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The MLB-Negro Leagues stat change: What happened, and why?


The MLB-Negro Leagues stat change: What happened, and why?

Some will be shocked waking up to the news Wednesday that Hall of Famer and Negro League star Josh Gibson is now major leagues’ all-time batting leader — 77 years after his death in 1947. Gibson has long been called one of the best hitters in baseball history, but he died three months before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier and his numbers never appeared in MLB’s official record.

Until now.

As more than 2,300 Negro Leaguers’ numbers are added to the league’s official ledger, Gibson is MLB’s new career leader in batting average (.372), slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.177), and holds the single-season record in each slash-line category (.466/.564/.974).

Single-season OPS

NameOPS (season)

Josh Gibson

1.474 (1937)

Josh Gibson

1.435 (1943)

Barry Bonds

1.421 (2004)

Chino Smith

1.421 (1929)

Barry Bonds

1.381 (2002)

Babe Ruth

1.379 (1920)

Barry Bonds

1.378 (2001)

Babe Ruth

1.358 (1921)

Mule Suttles

1.349 (1926)

Babe Ruth

1.309 (1923)

“When you hear Josh Gibson’s name now, it’s not just that he was the greatest player in the Negro Leagues,’’ Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean, told USA TODAY, “but one of the greatest of all-time. These aren’t just Negro League stats. They’re major-league baseball stats.

Listing the names of Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige and Charlie “Chino” Smith alongside other greats in baseball’s record book is the culmination of decades of research from volunteers and, more recently, a 3 ½ year process to integrate Negro League statistics into MLB’s official record. That part turned out to be far more complicated than simply merging two data sets.

What made it so complicated?

Well, there’s a reason it’s took decades of digging through newspaper archives and microfilm to reach a point where MLB estimates it has box scores for 75 percent of all Negro League games from 1920 to 1948.

On one hand, 75 percent is a research triumph.

On the other, it’s incredibly incomplete.

While throughout history, MLB’s well-funded league offices preserved stats and saved them in bound volumes, Negro Leagues operated with fewer resources. Their stats were not kept in one place. They were scattered across local newspapers, often with only a two-sentence summary and no box score. The season schedule sometimes fluctuated by the day. There was a league season — typically 60 to 80 games — plus unofficial barnstorming games, All-Star games and whatever series might attract a crowd.

MLB gathered a 15-person Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, comprising historians, writers and statisticians, and set to work deciding which games count toward the official record. (They did not include statistics from barnstorming games.)

“Shortened Negro League schedules, interspersed with revenue-raising exhibition games, were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices,” said John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, who chaired the committee. “To deny the best Black players of the era their rightful place among all-time leaders would be a double penalty.”

How can we compare 60-game seasons with 162-game seasons?

We also asked that question in 2020.

MLB history is dotted with different seasons defined by statistical anomalies. In 1877, MLB played 60 games. In 1894, league batting average was .309, and Hugh Duffy hit a record (until now) .440. In 1945, teams contended with a war-depleted player pool and government-mandated travel restrictions. In 1968, the year of the pitcher, hitting cratered. In 1994, a strike ended the season in August. In 2019, the year of the rabbit ball, homers hit an all-time high. In 2020, a pandemic cut the season to 60 games.

Single-season batting average

NameAVG (season)

Josh Gibson

.466 (1943)

Chino Smith

.451 (1929)

Hugh Duffy

.440 (1894)

Oscar Charleston

.434 (1921)

Charlie Blackwell

.432 (1921)

Ross Barnes

.429 (1876)

Oscar Charleston

.427 (1925)

Mule Suttles

.425 (1926)

Willie Keeler

.424 (1897)

Rogers Hornsby

.424 (1924)

So, as we compare stats across eras and centuries, certain seasons require an understanding of the underlying story. The same is true of Negro League stats. These Black and Latino players were denied entry into MLB, and so they banded together on teams that traveled across the country playing whenever, wherever and whoever they could.

The current AL/NL standard for statistical minimums will be applied to Negro League stats. Players must have 3.1 plate appearances times the number of team games scheduled to be eligible for the batting title. Pitchers must have one inning pitched per game scheduled to be eligible for the ERA title. By those standards, a 60-game minimum for all-time season leaders would be a minimum of 186 plate appearances and 60 innings pitched.

Because Negro Leaguers played a smaller sample of games than MLB players, they’ll feature much more prominently in rate stats — like batting average and ERA — than counting stats — like homers and wins.

