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SABR Drops the Ball

Last Wednesday Rob Manfred announced that Major League Baseball would recognize the Negro Leagues as major leagues. Those who have been reading this site in its almost two-year existence know that I have long championed that the Negro major leagues were in fact, major leagues. An announcement from MLB wasn’t needed for them to be recognized as such. If you are someone who thinks everything has changed because of the announcement then you are someone giving MLB far too much credit for a decision that was made well before MLB decided to wake up and stop being racist.

This column isn’t about that though, it’s about something that happened the day before Manfred’s big announcement. That day the Society for American Baseball Research announced that they were forming a task force to consider the merit of the Negro major leagues as being worthy of inclusion with the recognized white (the white has been added by me, but let’s be honest, that’s the argument when we’re talking about the Negro major leagues getting major league status from any official body) major leagues. On the surface, it’s an innocuous announcement from a group whose sole purpose is the exploration of the past, present, and future of baseball. Only, it’s not all that innocuous and should make most people angry.

When it came to recognizing the Negro major leagues one of the guiding voices of baseball history decided that the answer was to form a committee and talk about the issue. That doesn’t seem like a bad idea unless you’re someone who has spent any amount of time in a workforce where committees are the death knell of progress. Put succinctly, more often than not committees are formed to tackle a problem that has already been solved but no one at the office is willing to accept the solution or put their name on the solution. A task force is just another name for a committee. When given the chance to say loudly and proudly that they didn’t care what MLB had to say on the matter, that the Negro major leagues were major leagues, SABR replied, “hold on, we need to send this to a committee.”

The move to create the task force shows an unwillingness from SABR to stand up to the will of MLB. SABR is not alone in kowtowing to the desires of MLB, most major baseball institutions have long put forth the MLB version of history because it is simply easier to do that than to argue against what such a giant organization has to say. Still, in the case of SABR, they should be better than that. Their organization has written countless biographies of Negro major leagues players, teams, and games. Their members are some of the stalwarts of the Negro major leagues statistical movement of the past 30 or so years. The evidence for the Negro major leagues being exactly what their name implies was right in front of SABR and they still weren’t willing to pull the trigger on telling MLB that their racist past did not mean the Negro major leagues were not worthy of the major league distinction.

When the sun appeared in the sky come the following morning MLB had already circled the wagons on SABR. They rendered the task force moot and announced themselves that MLB would be recognizing the Negro major leagues as major leagues. It’s the right thing for MLB to do, about 100 years too late and full of all kinds of bad framing and awkward language that really makes the whole thing feel dirty. Still, the right thing and it further highlights how organizations like SABR, Baseball Reference, and others were so happy to live under the heel of MLB that they didn’t mind being on the wrong side of history. That an organization like SABR didn’t set the record straight and declare the Negro major leagues as major leagues years ago is a failing of that organization and everyone who holds any sort of decision-making capacity for them.

I am a member of SABR, finally made the plunge and bought a membership last year. It has been a very fruitful endeavor, one that I envisioned myself continuing until the day my mind betrayed me. Now, I’m not so sure I will be keeping my membership. There are great people at the organization and a veritable treasure trove of research material and resources. That doesn’t change the fact that the organization took a cowardly stance on recognizing the Negro major leagues as major leagues. An organization that is one of the arbiters of baseball history has to have more backbone than what SABR has shown on this issue. That MLB righted their mistake does not erase said mistake, though I’m sure SABR can form a new task force to figure out where they went wrong.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Society for American Baseball Research

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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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