Baseball Reference adds Negro leagues statistics, rewriting its record book
By James Wagner
On Monday, Baseball Reference, the go-to source on the internet for such matters, would have told you that Stan Musial led the major leagues with a .357 batting average in 1943. It also would have said that numerous pitchers took a turn leading the majors in strikeouts per nine innings between 1927 and 1945, and that the top three batters in career in adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage were Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds.
A day later, all of that looks much different. Now, Tetelo Vargas of the New York Cubans (.471) and Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays (.466) have both surpassed Musial in 1943. Satchel Paige, a dominant pitcher for more than 20 seasons, has taken over eight of those strikeout titles. And Oscar Charleston, perhaps the finest all-around player in Negro leagues history, has bumped Bonds for the third-best career mark in adjusted OPS.
“A lot of new books on baseball trivia will be coming out in the next few years,” Sean Forman, founder and president of Sports Reference, joked on a video call before his baseball site’s announcement Tuesday that it had drastically changed and expanded its accounting of the Negro leagues.
The move comes before Major League Baseball’s own plans to incorporate the statistics into its historical record, which could happen in the next offseason.
The reason for Baseball Reference’s adjustment dates to August, when Forman said that he read an article about how players from the Negro leagues remained uncounted among the official major leagues and that MLB was considering formally recognizing several of those leagues as on par with its American and National leagues.
Until 1947, Black players had been excluded from the major leagues. And long after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the accomplishments of most Black players remained overlooked. A committee of five white men in 1969 granted major league status to four defunct organizations but chose not to include the Negro leagues, an omission that MLB called “clearly an error” in December when it announced it was redressing that past racial wrong and bestowing “long overdue recognition” to more than 3,400 players from seven distinct Negro leagues that operated from 1920 to 1948.
Baseball Reference has long featured statistics from the Negro leagues, but they were not comprehensive, the numbers were not included in such features as the major league leader boards or advanced search tool, and the players’ pages looked different from those of other major leaguers.
Forman said Sports Reference began talking to the people at Seamheads last summer about potentially licensing their extensive Negro leagues database. But doing so, and elevating those leagues on his site, did not crystallize until after Forman read Ben Lindbergh’s article in The Ringer.
“It just hadn’t occurred to me, and I’m somewhat ashamed to say,” Forman said.
Soon, Forman and his team embarked on the largest project that Sports Reference had ever undertaken, with half of the company’s staff dedicating the past four months to beefing up its representation of the Negro leagues. The company sought input from the families of Negro leagues players and researchers, and commissioned articles from them and sought interviews for a new podcast.
Although the Elias Sports Bureau is the official keeper of MLB’s statistics and has been researching how best to incorporate Negro leagues statistics given the scattered nature of the various leagues and inconsistent record keeping, Baseball Reference’s efforts, while unofficial, were significant. That is because the site is perhaps the most accessible and widely used baseball almanac, visited by fans, players and front office executives alike.
“As baseball reinvents itself, every fan should welcome this statistical reconstitution towards social reparation,” Larry Lester, a founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and the chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues Committee, said in a video call.
“The beauty of these stats is that they now humanize these folk heroes, and they’re no longer mythical figures like Paul Bunyan or the steel-driving John Henry. These stats legitimize their accomplishments.”
Lester said MLB’s announcement in December was bittersweet because it came on the heels of what he called the country’s awakening to social concerns such as police brutality and systemic racism. Adding the accomplishments of Negro league players to Baseball Reference, he said, was an opportunity for America to learn more about its history.
“Many of the websites need to be updated to include the greatness of the Negro league players,” he said. “You’re going to discover great home run hitters besides Josh Gibson.”
The major league leader boards, however, did not change drastically Tuesday because of several complicating factors and inherent inequalities. First and foremost, Lester said, the Negro leagues played 50 to 70 games a season — less than half as many as the other major leagues — and thus players from those leagues did not have the same opportunities.
That is why, Lester said, rate statistics like at-bats per home run or strikeouts per nine innings are better ways to show the talent of players like Gibson and Paige.
Gibson was a power-hitting catcher whose Hall of Fame plaque says he “hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball,” but, as of Tuesday, only 165 were accounted for on Baseball Reference.
When MLB made its Negro league announcement over the winter, Gibson’s great-grandson Sean said there were many unanswered questions about how recognition would take place.
He said being included in this way on Baseball Reference was one example of how the change matters. He imagined how excited one of the few living Negro league players, former outfielder Ron Teasley, 94, might feel when he sees his page listed among the major leaguers online.
Gibson also wondered if the change could bolster the Hall of Fame case for players like Rap Dixon, a star outfielder in the 1920s and 1930s.
For his own family, Sean Gibson said he was excited to see how his great-grandfather’s accomplishments rank in major league history. On Tuesday, the top of Josh Gibson’s Baseball Reference page had several new additions: two-time Triple Crown winner, 12-time All-Star, two-time World Series winner and three-time batting champion.
“It used to always be like, ‘Was Josh Gibson considered one of the greatest Black baseball players?’” Sean Gibson said in a video call. “Well, now we can say Josh is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time.”