John Tomase

MLB including Negro League stats should make fans question our biases

It's long past time the Negro League's stars and their achievements were embraced.

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Major League Baseball will officially recognize Negro League stats on its all-time leaderboards. My kneejerk reaction isn't one to be proud of: I hated the math.

Overnight, legendary catcher Josh Gibson displaced Ty Cobb as baseball's best hitter, .372 to .367. Ted Williams's iconic .406 average in 1941 suddenly found itself 60 points behind Lyman Bostock Sr.'s production in only 23 games that same year. Five of the sport's top 10 hitters are now Negro Leaguers, including non-household names like Jud Wilson and Turkey Stearnes (both Hall of Famers, by the way).

What can I say? I grew up reading the Baseball Encyclopedia for fun, and it's easy to consider the facts therein immutable when you don't know any better.

I share my reflexive response in the interests of honesty, and because I suspect I'm not alone. It's also an acknowledgement that embracing baseball's incomplete history has always represented a form of white privilege. Had Mookie Betts and I both been born 125 years ago, only one of us could've played in the big leagues, and it wouldn't have been the 2018 MVP. The history books were written for me more than him.

Here's how I wish I had reacted without the benefit of reflection: Any list topped by Josh Gibson instead of the notoriously misanthropic Ty Cobb is a win for baseball, and represents not just long overdue recognition for the Negro Leagues, but an explicit admission of why they were ghettoized in the first place.

It remains baseball's enduring original sin that a sport billing itself as the national pastime barred players of color for nearly 75 years. Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays proved that the biggest Negro League stars ranked among the game's best players, period, and there's no doubt Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and who knows how many others would've joined them had they just been given the chance.

Legitimizing their accomplishments represents an important step in elevating the Negro Leagues to their rightful place as MLB's equal.

Of course Gibson's records should appear on baseball's leaderboards. If anything is tainted, it's the fact that every white star of the early 20th century compiled his numbers against partial and therefore inferior competition. How many hits might Cobb have lost if Cool Papa Bell or Charleston were patrolling center field? Does Babe Ruth reach 60 homers in 1927 if he's facing Bullet Rogan and Martin Dihigo 20 times apiece? Would Barry Bonds have been chasing Gibson's lifetime home run record instead of Aaron's?

These are the kinds of questions we should've been asking from the beginning, but as long as the Negro Leagues were relegated to separate-but-unequal status (to twist a line from the infamous Supreme Court opinion), everything about them could be marginalized – the players, the leagues, the numbers, and especially the history. Even for a sport that reflects America's segregationist past like no other, It's a breathtaking act of whitewashing.

That made this week's announcement significant.

"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," Larry Lester, an author and longtime Negro Leagues researcher, told The Athletic.

"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."

Treating baseball's numbers as sacrosanct never made much sense, anyway. MLB officially lists Cobb's lifetime average as .367, but research revealed it's actually .366, which is how it's listed on Baseball-Reference. His 4,191 lifetime hits – for generations an iconic total that could be cited by any fan – have since been downgraded to 4,189. Numbers change and we adapt.

If baseball's newest numbers cause us to challenge our implicit biases and recognize an integral and overlooked part of the game's history, all the better.

Until this week, I'm guessing few fans had heard of Lyman Bostock Sr. But we know the story of his namesake, who was blossoming into an All-Star with the Angels when he was murdered in 1978. The tragedy assumes new shades of loss when one considers the dream a father never realized, but lived through his son until it was extinguished.

That deepens our understanding of the game and the place of those who were officially kept at arm's length for decades. It's long past time they were embraced.

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