Stars to know as MLB includes Negro Leagues stats, records


When Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and the slow integration of Black players into the American and National Leagues began — emphasis on slow, as the Phillies became the last NL team to integrate in 1957 and the Red Sox the last AL team in 1959 — the wave of talent coming out of the Negro Leagues was extraordinary.

Roy Campanella became Robinson’s teammate in 1948 and would win three NL MVP Awards. Don Newcombe joined Brooklyn in 1949 and would win an MVP and a Cy Young Award in 1955. Larry Doby became the first Black player in the American League in 1947. Minnie Minoso came up initially in 1949, Willie Mays in 1951, Ernie Banks in 1953, Henry Aaron in 1954. Eventually, teams bypassed the Negro League pipeline and signed young players themselves. By the end of the 1950s, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Bob Gibson had reached the majors. This wave included several Hall of Famers and many of the game’s most legendary stars.

It stands to reason, then, that the Negro Leagues featured players of similar stature before Robinson arrived in ’47. As Bill James once wrote, referring to Robinson, Campanella, Mays, Banks and Aaron, “If those leagues could produce five players like that in seven years, what about the previous 40?”

That’s just one of the reasons it’s important to recognize the statistical accomplishments of the players who performed in the Negro Leagues as a permanent and official part of the MLB database — although it means new records and new names at the top of the all-time career and season leaderboards. This is not without some controversy; some view comparing statistics from different leagues as going a step too far to recognize those players who never had the opportunity to play in the integrated major leagues. (I point out that the National League and American League were separate leagues until 1997, other than meeting in the World Series.) Some will point out the fewer “official” games in a Negro League season create sample size issues when compared to numbers compiled over a longer season.

As MLB put it in its press release, “Negro League stats may be viewed separately and/or jointly: player and pitcher pages, no matter how infrequently these individuals may have played; within a team’s record in a given league year; within all MLB records for a given year; or by a given league season.”

As the release stated, “New stars, and the stories behind them, will emerge.”

As I was scrolling through social media, I saw a poster write, “I had never heard of Josh Gibson.” Now he has.

Indeed, starting with Gibson, here are some all-time greats to know about with MLB’s Negro Leagues statistical update.

Josh Gibson

With a .372 batting average in Negro League competition, Gibson now tops Ty Cobb and his .367 average as the all-time career leader. (To clarify, the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee is considering results only from official league games and not the many barnstorming and unofficial games Negro League teams would play.) Gibson’s .466 average in 1943 also becomes the new single-season record. The previous record holder being replaced at the top? Hugh Duffy hit .440 in 1894 for the Boston team in the National League.

The interesting lesson here is that stories about Gibson always mention him as the greatest slugger in Negro League history. Feats of his prodigious power include legends about him being the only player to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium or belting 600-foot home runs or the great Buck O’Neil saying he heard only three players produce a certain sound while hitting: Gibson, Babe Ruth and Bo Jackson.

Gibson was a tremendous home run hitter: In his 12 full seasons playing in the Negro Leagues, he led his league in home runs 11 times. But these records show he was also a great hitter for average, winning multiple batting titles. Gibson never got a chance to play in the integrated major leagues. He died of a stroke in January 1947 at age 35, just a few months before Robinson would break the color barrier. (Gibson had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943, playing the final four seasons of his career with recurring headaches.) Gibson didn’t walk as often as Ruth, Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, but he’s up there with them (excepting his career length) and could be considered the greatest right-handed hitter of all time and the greatest catcher.

Oscar Charleston

Rogers Hornsby was considered the modern record holder for batting average in a single season, hitting .424 in 1924. Charleston now beats that at .434 in 1921 and .427 in 1925 while posting a career average of .363, third behind Gibson and Cobb. Charleston was never as famous as Gibson and Satchel Paige and once the Hall of Fame started electing Negro League players in the 1970s (Paige and Gibson were the first two elected), he was only the seventh one inducted. If you conducted a poll of Negro League experts, however, Charleston would be regarded as the best all-around player. He was a center fielder with speed and power, who led his league in home runs, batting average and stolen bases. O’Neil compared him to Willie Mays — only better.

Turkey Stearnes

It took Stearnes until 2000 to get elected to the Hall of Fame, but he ranks right up there with Gibson and Charleston as the best hitters in Negro League history with a .348 lifetime average and more home runs than Gibson (188 to 174 via the numbers at MLB.com, although Gibson homered more often per at-bat). Stearnes was a left-handed hitting center fielder, not a big man (listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds), but a clear five-tool player with many stories of long home runs. He was nicknamed Turkey either because of the way he flapped his arms while running or, according to a Stearnes interview, because he had a potbelly as a kid. His best years came with the Detroit Stars from 1923 to 1931, but the team never won a pennant, perhaps explaining why he faded away from memory and took so long to make the Hall of Fame.

Mule Suttles

A big, powerful first baseman/left fielder, Suttles is credited with 183 home runs and a .337 average on MLB.com, putting him alongside Gibson and Stearnes as the third great power hitter of the Negro Leagues. In his greatest season with the St. Louis Stars in 1926, he won the Triple Crown, hitting .425 with 32 home runs and 130 RBIs … in 94 games. According to Suttles’ SABR bio, research shows he played 126 games in the California Winter League from 1930 to 1940 — a strong league featuring active major leaguers and top minor leaguers. Playing on Black teams that played against white teams in the league, Suttles hit .378 with 64 home runs.

Buck Leonard

A first baseman, Leonard was called the “Black Lou Gehrig” — indeed, Leonard said he copied his swing after Gehrig’s — and finished with a lifetime average of .345, which places him eighth on the all-time list, a bit higher than Gehrig’s .340 mark. A graceful, respected player who was a gifted defensive first baseman, Leonard didn’t join the Homestead Grays — where he teamed with Gibson for a lethal one-two punch — until 1935, when he was 27 years old. He was still active when Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. Bill Veeck reportedly approached him about playing for the St. Louis Browns, but Leonard was in his 40s by then — too old, he said, to give it a try.

Satchel Paige

OK, hopefully you know about the great Satchel, regarded as the greatest pitcher in Negro League history. His 1.01 ERA for the Kansas City Monarchs in 16 starts in 1944 now ranks third on the all-time official list — behind Tim Keefe’s 0.86 for the 1880 Troy Trojans and Dutch Leonard’s 0.96 for the 1914 Red Sox. Of course, by then Paige was already 37 years old and probably past his fireballing peak of the late 1920s and early 1930s. How good was he? Well, Paige was the one Negro League legend who did a get chance to play after integration. In five seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Browns, pitching mostly in relief and relying more on junk and guile than his fastball, Paige posted a 3.31 ERA, good for an adjusted ERA+ of 124 — higher than Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Mike Mussina, Bob Feller or Don Drysdale, to name a few.

This is just a starting point. Go look up Bullet Joe Rogan and John Henry “Pop” Lloyd and Cool Papa Bell and Martin Dihigo (maybe the best two-way player of all time before Shohei Ohtani) and Chino Smith (who hit .451 in 1929 but would die at age 30 after contracting yellow fever while playing in Cuba) and Willard Brown and Smokey Joe Williams and Willie Wells and so many others. These players are part of a rich, vital part of baseball history, of American history. Statistics and leaderboards and records are just a small part of that.



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