The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues: A Resource for Educators
A Resource for Educators
In May of 2021, Baseball Reference launched The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues, a massive project that dramatically expanded the site’s coverage of the Negro Leagues and historical Black major league players. As the title of the project implies, players and teams from the Major Negro Leagues between 1920–1948 were fully incorporated into the site along with the American and National League.
Even with the tremendous efforts of the team behind the Seamheads Negro League Database (from whom we acquired the data), the Negro Leagues data is not complete. While the quality of play in the Negro Leagues was on a major league level, the wages, travel, playing conditions, press coverage, and record-keeping were more varied, primarily due to systemic racism. Additionally, Negro League teams played a shorter regular season schedule, but with an extensive amount of exhibitions and barnstorming games that made for seasons that often approached 200 or more games in total. These contests were not part of their league schedule and are therefore not included in this database.
It's also important to remember that the history of Black Baseball does not start in 1920 or end in 1948 and even from 1920-1948 our presentation is incomplete. There were hundreds of teams and thousands of players that make up a more complete and richer history of Black Baseball than we are able to present here, and from 1920–1948 there were many star players and teams that found it more feasible to play only a barnstorming schedule (not just in the United States but also the Caribbean, Mexico, and Venezuela) rather than participate in leagues.
If you are an educator interested in reviewing this book for your class and providing excerpts to your students, contact us and we can provide a PDF.
The Negro Leagues were major leagues, but they were different. Those differences need to be both recognized and celebrated. Bob Kendrick and Joe Posnanski wrote “[T]here is more than one truth when it comes to the Negro Leagues… Nothing at all is simple about a league that was built to combat and overcome hate and yet was so much about joy and a love of the game. Nothing at all is simple about counting statistics for players who traveled from town to town, regularly playing a dozen or more games per week against town teams and factory teams, in tournaments and exhibitions, all in addition to their official Negro Leagues games.”
We have created this resource for educators to share the incredible story of the Negro Leagues—from the pioneers of Black Baseball in the late 19th century through the formation of the Negro Major Leagues and into the impact of integration on the American and National Leagues. Today, the widespread release of meticulously collected Negro League statistics has led to a Golden Age of Negro League research that culminated with the first Hall of Fame selections from the Negro Leagues in fifteen years—Minnie Miñoso, Buck O’Neil, and Bud Fowler.
In his essay “A Love Story”, 14-year Major League Baseball veteran Adam Jones wrote “[T]he Negro Leagues were very, very important, the players were very important and, most importantly, they brought the community together with a common love. And they’re important not just for Blacks, but for all people of color. There were a lot of early Latin American players and their stories also need to be told. All of these men—and some women, too, let's not forget about them—were very instrumental in the building of Major League Baseball and, like it or not, their stories need to be told.”
Black Baseball Before the Negro Leagues
The Negro National League was founded in 1920, but the history of Black baseball starts well before then. As early as 1859, there are records of Black baseball clubs facing off, well before the sport began to professionalize or adopt many of the rules that define it today.
For Black baseballers, writes Michael Lomax, “the sport’s institutional and organizational development evolved as part of African American community building in the pre-Civil War era.” In his piece on the evolution of Black Baseball from the 19th through the 20th century, Lomax examines the way “the Black game was transformed into a commercialized amusement by a generation of African Americans who attempted to work within the parameters of a segregated institutional structure.”
The figures who led that transformation are a vital part of the history of baseball, but many of their stories are still not known by casual fans. There was Charles Douglass, Frederick’s son, who played infield for the dominant Washington DC Mutual Base Ball Club; Octavius Catto, a civil rights activist who fought for official membership in the Pennsylvania Association of Base Ball Players; Bud Fowler, the first acknowledged African-American professional player; and many more.
Ryan Swanson reflects on the Black pioneers of 19th century baseball and explores how, “in a nation that defined race primarily on Black and White terms, the fact that African American clubs rose up quickly was significant. The ballot, education, and land were preeminent concerns for Black Americans, yes, but so too was finding community and recreation. Baseball fit.”
Ryan Swanson also appeared on Episode Four of The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues podcast to discuss how the color line was drawn, as well as looking at the ways that the history of early baseball is deeply intertwined with the politics of Reconstruction.
