Better Late Than Never

These four men played in the Negro Leagues before reaching the previously all-white big leagues. Clockwise from top left: Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League a few weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers; Don Newcombe became the Dodgers’ pitching ace of, winning the first Cy Young Award; Jackie Robinson … ’nuff said; Monte Irvin was a superstar in the Negro Leagues, then helped lead the New York Giants to two National League pennants in the twilight of his career.

The reaction to Major League Baseball’s official recognition of the old Negro Leagues (from 1920 through 1948) has been mostly positive and seen as long overdue, for all of the reasons you would imagine.

The 3,000 or so men who played Negro League baseball during that era (three women did play Negro League ball after 1948) were performing at the highest level available to them, and many of these athletes were as good or better than their white counterparts who were earning more money playing in what was known as big league ball back then. For those black ballplayers, the Negro Leagues were the Major Leagues, and since squads of Negro Leaguers often defeated their white counterparts in exhibition games, they proved themselves in head-to-head competition, too.

So count me among the many people who believe that this is a long overdue but welcome move on the part of MLB. Let the record books be revisited!

Not everyone shares my opinion and, in fact, some folks just can’t seem to wrap their pea-sized brains around this concept. One author whose writing I typically respect basically said that integrating Negro League records with traditional ‘Major League’ records will somehow diminish Jackie Robinson’s contribution (now, based on MLB’s recognition of the Negro Leagues, Jackie “only” integrated the National League, not the Majors).

Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds. Guess we should un-retire Jackie’s No. 42, based on that guy’s backwards assessment, and erase the history of what actually happened, simply because the people who run Major League Baseball did something sensible and righteous for a change. Other critics of the official recognition want to penalize Negro Leaguers because they didn’t play as many official league games as the fellas in the white leagues. For instance, Josh Gibson only played in 78 league games when he was credited with a .441 batting average in 1943. Meanwhile, the batting leaders in the white leagues were playing a 154-game schedule.

Of course, Josh also played about 100 other games each year, just for the dough and the joy of playing, wherever and whenever he could. That was the life of the Negro League ballplayer in those days — there were lots of exhibition games, there were triple-headers. These guys were every bit as committed as their white counterparts, even more so.

I guess the question is, will Josh’s .441 now be considered the highest batting average in Major League history, eclipsing Hugh Duffy’s .438 in 1894, and Rogers Hornsby’s 20th century record, .424, even though he played about half the number of league games? I sure as hell hope so. It wasn’t Josh’s choice to play fewer league games, and he wasn’t playing for statistics anyway. He just happened to have really great numbers.

Josh’s lifetime average of .365 will now, presumably, put him one percentage point behind Ty Cobb (.366) on the all-time list (bumping Hornsby and his .358 down to third place). Again, as a lifetime fan of baseball and its fascinating history, I am so OK with that. For a sport that looks upon its numbers as holy relics, it would be fitting for the ghost of Gibson, and his comrades, to share the joy.

******

The integration of Negro League records with ‘Major League’ records also means there is some change in store for the lifetime report cards of the gentlemen pictured above. Based on the new Major League Baseball reality, these men — Larry Doby, Don Newcomb, Jackie Robinson, and Monte Irvin — all began their big league careers in the Negro Leagues. (As a side note, I consider it among my life highlights to have met Larry and Don).

That means their lifetime baseball records are going to change. For the two or three of you who give a shit about that stuff, here’s how the integration of Negro League and ‘Major League’ numbers will affect these four guys, superstars all:

Larry Doby’s lifetime average will increase to .287 and his runs batted in total will reach a pleasingly round 1,100. Don Newcombe now has 154 career wins (up from 149). Jackie Robinson’s lifetime batting average will improve slightly from .311 to .312. And Monte Irvin, who was known as Mr. Murder in the Negro Leagues, where he batted .347 over 10 seasons, will now be a career .300 hitter in the Major Leagues (.311).

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