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Acknowledging the Negro Leagues

As I was in the middle of writing this article the direction of the article changed thanks to a rather large announcement. Before we get to that announcement, the original impetus was the trend of major baseball writers and sites continuing to write about major league stats and milestones while not incorporating Negro Leagues stats into the mix. A specific article about Shohei Ohtani compared him to Babe Ruth by extolling that no one in the major leagues had done what Ohtani is doing in over 100 years. This raised my ire because Bullet Rogan and Martín Dihigo, just to name a few players, did exist.

I was halfway through that article when Baseball Reference announced that they had now added all the recognized Negro major leagues stats to their major league stats section. It was an important change that needed to happen, and it is great that it finally happened. That being said, the announcement rubbed me the wrong way in its tenor and its presentation. There were a couple of throwaway lines about The Negro Leagues always being major leagues as well as an admission that the site had intended to add Negro Leagues stats to their major league section before Major League Baseball decided to acknowledge the Negro Leagues as major leagues. These points didn’t stick out, rather what the announcement felt like was a celebration of the step that Baseball Reference was taking in adding these stats to the major league section.

These two occurrences are related and that’s why my article stopped dead in its tracks and had to be rewritten. They both deal with the issue of omission and of a call to authority. In the case of baseball writers and the major stat sites, they have had the ability for years now to recognize the Negro Leagues as the major leagues they very much were and chose not to take that action. For any stat site to now celebrate their inclusion feels like a hollow gesture. Sure, it’s great the stats are being included, but if they should have been included for decades now and weren’t then there’s really not much to actually celebrate, is there?

The driving force behind all of this, especially in the case of the writers, is the idea of MLB as an arbiter of history. That has been the boogeyman they have fallen back on throughout the years whenever the topic of the Negro Leagues major league status was brought up. Until MLB made it official, well, then they weren’t actual major leagues, now were they? That approach exists out of laziness and the desire to create a villain to shield yourself from criticism. By putting it all on MLB’s shoulders (which, as far as villains go the organization that fought for segregation for much of their existence is a really capable villain) the writers abdicated themselves from responsibility. That made it okay to write articles about Ohtani and compare him to Ruth while ignoring all the great Negro Leagues two-way players.

The villain eventually laid down and MLB decided they could graciously allow the Negro League major league status. Those who have read me long enough know that I do not believe MLB is an arbiter of history and it is not up to them to decide what league is and isn’t major. However, this time I’m more concerned with the fact that they made that announcement and the majority of writers didn’t really change how they approached the discussion of the major leagues. At first, there were references to the Negro Leagues here and there. Then after a month or so only a small number of writers continued to attempt to include the Negro Leagues in their discussions of the major leagues.

Sean Forman, the man behind Baseball Reference, did reply to a tweet of mine where he addressed my concerns over his site’s role in this issue,

That’s not a reaction that I expected and I am glad that Forman appears to be operating with a level of responsibility for his site leaving the Negro Leagues on the outside looking in for far too long. Contrast that with the reaction of the Society for American Baseball Research which turned to name-calling instead of accepting any responsibility for not recognizing the Negro League as major leagues sooner and Forman’s response is a breath of fresh air. What about the writers? That’s the big question remaining, will they take responsibility and start adding Negro League players, facts, and stats to their articles? Or, will they continue doing what they did the past few months and ignore the Negro Leagues while still only focusing on the white major leagues? I’d love for it to be the former, but we shall see.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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