- A Black Baseball Legacy by Michael E. Lomax: The evolution of Black Baseball from the 19th through the 20th century.
- The Long Road to Jackie Robinson: Nineteenth Century Pioneers in Black Ball by Ryan Swanson: From Charles Douglass (son of Frederick) to Octavius Catto, all the way to Jackie Robinson.
- May The Best Man Win: The Black Ball Championships 1866–1923 by Todd Peterson (via SABR)
In February of 1920, at a YMCA in Kansas City, a group of African-American baseball club owners gathered to discuss the possibility of forming a league. To their surprise, one man showed up with the charter for a league already written.
That man was Rube Foster, the manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants. Foster, a great pitcher in his playing days, recognized the tremendous opportunity that could come with a league of Black baseball clubs, but he also saw the need to create an organization that gave “concrete form to the model of self-help and self-reliance, free from white interference or control,” as Jerry Malloy writes.
Foster and his fellow owners formed the Negro National League, the first Black major league. The NNL played its first season in 1920, with eight teams; Foster’s American Giants went 43-17 led by Hall of Famer Cristóbal Torriente.
Foster was more than the league’s founder and acting president, he was “de facto czar…a benevolent autocrat,” writes Malloy. “Realizing the need for a semblance of balanced competition, [Foster] moved players around from team to team, even depriving his own Chicago American Giants of the great Oscar Charleston, whom he sent to Indianapolis.”
The Negro National League’s motto was “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea,” articulating a sense that even though the teams were competitors on the field, they were bonded together by the same mission off it.
The NNL folded in 1931, but other leagues formed concurrently and afterwards. The SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) Negro Leagues Task Force determined that seven leagues were full major leagues. These leagues spanned the years from 1920 to 1948 and included many of the best players to ever play the game, including 32 Hall of Famers.
- The Major Negro Leagues by Adam Darowski: A look at the seven major Negro Leagues.
- Rube Foster and Black Baseball in Chicago by Jerry Malloy (via SABR)
- The Negro National League is Founded by Matt Kelly (via the Baseball Hall of Fame)
- SABR Negro Leagues Task Force issues recommendations on major-league status (via SABR)
The people who played for Negro League teams were major league ballplayers, but they weren’t treated that way by the White owners of the American and National Leagues. They were citizens of the United States, but were not treated as such by the government of their own country. As Vanessa Ivy Rose, granddaughter of Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes, puts it, “the elite talent pool of the Negro Leagues was undoubtedly competitive, but Jim Crow was unequivocally Turkey’s greatest opponent.”
Stearnes began his Negro National League career with the Detroit Stars in 1923. Over an 18 year career that spanned four different major leagues, Stearnes posted a 1.034 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, a measure of offensive performance), the 7th best career OPS in major league history. He led his league in home runs seven times and, as Rose discusses in her piece, won election to the Hall of Fame in 2000.
Another one of the Negro Leagues’s brightest stars was Josh Gibson. His Hall of Fame plaque credits him with “almost 800 home runs” while other sources put the total at 962. So far, researchers have been able to account for 165, but that’s because the research has stuck to league play, which only made up a small portion of the total schedule for Negro League players. Outside of the league, most teams made a majority of their income and played the majority of their games through barnstorming and exhibitions.
Gibson led his league in OPS nine times, home runs 11 times, and position player WAR (wins above replacement, a measure of player value that includes offense, defense, base-running, and position) eight times.
Wilber “Bullet” Rogan was one of many great two-way players in the Negro Leagues. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1920 after several years playing in the Army with the 25th Infantry Wreckers (where his list of teammates included Oscar “Heavy” Johnson and Dobie Moore). At the plate, Rogan was a slugger and batted .338 with a .413 on-base percentage and .521 slugging percentage. His OPS+ (OPS park adjusted and compared to the league, where 100 is league average) was 152. On the mound, he went 120–52 in documented league games with a 2.65 ERA (161 ERA+, earned run average park adjusted and compared to the league, where 100 is league average).
