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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Move over, Ty Cobb: Josh Gibson is new batting leader as MLB updates records

Josh Gibson with the Homestead Grays in 1931 (Wikipedia)

By Tyler Kepner / The Athletic

It has been an article of faith for nearly a century, as if chiseled onto a tablet by Abner Doubleday himself: The leading hitter in major league history is Tyrus Raymond Cobb.

But history evolves. We know that Doubleday did not, in fact, invent baseball. And earlier this week, Josh Gibson replaced Cobb as the leading hitter in the official records of the game. At .372, Gibson’s career batting average eclipses Cobb’s by 5 points.

Major League Baseball on Wednesday announced the results of a newly integrated statistical database covering records from Negro leagues that operated from 1920 to 1948. The formal acceptance of the data comes 3 1/2 years after MLB officially recognized the Negro leagues as major leagues in December 2020.

“People will be, I don’t know if upset is the word, but they may be uncomfortable with some Negro league stars now on the leaderboards for career and seasons,” said Larry Lester, a baseball writer and longtime Negro leagues researcher who served on the committee.

“Die-hards may not accept the stats, but that’s OK. I welcome the conversations at the bar or the barbershop or the pool hall. That’s why we do what we do.”

John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, said that with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants playing a game at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, next month, the timing was right to release the committee’s findings. Thorn estimated that about 75% of all Negro leagues box scores have been documented and that MLB would update the records as more are uncovered.

To some extent, numbers from the Negro leagues will always be a work in progress. Barnstorming games, essential as a financial lifeline to their teams, are not included in the statistics.

“For example, the Kansas City Monarchs travel to Chicago, and once they get into town, they play as many games as possible,” Lester said. “So instead of a three-game series, they play five — and on the way there, they might stop in Moline and play the local team to pick up some change.

As Major League Baseball incorporated statistics from the Negro leagues into its records this week, Josh Gibson became the career leader in batting average at .372, topping Ty Cobb’s .367.

“Based on players that I’ve interviewed, they say they played almost every day, sometimes two or three games a day and not in the same location. So they were playing probably 150 to 175 games a year, but only 60 to 80 games counted in the league standings.”

Those shorter official seasons, MLB noted in a release announcing the change, naturally lead to some “leaderboard extremes.” But the league verified a 60-game season during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with that as a recent precedent, Thorn said, it made sense to also verify Negro league seasons.

“The irregularity of their league schedules, established in the spring but improvised by the summer, were not of their making but instead were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices,” MLB said in the release.

The committee used the same statistical minimums for leaders in the Negro leagues as it does for the American and National Leagues: 3.1 plate appearances or one inning pitched per scheduled team game. The scheduled games range from 26 (Negro American League, 1942) to 91 (Negro National League I, 1927).

The new accounting gives Gibson not just the career batting average record, but also the single-season mark at .466 in 1943, followed by Chino Smith’s .451 in 1929. The previous record, Hugh Duffy’s .440 mark for Boston in 1894, drops to third.

At Baseball Reference, however, Gibson’s .466 is not even listed in bold on his career ledger. That is because another hitter in Gibson’s league, Tetelo Vargas of the New York Cubans, batted .471, which the website considers the single-season record.

Vargas is credited with 136 plate appearances that season. But MLB considers that league’s schedule to be 47 games long, so Vargas falls short of MLB’s minimum 146 plate appearances required for recognition as a league leader.

Baseball Reference uses statistics for the Negro leagues from the Seamheads database, a project that Lester said began with a grant from MLB in 2000. Researchers Gary Ashwill and Kevin Johnson searched exhaustively for verified box scores, and while both are on the committee, it took years for MLB and Seamheads to agree on the implementation of data.

It took more than two years for those entities to come together. But once they did, it seems, the pace accelerated. Thorn said the committee was careful to rely only on box scores, not merely game accounts. Gibson was reported to have hit four homers in a game in 1938, for example, but with no box score, there is no way to make all the numbers work.

“If a man hits a home run, he hits it off someone,” Thorn said. “So absent the double-entry accounting that is required to provide balance to the entire historical record of Major League Baseball, we cannot make exceptions for anecdotal evidence.”

Likewise, Thorn said, a game account from 1948 says that Willie Mays homered for Birmingham. But without a box score to verify it, Mays’ career home run total remains at 660 — all with the Giants and the Mets.

The records are not full, but they are accurate for what they cover, as far as MLB is concerned.

Decades ago, Lester said, people told him the numbers simply did not exist — “that African Americans were apathetic about recording baseball history,” he said. He is proud to have helped upend that trope to unearth the numbers that validate the achievements of Oscar Charleston, Bullet Rogan, Turkey Stearnes and others.

The revised records — even certified as official — will not sway everyone. Lester understands that. And for all the meticulous record-keeping, the what-ifs of segregation can never be resolved.

Critics, for example, may say Gibson played against other Black teams only. “Well,” Lester said, “Babe Ruth never hit a home run off a Black pitcher, and Josh Gibson never hit a home run off a white pitcher. So I guess my point is, the amount of melanin or the lack thereof does not indicate the greatness of a ballplayer.”

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