The Major Negro Leagues
by Adam Darowski
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)
- Formed by Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants.
- Folded after 1931 due to financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression.
- 19 Hall of Famers: Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Andy Cooper, Bill Foster, Rube Foster (manager/executive), Josh Gibson, Pete Hill, John Henry Lloyd, Biz Mackey, José Méndez, Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Ben Taylor, Cristóbal Torriente, Willie Wells, Sol White (manager), J.L. Wilkinson (executive).
ECL: Eastern Colored League (1923-1928)
- Formed by Ed Bolden of the Hilldale Club to rival the Negro National League.
- From 1924 to 1927, the ECL pennant winner would face the NNL’s pennant winner in the Colored World Series.
- The league started the 1928 season, but disbanded in the spring.
- 11 Hall of Famers: Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, Pete Hill, Judy Johnson, John Henry Lloyd, Biz Mackey, Alex Pompez (executive), Louis Santop, Ben Taylor, Joe Williams, Jud Wilson.
ANL: American Negro League (1929)
- Formed for the 1929 season from five ECL teams—Baltimore Black Sox, New York Lincoln Giants, Hilldale Club, Cuban Stars East, and Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. They were joined by the independent Homestead Grays.
- The league lasted only a single season.
- 10 Hall of Famers: Oscar Charleston, Martín Dihigo, Judy Johnson, John Henry Lloyd, Biz Mackey, Alex Pompez (executive), Cum Posey (manager/executive), Ben Taylor, Joe Williams, Jud Wilson.
NSL: Negro Southern League (1932)
- In 1932, the Chicago American Giants, Indianapolis ABCs, and Louisville Black Caps moved to the NSL (joining a few other teams that had previously played in the NNL).
- Operated (off and on) from 1920 to 1951, but was only considered a major league in 1932.
- 4 Hall of Famers: Bill Foster, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Cristóbal Torriente.
EWL: East-West League (1932)
- Formed by Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays.
- The league folded before the end of the season without a champion.
- 8 Hall of Famers: Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Judy Johnson, Cum Posey (manager/executive), Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Joe Williams, Jud Wilson.
NN2: Negro National League II (1933-1948)
- Formed by Gus Greenlee of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
- Drew teams from both the East-West League (Homestead Grays, Baltimore Black Sox) and Negro Southern League (Chicago American Giants, Nashville Elite Giants, Indianapolis ABCs).
- East-West All Star Game begins in 1933.
- 19 Hall of Famers: Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Roy Campanella, Oscar Charleston, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Martín Dihigo, Larry Doby, Bill Foster, Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Effa Manley (executive), Satchel Paige, Alex Pompez (executive), Cum Posey (manager/executive), Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Jud Wilson.
NAL: Negro American League (1937-1948)
- The NNL became an eastern league as the Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants joined the new NAL.
- The pennant winner faced the NN2’s pennant winner in the Negro World Series from 1942 to 1948.
- The league continued to operate through the 1961 season, folding in early 1962. It was only considered a major league through the 1948 season when many top players were signed by National and American League teams.
- 17 Hall of Famers: Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Andy Cooper, Bill Foster, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Willie Wells, J.L. Wilkinson (executive).
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.