The Black Boys of Summer
by Larry Lester
At times during our careers researching the Negro Leagues, 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. But with dedicated, persistent, and passionate efforts, the box score discovery project, though on-going, is nearly complete. For the 1920s, our teams of researchers often found more than 95% of the scheduled games. Finding the data for the games that took place during the aftermath of the Great Depression in the 1930s was more challenging, as leagues and teams often stuttered or folded in mid-season, while all citizens, especially African Americans, struggled in a depressed economy. A resurgence of sports coverage followed in the 1940s, as World War II and the fight against Naziism overseas brought an awakening of mindsets, with Americans and the liberal media challenging the justification for separate but profoundly unequal Black and White leagues.
After the big leagues welcomed Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson, and Dan Bankhead, coverage by both the Black and White presses of Negro League games dwindled. For example, in October 1947, we find the lone sportswriter of a minority newspaper at a college football game (the second most popular sport in the country at the time) instead of attending the Negro World Series. Perhaps Black writers felt compelled to report on the trickling of ebony stars onto White major league teams. Likewise, Black fans quietly migrated to support their local White big-league team, to judge the success of their favorite Black player.
Coincidentally, judging the success of White players has never been without merit. 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? Who holds the record for the most consecutive years leading the league in batting averages, Rogers Hornsby or Ty Cobb? In 1961, who really led the American League in RBIs, Roger Maris or Jim Gentile? 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. Before technology, The Sporting News (the “Bible of Baseball”) undertook data reconciliation while praying that the typesetters would put the reconciled digits into the printing presses correctly.
Behind the scenes, our team was faced with the same challenges with errors from data transmission. With courage and curiosity, the gang tackled the task of discovering box scores, analyzing, auditing, and repairing the printouts for database software entry. Below are the anomalies in examining the weight of the stone presented to the Sisyphus’ team of Clark, Stivers, and myself.
Box Score Anomalies
Irregularities, inconsistencies, and insanities
Box score information:
- Microfilmed Box scores are difficult to read because of a poor scan or print quality.
- Sometimes game dates are difficult to verify because the newspaper reported weekly.
- Two newspapers covering the same game report different results.
- Game text will mention players not listed in the box score.
- Game text will differ from the data provided in the box score.
- All nine positions are not listed; two players may be listed playing the same position.
- Misspelled names are common, especially Latin American names.
- Some names are spelled phonetically.
- Sometimes only a nickname is listed.
- As was the custom, no first names are listed in the lineup.
- Less than nine players are listed.
- Total team hits do not equal total of individual hits.
- Total team hits do not equal hits given up by the opposing pitcher(s).
- Total team runs do not equal total of individual runs.
- Total team runs do not equal runs given up by the opposing pitcher(s).
- Sometimes At Bats are not listed.
- Sometimes individual Runs Scored are not listed.
- Sometimes individual RBIs are not credited.
- Sacrifice hits and sacrifice flies are not distinctively identified.
- Sometimes Sacrifices (hits and/or flies) are counted as At Bats.
- Sometimes no Hit Batsmen are listed [making it difficult to calculate walks].
- Sometimes extra base hits are not listed.
- Sometimes fielding errors are not listed.
- Sometimes stolen bases are not listed.
- Caught stealing is seldom listed in a box score or game text.
- Strikeouts of individual batters are not listed.
- Pinch hitters and pinch runners are sometimes missing.
- Breakdown of defensive innings for multi-positional players may not be available.
- Batting orders are not always sequential, as player substitutions could be listed at the bottom of the order. [This makes it difficult to calculate missing At Bats].
- Total team hits do not match total hits given up by pitcher(s).
- Total team runs do no match total runs given up by pitcher(s).
- Number of innings pitched not listed.
- Breakdown of innings pitched may not be listed.
- Breakdown of runs allowed may not be listed.
- Breakdown of earned runs may not be listed.
- Breakdown of hits allowed may not be listed.
- Breakdown of strikeouts may not be listed.
- Breakdown of walks may not be listed.
- Only the winning pitcher is listed.
- Starting pitchers may not be readily identified.
- Some box scores are void of pitching statistics; therefore one must rely on the game review.
Part II: The Negro Leagues – Where baseball is as black as the Blues!
