Negro Leagues statistics to be officially integrated into MLB historical record

Josh Gibson passes Ty Cobb as the MLB career batting average leader

Telling the story of baseball without the Negro Leagues would paint an incomplete and narrow picture of America’s pastime. Baseball’s history is finally getting a revision.

Negro Leagues statistics will officially become part of major-league historical record on Wednesday. The move comes more than three years after Major League Baseball announced it would be elevating the Negro Leagues to major-league status.

The more than 2,300 players who played in the seven iterations of the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948 will be integrated into MLB's database. The Special Baseball Records Committee of 1969 voted to include the American League, National League, American Association, Union Association, Federal League and Players' League but did not at that time give the Negro Leagues major-league status.

“It's a big day,” Negro League Museum president Bob Kendrick told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “The great thing about it is that we’ve been saying that quite a bit over recent days and weeks as it relates to the Negro Leagues. … This is the result of a lot of intensive effort by some incredible historians and researchers who have completely dedicated themselves to trying to do something that people thought probably wasn't possible.”

USA Today's Bob Nightengale first reported the news.

“We are proud that the official historical record now includes the players of the Negro Leagues,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “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.”

Josh Gibson slides into home during the East-West All-Star Game of the Negro Leagues on Aug. 13, 1944, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. With his statistics set to become officially part of MLB records, Gibson is the league's new career leader in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. (Getty Images)

The Negro Leagues statistical review committee, comprised of baseball historians, Negro League experts, former players, researchers and journalists, reviewed data, box scores, statistics and additional information uncovered by Seamheads, RetroSheet and the Elias Sports Bureau.

“We looked for historians, statisticians and stakeholders who all could be expected to have concern that MLB would get the process and the product right,” John Thorn, MLB's official historian and chairman of the Negro Leagues statistical review committee, told Yahoo Sports this week. “We were not looking for 'like minds' but instead potentially contentious ones.”

One of the biggest questions baseball fans will likely have is how MLB has determined what statistics can be used. The Negro Leagues statistical review committee went through decades of box scores and data to find statistics from what was considered league play. The Negro Leagues' schedule usually ran between 60 and 80 games, with another 40 to 60 games coming in the form of exhibitions. Statistics from what was known as “barnstorming,” or exhibition games, will not be counted toward MLB record totals.

Similar to how MLB determines qualifiers for statistical leaders, a formula was used to decide which players qualified for MLB leaderboards.

With these changes, Negro Leagues legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson will become MLB’s single-season record holder in batting average (.466 in 1943), slugging percentage (.974 in 1937) and OPS (1.474 in 1937). Gibson, who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, also becomes MLB’s career leader in all three categories. The previous records for slugging and OPS in a season were both held by Barry Bonds. Gibson's career batting average of .372 passes Ty Cobb for the all-time lead, while his career slugging percentage of .718 and OPS of 1.177 surpass Babe Ruth for the lead in both categories.

Josh Gibson is now the all-time MLB leader in several prominent batting categories. (Gregory Hodge/Yahoo Sports)
Josh Gibson is now the all-time MLB leader in several prominent batting categories. (Gregory Hodge/Yahoo Sports)

It's important to note that Gibson's plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame says he "hit almost 800 homers" in league and independent ball. While the oral history of Gibson's prolific power helps give context to the player he was, the committee did not include anecdotal evidence, with many of those home runs coming outside of what was deemed league play and not accompanied by box scores. So while Gibson will have several of his accomplishments now counted as MLB records, he will not be the league leader in career home runs.

Former Negro Leagues players who played in the major leagues, including Willie Mays, Minnie Miñoso, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson and numerous others, will also have their Negro Leagues statistics integrated and updated. The statistics will continue to be reviewed and updated as more data and information are uncovered.

Among the stat updates:

  • Mays' hit total goes to 3,293, up 10 with stats from his 1948 season with the Birmingham Black Barons

  • Miñoso joins the 2,000-hit club, gaining 150 hits from his time with the New York Cubans

  • Jackie Robinson's 49 hits with the Kansas City Monarchs raise his hit total to 1,567

  • Satchel Paige's win total boosts to 125 with his 28 Negro League victories

The rules set by the SBRC in 1969 state: “For all-time single-season records, there will be no asterisks or official signs shall be used to indicate the number of games scheduled.” Accordingly, new Negro Leagues record-holders and additions on MLB leaderboards will not include an asterisk.

MLB will pay tribute to the Negro Leagues on June 20 in a regular-season matchup between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Rickwood Field, which was the home of the Birmingham Black Barons, is considered the oldest professional ballpark in the U.S.

The oral history of the Negro Leagues has extended for more than 100 years, with players such as Gibson becoming larger than life. As new data, documents, box scores and information have been gathered, that has given more tangible evidence to the stories that have been shared.

Kendrick has been one of the biggest advocates for the Negro Leagues being recognized by Major League Baseball and informing old and new fans alike about the impact the Negro Leagues had on baseball’s history.

“No sport holds on to its history the way baseball does,” Kendrick told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “It is by far the most romanticized sport of them all, and it’s a sport where we constantly compare the stars of the past with the stars today. And the unified efforts that we've embarked on over the last several years, and I'll go back to last year with the inclusion of the Negro Leagues into 'MLB The Show 23,' these things have given the Negro Leagues history a mainstream voice.

“What we’ve found is that young baseball fans not only want to learn about the Negro Leagues but they’ve fallen in love with the Negro Leagues. And as a museum, a cultural institution, that's exactly what we wanted to have happen.”

Tuesday’s news amplifies another baseball chapter that was once ignored. The addition of Negro Leagues statistics to MLB's historical record does not take away from MLB's history. It simply adds. The history of baseball can continue to be told in a more complete and broader way as new generations of fans learn about the game.

“I believe that the past is a living, breathing thing that informs every present moment,” Thorn said. “No sport is more attuned to its history and its heroes of old than baseball, and now we have a chance to tell the story of the game, and the nation, inclusively.”