Rogan is the only player who exclusively played in the Negro Leagues with 60 Wins Above Replacement (including batting, fielding, base-running, position, and pitching). Because of the incomplete statistics, it is very difficult to reach those levels. But Rogan did it by essentially playing the role of two superstars.
- Turkey Stearnes and the Inclusive Grand Slam by Vanessa Ivy Rose, granddaughter of Turkey Stearnes: A reflection on the legacy of Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes.
- Gibson Family Reflections on the Publication of Baseball Reference’s Negro Leagues Statistics by Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson: What it means to family members of Negro League stars to see this update.
Women were a crucial part of the Negro Leagues, as team owners, workers, spectators, journalists, and players. Effa Manley, who is currently the only woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame, owned the Newark Eagles, which won the Negro League World Series under her stewardship in 1946. In addition to Manley, several other women owned Negro Leagues teams, beginning with Olivia Taylor who owned the Indianapolis ABCs from 1922 to 1924. Taylor had a life that extended well beyond baseball. As historian Leslie Heaphy writes, “Taylor became president of the local NAACP chapter. She helped bring the national convention to Indianapolis in 1925, and became the first female to ever head the national convention.”
Women like Toni Stone also took the field for Negro League teams as players, although this came after the major league period. Fabiola Wilson and Gloria Dymond played in the outfield for the New Orleans Creoles in 1948, and, while the Creoles weren’t in the Black major leagues, it’s possible that they played exhibition games against teams that were. As researchers dig deeper into the history of the Negro Leagues, they’ll learn more about the history of women in baseball, answering questions like “Did the Baltimore Black Sox Bloomer girls ever play any Negro men’s teams in 1921 and 1922? Did the Creoles play any major Negro League teams between 1945 and 1948 when a number of women were hired by Allan Page? When Harriet Smith pitched for the Pullman Porters, who were their opponents?”
Many Latino players who were excluded from the AL and NL during segregation also found a home in the Negro Leagues. As Adrian Burgos writes “Latinos were not an afterthought in the Black baseball enterprise… the Negro Leagues [Rube Foster] envisioned was inclusive of Black men from across the Americas, drawing talent from Cuba and eventually from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America.”
Playing together while traversing a country that wasn’t friendly to them, Black and Latino players forged solidarity and “developed different tactics to combat Jim Crow and racial discrimination in ways big and small.” And the story of Latinos in the Negro Leagues helps us understand “the different paths available to one generation of Latinos compared to the ones that followed” as evidenced by the tale of Negro Leagues pitcher Luis Tiant and his son, who would go on to star for the Boston Red Sox.
- Women in the Negro Leagues by Leslie Heaphy: A discussion of the women who were executives and players the Negro Leagues.
- Latinos in the Negro Leagues by Adrian Burgos, Jr.: The history of Latin stars in the Negro Leagues from Alex Pompez to Luis Tiant.
For decades, most official record keeping and leaderboards ignored the Negro Leagues or kept them separate from statistics in the AL or NL. But the data is clear: The Negro Leagues were major leagues. In an exhaustive study, Todd Peterson looks at the statistics that researchers have uncovered so far. His conclusion is that “the Negro Leagues were equal in quality of play to the White major leagues of their day.”
In head-to-head matchups, Negro League teams had a winning record against White major league teams. The stats from the Negro Leagues compare favorably to the AL and NL in several statistical categories, and clearly show the Negro Leagues were far better than the minor leagues of the era. Additionally, in the post-segregation era, Black players dominated the AL and NL.
The Negro Leagues are major leagues and that means that many career leaderboards, known to fans of the sport for decades, need to be reconsidered. Below are some of the changes to leaderboards that we’ve seen with the incorporation of this new dataset.
- Career Batting Average: Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson, and Turkey Stearnes are now in the Top 10. This leaderboard has a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances, which puts Negro League players at a disadvantage because of the differences in league schedules. For example, if the minimum was 2,500 plate appearances, Josh Gibson would jump to first all time. You can use Stathead to generate a Batting Average leaderboard with 2,500 as the minimum.
- Career On-Base Plus Slugging: Charleston and Stearnes are joined in the Top 10 by Mule Suttles. Again, Josh Gibson would rank first with a different minimum requirement.