The bittersweet decision from Major League Baseball (MLB) to recognize the Negro Leagues as major leagues comes 100 years after the birth of Rube Foster’s Negro National League in 1920, the first Black league to survive a full season. The genesis for the decision began with the Negro Leagues Researchers and Authors Group (NLRAG) in 2000. This MLB grant-funded group of scholars and historians generated an exhaustive database of statistics, starting with post-Civil War games from various colored leagues—leagues that existed because of the apartheid attitudes of White league power brokers. These leagues of color were patterned on a major-league blueprint of rules and regulations, with their own unique style of up-tempo play.
Overall, the NLRAG team found more than 14,000 full box scores, These have been entered into a Microsoft Access database for analysis, producing more than 200 customized reports that show the all-time pitching and batting leaders for 1) games, 2) seasons, or a 3) career. Tried and tested mathematical formulas have been developed to calculate the missing At Bats, Runs Batted In, Walks and Putouts, etc., for each performer. In a few cases, strikeouts and walks will be under-reported, due to the absence of information from the box score and printed storyline. Finally, data integrity checks are done to guarantee team batting and team pitching stats are balanced.
Some sample custom reports:
- What players from the Black leagues played all nine positions?
- How many players had six or more hits in a game?
- What players hit for the cycle?
- What pitcher had the most games with double-digits strikeouts?
- What pitchers recorded more complete games than wins?
- What third baseman or shortstop has the most career home runs, or doubles?
- What left-handed batter hit the most triples on the road?
- How did Willie “the Devil” Wells hit on Sundays?
For each box score, it takes a researcher between 30 and 90 minutes to calculate missing RBIs, Runs Scored, At Bats, Innings Pitched, Earned Runs and identify first names. This labor of love is now in extra innings. As speculated, our Sisyphean efforts reveal that Negro League players were statistically as talented, or inept, as their White major-league counterparts.
Through a comparison of league batting and pitching records from the American League, National League, Eastern-based Negro Leagues, and Midwestern-based Negro Leagues, we found the aggregated totals (courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com in 2016) from 1920 to 1948, to be highly similar. See the summary table below.
League Totals 1920-1948
|Major Eastern Negro Leagues||.268||.383||4.17|
|Major Midwestern Negro Leagues||.272||.383||4.16|
|Major National League||.274||.382||3.87|
|Major American League||.276||.392||4.16|
Also note that during this period, Negro League teams played mostly on big league fields like Shibe Park, Comiskey Park, Connie Mack Stadium, Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Municipal Stadium, Ruppert Stadium, and Griffith Stadium, among others, and not corn fields or cow pastures, as some cynics have reported. Teams often used Black and White minor league and ex-major league umpires. The players wore Wilson uniforms, used the Wilson W-150CC baseballs, gloves crafted by A.G. Spalding, and ordered their regulation lumber from the Louisville Slugger Factory—the same suppliers for the American and National Leagues. The distance between home plate and the pitching mound for each league was the same, and as well for the distances between the four stations. Furthermore, Black and White teams played under the same rules of engagement, mandated by the ever-evolving Knickerbocker Rules of 1845, up until 1949, when the official rules were re-codified into 10 sections.
Aside from the unmanicured playing fields, overuse of the Wilson baseballs and, in some cases, poorly lighted parks where Black teams competed, the infrastructure was identical. Consequently, it is a level playing field for comparative statistical analysis, and hence from 1920 through 1948, we found the Negro Leagues were the equivalent of the White major leagues in all facets of competition.
The newly recognized leagues are:
"Everything that divides men, everything that specified, separates, or pens them, is a sin against humanity.
—José Martí, Cuban journalist and revolutionary philosopher.
On December 16, 2020, Major League Baseball (MLB) soared to new heights with the announcement that Negro League baseball stats from 1920 to 1948 would be included in the official national record and “elevated” to “major league” status. This American bald eagle of an institution is no longer flying with one wing.
So where do fans go from here? With the acknowledgement and acceptance of seven more major entities, what impact will blackball records have on the new and inclusive landscape of statistical excellence?
The final tallies will be available soon. It is doubtful that the career leader boards will change as the Negro Leaguers played fewer games than their White major league counterparts over the course of their careers. However, the leagues of colored players will produce some record shades of grays for games and seasons because of the newly endowed status.
Some Noteworthy Occurrences
Editor's note: Some of these statistics include data from seasons and teams that are not included in our Major Leagues Are Negro Leagues update.
- Rickwood Field, built in 1910 and home of the Birmingham Black Barons from 1920 to 1948, is now the oldest major league ballpark in the country. Fenway Park in Boston is still the oldest stadium to field a White major league team.