NameERA (season)

Tim Keefe

0.86 (1880)

Dutch Leonard

0.96 (1914)

Satchel Paige

1.01 (1944)

Mordecai Brown

1.04 1906)

Bob Gibson

1.12 (1968)

Christy Mathewson

1.14 (1909)

Walter Johnson

1.14 (1913)

Jack Pfiester

1.15 (1907)

Addie Joss

1.16 (1908)

Carl Lundgren

1.17 (1907)

MLB’s official record will be updated as more box scores are uncovered.

Why did this project take so long?

Acquiring the numbers was the most time-consuming issue. In December 2020, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred designated seven Negro Leagues, which operated from 1920 to 1948, as “major leagues,” and announced plans to adopt their statistics. Manfred commended the researchers who had compiled the most complete set of Negro League statistics in existence: Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.

Then, for 2 ½ years, there was no update.

Last spring, as families of former Negro Leaguers grumbled about the lack of progress, MLB admitted it had failed to reach an agreement with Seamheads regarding data acquisition. The league office planned instead to acquire the data from Retrosheet, which would need at least five years to complete its database. “I’m shocked,” Sean Gibson said at the time. “It’s sad. I feel like Major League Baseball jumped the gun. They should have had all that worked out before they made the announcement.”

A few months later, MLB struck a deal with Seamheads. It’s unclear what changed. Sources indicated last spring that the financials of the agreement weren’t the sticking point; rather, Seamheads had concerns about how their data would be used, and who would control it. Regardless, once the data acquisition was complete, the wheels started turning much more quickly. Seamheads paired with Retrosheet to build out the database, and Elias Sports Bureau worked to verify each individual account, to the extent possible.

Aren’t these stats already on Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs?

They are, mostly. Baseball-Reference, the go-to source for MLB statistics, has licensed Seamheads’ Negro Leagues data base since June 2021, and Fangraphs followed suit in February 2023. But neither of those sites is MLB’s dedicated stat keeper — that’s Elias — so they represent an unofficial record.

“At this point, if you don’t have those Negro Leagues as part of your major league data, there’s an incompleteness to it,” David Appelman, founder and owner of FanGraphs, said last year.

Sean Forman, Baseball-Reference’s founder, said last year that his staff had some editorial judgment calls to make regarding statistical thresholds on how to fold Negro League stats into its leaderboards. So, there’s a chance those lists will differ slightly from MLB’s official records for the time being. And while MLB is counting only games with box scores, Seamheads’ database contains games without complete boxes.

What other important numbers will change?

Gibson will get most of the attention this week, and deservedly so. His stats are now in the company of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams. But there are others.

Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson, Turkey Stearnes and Buck Leonard are all top-10 all-time by batting average. Dave Brown’s 2.24 career ERA ranks third. Satchel Paige’s 1.01 ERA for the 1944 Kansas City Monarchs is the third-best single-season mark. Charlie “Chino” Smith hit .451 for the 1929 New York Lincoln Giants, the second-best single season batting average on record, behind Gibson. (Both Gibson and Smith are ahead of Hugh Duffy, whose .440 average in 1894 had been the MLB record.)

Single-season on-base percentage

NameOBP (season)

Barry Bonds

0.609 (2004)

Barry Bonds

0.582 (2002)

Josh Gibson

0.564 (1943)

Chino Smith

0.551 (1929)

Ted Williams

0.551 (1941)

John McGraw

0.547 (1899)

Babe Ruth

0.545 (1923)

Babe Ruth

0.532 (1920)

Barry Bonds

0.529 (1920)

Ted Williams

0.526 (1957)

Many former MLB players will have their Negro League accomplishments added. Paige’s win total surged from 28 to 124. Minnie Miñoso gained 150 hits, surpassing the 2,000-hit plateau. Jackie Robinson got 49 more hits.

Ninety-three-year-old Willie Mays added 10 more hits to his career total, giving him 3,293. He remains No. 13 on MLB’s all-time hit list, though technically the date he collected his 3,000th hit will change.

Mays is one of three former Negro Leaguers still living who played in the select leagues during the 1920-48 timeframe. Right-hander Bill Greason, 99, pitched briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954 and went on to be a minister. Then there’s Ron “Schoolboy” Teasley, the only one of the three who didn’t play in the AL or NL. Teasley was 21 when he played for the New York Cubans in 1948. Teasley, now 97 and living in his hometown Detroit, said last year he hopes to “keep the memory of the Negro Leagues alive.”

Having his numbers in the major league record can only help.

(Top photo of Gibson: Getty Images)

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