trojans in 1881 and won 41 for the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in 1883, I have seen his name and mustachioed photo many times. The record book keeps him alive.

When I type the name “Josh Gibson” into baseball-reference, I get the name “Josh Booty, given name Joshua Gibson,” who played for the Florida Marlins from 1996 to 1998. Only if I know where to click, can I dig up “Josh Gibson, Hall of Fame.” But no stats of his career.

In interviews, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and others told me they had played against Gibson in exhibition games and that he was as great as any hitter they had seen. Or better.

The Negro Leagues are now ‘major league’ in eyes of MLB, its stats a part of official record

But, if you want to know whom Gibson played for and when, how many homers he hit or that he batted .441 in 1943, you couldn’t find it in any MLB official record book.

Because Gibson of the Homestead Grays, unlike Keefe of the Troy Trojans, wasn’t a major league player.

Now that is going to change, finally. On Wednesday, MLB announced that statistics from the Negro Leagues from 1920 through 1948 will be included as “major league statistics” in the game’s records.

Years of study and discussion among baseball historians have gone into picking those dates, which are, to a degree, arbitrary. Box scores have been unearthed for just 73 percent of the 12,525 Negro League games in that era. So stats will change constantly as more is learned.

This change will bring oddities, but also revelations. For example, Willie Mays, now 89, will end up with perhaps 17 more major league hits in his career because of his play with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948.

But there will be dazzling numbers, too, though we don’t know them yet. Before long, when we look up Satchel Paige, we won’t see just his 3.29 ERA in 476 innings from ages 41 through 46, when, after Jackie Robinson finally integrated MLB, Paige was “allowed” to be a major leaguer. We also will see every available statistic from his Negro League days.

I doubt any of Satchel’s numbers will impress me more that the game he started — at age 58 (at least) — against the Boston Red Sox in 1965, retiring nine of the 10 men he faced. Satch got Tony Conigliaro out, and the only hit he allowed was to Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. That just makes me want to know more about Young Satchel.

Since grade school, I have loved baseball records and how they are intertwined with the game’s history and the sport’s place in American life.

But I also have understood that everything must be swathed in context and generosity of spirit when discussing, or enjoying the numbers from a sport that sweeps back to the Civil War and dates its first “major league game” to 1869. Walt Whitman, who published “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, was a baseball fan.

When I look at the career pitching leaders in wins and see among the top dozen Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Kid Nichols, Keefe and John Clarkson, who all did their best work in the 19th century, I resist saying, “Throw these old guys out.” I try to say, “This is fascinating.”

If MLB can list “Big Ed” Delahanty, born in 1867, who weighed 170 pounds, as having the fifth-highest career batting average in major league history (.346), if the game can open its arms that wide to include everyone who has been part of its annals and excellence, then surely it can go further. Delahanty existed. Let his record stand for itself; we will figure out how to weigh it.

But the same should go for “Cool Papa” Bell and the 3,400 other Negro League players who, along with their stats, soon will be full members of the record book. That will make some uneasy. Artie Wilson hit .428 in 1948 in the Negro Leagues. Does that make Wilson, not Ted Williams, the last .400 hitter? Teddy Ballgame would get a kick out of that; few men ever boosted and boasted about the quality of Negro League play more than Ted.

Millions of us love baseball stats. But they are not sacred. MLB has had so many eras, such as Dead Ball and Lively Ball, as well as an era of PED cheating, that we long ago learned what is important in considering the history of the game and the greatness of its players: Step back, be fair-minded and use common sense. Don’t squawk just because we can’t perfectly compare player and eras.

Yet MLB has balked for eons in designating a big chunk of Negro League history as “major league.” This is a sport that includes all members of the 1884 Wilmington Quicksteps, who played just 18 games, as big leaguers, as well as all of the 1880 Worcester Ruby Legs.

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It’s useful to remember MLB’s statistical history offers little consistency or completeness. We take it as we find it and judge it as we will.

MLB played just 60 games this past season, far fewer than many Negro League seasons. Yet the Nats’ Juan Soto can claim his batting, slugging and on-base titles forever.

Once, I looked up Ted Williams minor league stats at ages 17-18-19. How did he evolve? His batting average (.271, .291, 366) and power (zero homers, 23, 43) rocketed each year. It did not bother me that no records exist for his walks or, in some leagues, even his RBI totals.

The new Negro League numbers will have many such gaps, a byproduct of the discrimination that limited every aspect of those players’ lives, right down to the tiny detail that many of their games got no box scores in papers.

As more information is gathered, all those Negro League stats will change, just as, over my life, I have watched the win, strikeout and hit totals change for Walter Johnson and many other White Hall of Famers.

What the true baseball fan wants to know is: everything. All the data that is available. We will figure out, each in our own way, what to make of it, how to rank it and, in some cases, how to get our jaws off the floor.

When the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was published in 1969 — the best book for a deserted island — Tim Keefe was there, Josh Gibson, nowhere.

The deeds of decades of African American players might as well have been recorded in disappearing ink. Now, because of many years of labor by many people, that metaphorical ink will become visible again.

MLB can never undo the wrong of its discrimination. But it can put the names and numbers of Negro League players where they belong: in the record book.

Why does that matter so much? I have heard variations of the same conversation many times. A rookie plays his first MLB game, and afterward, a veteran says, “You’re in the book now, kid. They can never get you out of it.”

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