- Owners Olivia Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs, Henryene Green of the Baltimore Elite Giants, and Dr. Hilda Bolden Shorter of the Philadelphia Stars now join the Newark Eagles’ Effa Manley, Marge Schott, Joan Payson, Joan Kroc, Jean Yawkey and other ladies as female owners of major league teams.
- No longer will New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen be credited with the only World Series no-hitter (a perfect game in 1956 against the Brooklyn Dodgers). Thirty years earlier, in 1926, Claude “Red” Grier for the Bacharach (NJ) Giants hurled a no-no against the Chicago American Giants, and in the process became the first major league pitcher to throw a World Series no-hitter.
- And speaking of no-hitters, in 1927 Joe Strong of the Baltimore Black Sox lived up to his last name and pitched the longest no-hitter in major league history with an 11 inning, 2-1 victory over the Hilldale Club. Other no-hitters by Negro League aces came from Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, Andy Cooper, Willie Foster, and Hilton Smith, et al.
- Depending on the definition of independent league play by MLB, the new record books could show that Herbert “Rap” Dixon of the Baltimore Black Sox chain-smoked 14 consecutive hits in 1929. That is two more than the old major league record shared by three players: Johnny Kling of the 1902 Chicago Cubs, Pinky Higgins of the 1938 Boston Red Sox, and Walt Dropo of the 1952 Detroit Tigers.
- In 1929, the American Negro League batting champion was Chino Smith of the New York Lincoln Giants, hitting .451 in 66 games.
- In 1939, the Negro Leagues played two All-Star games, one in New York and another in Chicago. This came 20 years before the White major leagues would play two all-star games in the same season. MLB played its first All-Stare game at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and the second game at Los Angeles’s Memorial Coliseum.
- In 1941, catcher Frank Duncan, Sr. and pitcher Frank Duncan, Jr. of the Kansas City Monarchs become the first father and son—and the first father-and-son battery—to play for the same team in the same season. This is 50 years before the Ken Griffeys made ancestral history with the Seattle Mariners.
- In 1943, Al Gipson, pitching for the Birmingham Black Barons, struck out 20 Philadelphia Stars in nine innings. In the process, he joins aces Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, Kerry Wood (Chicago Cubs) and Roger Clemens (Boston Red Sox, twice) in the record books.
- At some point in our conversations, we will agree that Leon Day of the Newark Eagles pitched an Opening Day no-hitter in 1946, just like Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians did in 1940.
- For the Jeopardy buffs: In 1947, he became the only player to hit a home run in both the Negro Leagues (with the Kansas City Monarchs) and in the White big leagues (with the St. Louis Browns) in the same season. Who is Willard “Home Run” Brown? With the inclusion of Negro League stats, Brown adds 13 seasons and roughly five dozen home runs and 450 RBIs, along with almost 100 stolen bases, to his major league totals.
- A look at a few notable players reveal that Monte Irvin will add 10 seasons, an estimated 60 home runs, and 340 RBIs while raising his lifetime batting average to over .300. Larry Doby will add five seasons, 20 more home runs, and 130 RBIs, while raising his batting average five points. Roy Campanella spent nine seasons in the darker leagues. His batting average goes up eight points plus he adds 30 or more home runs and 240 or more RBIs to his major league totals.
- Satchel Paige greatly benefits with the inclusion of 18 seasons, adding roughly 115 wins, with more than 1500 strikeouts.
- According to the NL’s official stat keeper, Howe News Bureau, Artie Wilson of the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League batted .402 in 1948, making the slap hitter the last major leaguer to hit over .400.
- For comparative purposes of gauging the worthiness of Negro Leagues players to enter the record books, we can show that Satchel Paige’s strikeouts per nine innings rate is comparable to Nolan Ryan’s career 9.5 K/9. A similar argument can be made that Josh Gibson’s home run per At Bat ratio lands between Barry Bonds’s 1-per-13 and Hank Aaron’s 1:16 ratio.
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 greatest of these athletes. As baseball re-invents itself, every fan should welcome this statistical restitution towards social reparation. Play Ball!
About the Author
Larry Lester is co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and serves as chairman of SABR’s Negro League Research Committee. Since 1998, he has organized the annual Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, the only scholarly symposium devoted exclusively to Black Baseball. He is the author of Rube Foster in His Time, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game 1933–1953, Baseball’s First Colored World Series: The 1924 Meeting of the Hilldale Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, and The Negro Leagues Book (with Dick Clark), which has been updated in a second volume (with Wayne Stivers) available on Kindle. Lester lives in Raytown, Missouri. Lester is winner of the 2016 Henry Chadwick and 2017 Bob Davids awards.