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Breaking the major league stats barrier

From archival interviews with Negro League legends Buck

From archival interviews with Negro League legends Buck O'Neil and Monte Irvin to commentary from contemporary baseball figures lJoe Torre, Curtis Granderson, Tony Clark and Rob Manfred, Newsday examines the history of Negro League baseball the breaking of the color barrier. (Credit: Newsday staff) Credit: Newsday staff

When Major League Baseball announced on Wednesday that the Negro Leagues had been granted "Major League" status, most of the reaction traveled down two paths:

1. How this decision by commissioner Rob Manfred was long overdue;

2. How this decision to add statistics from approximately 3,400 Negro League players will change baseball’s record books.

The first reaction is hard to debate. Coming as it did on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues, Manfred’s move can be seen as a tiny step in righting a wrong that can never be fully excused or corrected.

"All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice," Manfred said in a statement. "We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record."

MLB’s move means statistics from seven different leagues that played segregated baseball from 1920-48 and are today collectively known as the Negro Leagues will be added to baseball’s official record book.

So, for example, Willie Mays’ famous career home run total of 660 will almost certainly grow by at least one — a home run he hit for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 when he was 17.

Josh Gibson, who was known as "the Black Babe Ruth" for his home-run hitting prowess, will likely became baseball’s single-season batting average leader. Gibson hit .466 in a 69-game regular season for the 1943 Homestead Grays. The current record is Hugh Duffy’s .441 for the 1894 Boston Beaneaters.

Satchel Paige’s 28 career wins will increase by at least the 146 that he is currently credited with from the Negro Leagues.

Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, will see his career hits total go up by the 24 he picked up for the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs.

There are countless more examples among the top echelon of Negro League greats, some of whom have been enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

And there are thousands of examples of Negro League players who are not in the Hall of Fame, but who in the near future will have their exploits — whether it was one game or thousands — appear in the same record book of those who played in what before Wednesday were considered the only major leagues.

The seven Negro Leagues recognized by MLB are the Negro National League (I) (1920-31), the Eastern Colored League (1923-28), the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932), the Negro Southern League (1932), the Negro National League (II) (1933-48) and the Negro American League (1937-48).

You may think the American and National Leagues were the only "major" leagues before Wednesday.

However, in 1969, a "Special Committee on Baseball Records" added four defunct leagues to the official record book: the American Association (1882-91), the Union Association (1884), the Players League (1890) and the Federal League (1914-15).

The committee didn’t even consider adding the Negro Leagues, according to John Thorn, MLB’s official historian.

"There was no public outcry," Thorn told MLB.com. "I am reminded of Ralph Ellison’s title for the wonderful book ‘Invisible Man.’ The problem was not even perceived to exist. It’s not as if there was someone in the room raising the question and having it turned down for reasons historical or technical. It simply did not come up."

MLB did not give a timetable for when the new record book changes will be completed.

"MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau have begun a review process to determine the full scope of this designation’s ramifications on statistics and records," MLB said in a statement. "MLB and Elias will work with historians and other experts in the field to evaluate the relevant issues and reach conclusions upon the completion of that process."

What about Hall of Fame plaques for former Negro League players? Can they be updated when the statistical review is complete?

If your first thought is "no," consider this: the text of Robinson’s original 1962 Hall of Fame plaque was completely changed in 2008.

It wasn’t a typo that the Hall fixed. It was something much deeper: The first plaque didn’t mention that Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

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