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Josh Gibson: As MLB changes its records, Josh Gibson, not Ty Cobb, is all-ti...

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Published Time: 29.05.2024 - 08:06:56 Modified Time: 29.05.2024 - 08:06:56

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, Ala., next month, the timing was right to release the committee’s findings. Thorn estimated that 75 percent of all Negro Leagues box scores have been documented, and that MLB would update the records as more are uncovered. Josh Gibson


“ 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, an author and longtime Negro Leagues researcher who served on the committee.

“Diehards 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, Ala., next month, the timing was right to release the committee’s findings. Thorn estimated that 75 percent of all Negro Leagues box scores have been documented, and that MLB would update the records as more are uncovered.

To some extent, Negro League numbers will always be a work in progress. Barnstorming games, essential as a financial lifeline to Negro League 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.

“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 Negro League leaders as it does for the American and National Leagues: 3.1 plate appearances or 1 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 isn’t even listed in bold on his career ledger. That’s 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.

On Baseball-Reference’s single-season batting average leaderboard, Vargas and Gibson are followed by another .466 hitter — Lyman Bostock Sr., the father of the star outfielder for the Twins and Angels who was murdered after a game in Chicago in 1978.

Bostock Sr.’s .466 mark is recognized by Baseball-Reference as the top average in 1941 (which is why Ted Williams’ fabled .406 for the Red Sox in 1941 is not listed in italicized type on the site). But MLB does not recognize Bostock Sr.’s average on the new single-season leaderboard, because he did it in just 84 plate appearances.

“Here’s the difference,” said Sean Forman, the president of Sports Reference “Throughout the Negro League stats, there are games that are missing; maybe we have the score of the game that was played, but we have no box score for it.

“So I’m looking at Bostock in 1941. We have 23 games of records for him, and we have the Birmingham Black Barons (Bostock’s team) with 45 games that season. So Bostock, with 84 plate appearances, would be below the 45 times 3.1 (threshold). The thing is, he’s over 3.1 per game for those games that we have box scores. We use that number as how we set the minimum.

“We have certain reasons for making the choices we did, and MLB has certain reasons for making the choices they did.”

Baseball-Reference uses Negro League statistics 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.

“There were arduous negotiations,” Thorn acknowledged. “And part of the difficulty was not financial — that was almost to one side and agreed upon — it was how the stats would be used and what level of involvement Seamheads might have on a continuing basis. It took a long time to get to agreement, but once we got to agreement, we brought in Retrosheet as an additional statistical partner. And, of course, we had Elias on board already as our official statisticians, the ones responsible for auditing the 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’s 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 Mets.

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

“It takes me roughly 30 minutes to input one box score — line by line, number by number, and then I run data integrity checks at the end of the season,” Lester said. “I roughly have 16,000 box scores in my database, so it took years to perform the task.

“But it’s fun. We welcome the critics, the doubters. But we know the numbers are solid.”

Decades ago, Lester said, told him the numbers simply did not exist — “that African-Americans were apathetic 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.

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