- Career Hits: With Negro League statistics added, two prominent players surpassed the 2,000 hit milestone—Minnie Minoso and Jim Gilliam.
- The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues by Baseball Reference
- As It Celebrates the Centennial of the Negro Leagues, MLB May Undo a “Major” Mistake by Ben Lindbergh (via the Ringer)
Integrating with the AL and NL
The seven major Negro Leagues were in operation from 1920-1948, a span of 29 years. How much top talent was kept out of the AL & NL during that time? During the next 29 years (1949-1977), out of the 40 position players with 50+ Wins Above Replacement, over 50% would not have been allowed in the AL/NL before integration (including all-time greats like Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and Joe Morgan).
The list of 46 Negro Major Leaguers who went on to appear in the AL/NL includes Hall of Famers who spent the bulk of their careers in the AL/NL like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby as well as those who built their legacies in the Negro Leagues, such as Satchel Paige and Willard Brown. There were also players like Minnie Miñoso, Sam Jethroe, and Jim Gilliam, who were established All Stars in the Negro Leagues but had their careers delayed when they were stashed in the minor leagues for multiple seasons due to the slow pace of integration. Jethroe and Gilliam won the Rookie of the Year Award when finally given their chance (and Miñoso controversially finished second, but was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame). There were also a number of players caught in between, never really getting a true shot in the AL/NL. James “Bus” or “Buzz” Clarkson (149 OPS+ in the Negro Majors, consistently .300+ BA and .900+ OPS in the minors) and Artie Wilson (156 OPS+ in the Negro Majors and years as a star in the Pacific Coast League) never got the chance they deserved, combining for just 33 games in the National League.
The process of integrating the AL and NL wasn't a smooth one, and it largely happened on the terms of the white owners, at the expense of the Black people who owned, managed, and operated Negro League ballclubs. Michael Lomax discussed the journey that led to Jackie Robinson taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and the end of the Negro Leagues on Episode Six of The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues podcast.
- A Black Baseball Legacy by Michael E. Lomax: The evolution of Black Baseball from the 19th through the 20th century.
- Jackie Robinson and the Decline of the Negro Leagues by Nathan Bierma (via SABR)
Building the Negro League Stats Database
“At times during our careers researching the Negro Leagues,” writes Larry Lester, “the late Dick Clark, Wayne Stivers, and I felt like Sisyphus, the mortal of Greek mythology who was subjected to the dreadful punishment of hopeless labor, eternally rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have the weight of the stone drag it back to ground zero.”
Decades after the final Negro League games were played, researchers set about the monumental task of putting together a record of statistics from the league. Piecing together this database required poring over historic newspapers, looking for box scores, schedules, and game stories. The database was eventually collected and published on Seamheads, where it is still maintained and updated regularly.
How do researchers piece together statistics from games played 100 years ago? Gary Ashwill, the founder and lead researcher of the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, explains that the process “begins with the most important contemporary source for information on Negro League baseball, the Black press.” Over the period of 1920-48, many Black newspapers were published weekly, distributed nationally, and featured in-depth coverage of the full range of Black sports, including boxing, college football, and basketball, in addition to baseball.
But, as Ashwill explains, “the task of collecting box scores [from newspapers] is not a simple one. There was no centralized source for Negro League information that functioned the way The Sporting News did for White baseball. Neither is there currently one central depository for all the historical newspapers that need to be consulted for Negro League research.” The people who undertook the painstaking effort to reconstruct this historic record faced numerous challenges, including poorly scanned microfilm, newspapers reporting different results, misspelled names, and much more. But reconstructing history from 100 years ago has never been a straightforward process; as Lester writes, “The accuracy of the statistical record of the White major leagues is being challenged today by SABR statisticians. Who won the American League batting title in 1910, Nap Lajoie or Ty Cobb?… Miscalculations, data omissions, mistakes made in box scores reported via telegram or telephone led to crowning the wrong seasonal or career leader more than once.”
With little statistical record to look at in the back half of the 20th century, the achievements of Negro League players lived on as tall tales and legends. Rather than diminishing that legend, adding numbers and data provides a new layer to the story. As Lester explains, “Folklore and embellished truths have long been a staple of the Negro Leagues narrative. Those storylines will always be entertaining, but now our dialogues can be quantified and qualified to support the authentic greatness of these athletes.”
