The Major Negro Leagues

by Adam Darowski

Painting of Oscar Charleston by Graig Kreindler Oscar Charleston is the only player to appear in five of the seven major Negro Leagues. Art by Graig Kreindler. Used with the permission of Jay Caldwell.

The Negro Leagues were major leagues, and we have dramatically expanded our coverage to reflect this on Baseball Reference. At this time, we are presenting seven Black baseball leagues as full major leagues. This is consistent with the decision of SABR's Negro Leagues Task Force and Major League Baseball's announcement.

SABR commented on the process used:

The group's criteria in determining major-league status was: a league of high quality, containing a large number of the best available baseball players, with a defined set of teams and a defined roster of players. Teams should have played a set schedule, with the league maintaining standings and records, some of which may no longer be available.

The seven major leagues are:

NNL: Negro National League I (1920-1931)

ECL: Eastern Colored League (1923-1928)

The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues Logo We have dramatically expanded our coverage of the Negro Leagues and Black major league players.
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ANL: American Negro League (1929)

NSL: Negro Southern League (1932)

EWL: East-West League (1932)

NN2: Negro National League II (1933-1948)

NAL: Negro American League (1937-1948)

The addition of these leagues greatly enriches our coverage of baseball history, but It is important to consider what is not included with these seven leagues:

  • Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks: because they played in the Negro American League after 1948. We will not have a new all-time home run king.
  • Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, and Connie Morgan: because they played in the Negro American League after 1948.
  • Independent clubs such as the legendary 1931 Homestead Grays and 1932-1936 Kansas City Monarchs: because they were not affiliated with an official league.

Much of the history of (and statistics for) Black baseball live outside not only the 1920 to 1948 era but also outside the seven leagues. Our statistical records for players are far from complete for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • Some players are missing seasons because they played where the money was. In 1935, Satchel Paige, Ted Redcliffe and Hilton Smith played for an integrated semipro team in Bismarck, ND. In 1937, Josh Gibson, Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and other Negro League stars played for Ciudad Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Additionally, top players such as Martín Dihigo, Gibson, and Willie Wells found it more lucrative to play in Mexico.
  • Our data shows just 6 major league wins and 69 strikeouts for legendary pitcher John Donaldson, but researchers have uncovered 413 wins and 5,091 strikeouts in a career that lasted from 1908 to 1940. Donaldson, the ultimate barnstormer, pitched for anyone—from famous teams like the Kansas City Monarchs to semipro teams in Minnesota or Saskatchewan.
  • Similarly, our data shows a mere fraction of the “almost 800 home runs” cited on Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque. The larger number includes his total in the major leagues, but also for independent teams, in foreign and winter leagues, as well as in exhibitions.

The SABR task force said they will continue researching additional leagues and teams:

The task force will continue studying other teams and leagues from baseball's segregated era, including from before 1920 and after 1948, along with other top-level independent Black teams of the 1930s, which frequently played against White major-league players and teams. Some Black baseball teams were forced to operate independently in order to survive, as the color barrier enacted by White officials both necessitated the Negro Leagues' existence and later led to their demise.

Baseball Reference will keep a watchful eye on these developments and update our coverage where appropriate. We will also be working with Retrosheet to begin adding game-level Negro League data.

About the Author

Adam Darowski is Head of User Experience for Sports Reference, LLC (the company behind Baseball Reference and Stathead). He has been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) since 2013. He is the co-chair of SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legends committee. In 2012, he created the Hall of Stats, an alternate Hall of Fame populated by a mathematical formula.