At Last, It’s All There In Black And White.

Baseball, more than others, is a sport that reveres its history and the statistics that accompany it.  Even the most casual fan knows that Ty Cobb was the most successful hitter of all time.  But just as Pete Rose eventually broke his record for lifetime hits, his average is now no longer #1, either.  As the ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Ronald Blum reported Wednesday:

Josh Gibson became Major League Baseball’s career leader with a .372 batting average, surpassing Ty Cobb’s .367, when Negro Leagues records for more than 2,300 players were incorporated Tuesday after a three-year research project.

Gibson’s .466 average for the 1943 Homestead Grays became the season standard, followed by Charlie “Chino” Smith’s .451 for the 1929 New York Lincoln Giants. They overtook the .440 by Hugh Duffy for the National League’s Boston team in 1894.

Gibson also became the career leader in slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.177), moving ahead of Babe Ruth (.690 and 1.164).

Gibson’s .974 slugging percentage in 1937 becomes the season record, and Barry Bonds’ .863 in 2001 dropped to fifth, also trailing Mules Suttles’ .877 in 1926, Gibson’s .871 in 1943 and Smith’s .870 in 1929.

Not a bad day for someone who’s been dead for 77 years.

You likely didn’t see Gibson play; few pictures, let alone video, exists of him.  The fact he died three months before Jackie Robinson played his first game in the major leagues is especially poignant.  But fans in Washington, D.C., which Gibson’s Homestead Grays called home for the last part of his career, knew enough to immortalize him in the current Nationals’ Ring of Honor.   That’s a lot more accolade than most Washington Senators–either edition–have received.

You probably didn’t see a lot of the other players who posthumously moved onto all-time leaderboards this week, which MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince reported on Wednesday:

Batting Average: Hall of Famer Josh Gibson’s .466 average for the 1943 Homestead Grays is now the highest mark in Major League history, followed by Charlie “Chino” Smith’s .451 mark for the 1929 New York Lincoln Giants. Both of these averages eclipse the previously recognized record held by Hall of Famer Hugh Duffy (.440, 1894 Boston Beaneaters).

On-Base Percentage: Though Barry Bonds’ .609 mark in 2004 still leads, Gibson (.564, 1943 Grays) and Smith (.551, 1929 Lincoln Giants) enter the top five, with Gibson in third place and Smith fourth.

Slugging Percentage: Four slugging marks now eclipse Bonds’ .863 mark with the 2001 Giants. The top spot now belongs to Gibson (.974, 1937 Homestead Grays), followed by Hall of Famer Mule Suttles (.877, 1926 St. Louis Stars), Gibson (.871, 1943 Grays) and Smith (.870, 1929 Lincoln Giants).

On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS): Gibson also tops Bonds (1.421, 2004 Giants) here, with a 1.474 mark with the 1937 Grays and a 1.435 mark with the 1943 Grays.

Earned Run Average: The single-season best still belongs to Hall of Famer Tim Keefe (0.86), of the 1880 Troy Trojans, but the legendary Satchel Paige now ranks third, with a 1.01 mark for the 1944 Kansas City Monarchs.

It’s understandable if you didn’t know much about these players.  As Castrovince noted, a blue-ribbon research panel meticulously went through a multi-year process to determine that only those leagues  that met these requirements were ultimately included in these revised statistics:

There are seven, and they operated between 1920 and 1948. The reason for the starting point is that attempts to develop Negro Leagues prior to 1920 were ultimately unsuccessful and lacked a league structure. And 1948 was deemed to be a reasonable end point because it was the last year of the Negro National League and the segregated World Series. After that point, the Negro League teams and leagues that had endured were stripped of much of their talent.

So way before television, and newsreels generally ignored these games.  And even those of us who got to see the likes of Buck O’Neil evangelizing about his teammates and friends on Ken Burns’ seminal 1994 documentary BASEBALL, originally a prime time event on PBS and now a staple of MLB Network’s off-seasin programming, are aging.  But there are still those with some personal connection who can speak passionately to why this all matters.  Such as The KANSAS CITY STAR’s Toriano Porter, who told his story in a story that dropped this morning:

When I was younger, I lived on the same street as the gentleman once considered the fastest man in baseball: Negro Leagues baseball great and Hall of Fame player James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell.

One day during the early summer of 1985, a childhood buddy and I worked up enough nerve to knock on Cool Papa’s door. As best I recall, his wife, Clara Bell, answered. We begged her to let us meet Cool Papa Bell, who she said didn’t move around all that well those days. Undeterred, we insisted the visit would be brief. I can’t recall every single detail of the moment but my buddy and I each took turns introducing ourselves and shaking hands with the baseball legend. Back then, you couldn’t tell either of us anything. For months, we were on Cloud 9. We’d met one of baseball’s greatest players in person. To this day, meeting Cool Papa Bell is still one of my fondest childhood memories.

Years ago, during research for a personal writing project (shameless plug — my first novel titled “James Cool” is available on Amazon in digital and paperback forms), I read several larger-than-life tales of Cool Papa Bell’s legendary speed. For instance, famous Negro Leagues baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once stretched the truth about how fast Bell was. As Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick told me this week, Paige was as colorful as they came, and his recollection of Bell’s quickness was slightly exaggerated. The pair bet each other that Cool Papa could turn off the lights and be in bed before the lights went out, but Bell held a secret that Paige left out when recounting the story, according to Kendrick.

“What Satchel forgot to mention was there was an electrical short in the light switch,” Kendrick said. “Cool Papa took his roommate’s meal money that day.

And as these new statistics take root, there will be other stories similar to Porter’s being told, both by the league participants’ proud descendants and more fans like Porter who now have a sense of vindication. And Blum and Castrovince even dropped a few far more recognizable names that retroactively moved up to a degree:

Willie Mays, for example, has 10 hits added to his career total (from 3,283 to 3,293) as a result of the known data from his time with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons. (Though there are newspaper reports of Mays homering for the Black Barons, there are no accompanying box scores to include in the official record. So Mays remains at 660 career MLB home runs.)

Minnie Minoso surpassed 2,000 hits, credited with 150 for the New York Cubans from 1946-1948 that boosted his total to 2,113.

Jackie Robinson, who broke MLB’s color barrier with the 1947 Dodgers, was credited with 49 hits with the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs that increased his total to 1,567.

Among pitchers, Satchel Paige gained 28 wins that raised his total to 125.

On the other hand, Hank Aaron’s career home run total remains at 755, because his Negro Leagues experience came with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 — a time by which MLB had been integrated and the Negro Leagues have been ruled to have not been of Major League quality.

Most of these accomplishments will be addressed when the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants square off on June 20th at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, Mays’ home park for that 1948 season.  The game will serve as a salute to the Negro Leagues, and of course is in concert with Juneteeth.  As of the few surviving players from that era, it is hoped that Mays, at least on video, will be able to offer his own recollections of these cold, hard facts.

But in an era where AI is prevalent and now with the arsenal of this data, I’d like to challenge the genuises that spent the last four years compiling enough to revise the history books to feed it all into a program that could recreate the games we never saw, of the players we largely never knew.  We know it’s possible.  Maybe if we actually could see at least a reasonable facsimile of Josh Gibson’s talents we might be able to more fully appreciate him in the way that those like Mays and Bell could.

We need to see players like him in color.  Something other than bronze.

Courage…

 

 

 

 

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