The work of researchers like Lester and Ashwill carries on today. The Seamheads database continues to grow as researchers comb through newspapers looking for missing box scores. And while the database currently focuses on league play, Ashwill explains that a long term goal is “to document as much of Black baseball history as possible, including the games against White semipros and amateurs that occupied such a large portion of Negro League schedules.” While the odds of ever reaching 100% completion are low, the database will continue to grow and expand in the years to come.
- The Black Boys of Summer: A statistical observation by Larry Lester: A look at how the Negro League stats were compiled and the effect on the record books.
- Building the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database by Gary Ashwill: A look at how the data that you see on the site today was collected.
While statistics can tell us stories, the place to go to learn about the rich history of the Negro Leagues is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The museum opened in 1991 and moved to its current location at 18th and Vine in Kansas City in 1997. Dr. Ray Doswell, the Vice President of Curatorial Services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, appeared on Episode Two of The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues podcast. “Fundamentally, [the mission of the museum is] to teach African American baseball history and preserve it,” Dr. Doswell explained. This includes creating content that will appeal to preschoolers or octogenarians, readers or visual learners, and casual fans as much as experts.
This comes with many challenges. For example, the museum doesn’t have many three-dimensional artifacts because it has not been around as long as other institutions, such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But it goes beyond that. “Because for a long time the story [of the Negro Leagues] was ignored by some and not able to be preserved by others, we’re catching up and trying to learn about the story. That’s where we are with [Negro League statistics]. We’re playing catch up.”
This lack of preservation can also be seen in the few Negro League stadiums that still exist today. Gary Gillette writes, “Regrettably, almost all home parks of Major Negro League teams from 1920–1948 are now gone, existing mostly in black & white photographs and the graying memories of the remaining fans who saw games there. Yet there are still a handful of places where one can find former Negro League home ballparks. One of them, Rickwood Field, is the oldest professional ballpark still in use today.”
In 2021, not only were Negro League statistics finally part of the official record, candidates from the Negro Leagues were finally consdered for the Hall of Fame for the first time in fifteen years. After the Committee on African-American Baseball inducted seventeen Negro League candidates in 2006, the book was closed on Black Baseball. Finally, that book was reopened in late 2021 when the Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Era ballot was announced. Seven of the ten candidates came from the Negro Leagues (or Pre-Negro Leagues Black Baseball): Buck O’Neil, Bud Fowler, Vic Harris, John Donaldson, George “Tubby” Scales, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and “Cannonball” Dick Redding. O’Neil and Fowler were inducted, as was Minnie Miñoso from the Golden Days Era ballot. Miñoso played most of his career in the AL/NL but started his career with three seasons in the Negro Leagues (two of them All-Star campaigns).
The Early Baseball Era Committee is not scheduled to meet for another decade, but the continuing research has identified many excellent Negro League candidates for the Hall of Fame. The 42 for 21 Committee was organized by Gary Gillette, Ted Knorr (founder of SABR’s Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference), and Sean Gibson (great-grandson of Josh Gibson). The Committee’s mission is to bring attention to these candidates and initiate change to the Hall of Fame’s voting schedule for Negro League candidates.
- Still Standing: Where to See Extant Negro League Ballparks by Gary Gillette: A look at which Negro League ballparks are still standing.
- Early Baseball, Golden Days Era Committee Ballots Announced (via Baseball Hall of Fame)
- Baseball Demographics, 1947-2016 by Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt: A look at the population of African American and Latino players in baseball over time (via SABR)
- The Negro League Baseball Museum
- Seamheads Negro Legue Database
- SABR (The Society for American Baseball Research)
- SABR Negro Leagues Research Committee
- SABR Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference
- Negro League Baseball at Retrosheet
- Library of Congress Baseball Collection
- Historiography of Black Baseball & Negro Baseball Leagues by Gary Gillette
Educators, we’d love to hear from you! If you’re incorporating materials from The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues for your classroom, let us know! Additionally, if you’d like to use these materials to develop lesson plans that others can use, we’d be thrilled to share them.