Why baseball did the right thing by elevating the Negro Leagues to ‘major’

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Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

Major League Baseball righted a wrong

It announced today that it’s elevating the Negro Leagues of 1920 through 1948 to “major league” status. This means that the records and stats of many great Black ballplayers who were denied the chance to compete in the big leagues will finally be folded into MLB history.

Quick history lesson: the Negro Leagues is the collective name given to the set of seven independent circuits formed in the 1920s and ’30s, when segregation was still the law of the land in much of the American South. It was also an unwritten rule in Major League Baseball, where the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” prevented teams from hiring Black players. So the Negro Leagues represented the highest level of professional baseball available at the time to Blacks. Many Latinos also found a home there, making up an estimated 10-15 per cent of the rosters. Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues briefly, before his breaking of the MLB colour barrier in 1947 started a talent drain that sealed their demise.

For many Black baseball legends, though, integration came too late. Josh Gibson, for example. Sometimes called “the Black Babe Ruth,” his mythology rivals the Bambino’s. Gibson’s plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame credits him with hitting “almost 800 home runs” in his 17-year career, and The Sporting News once reported that he smashed a 580-foot bomb during an exhibition at Yankee Stadium. Another is Cool Papa Bell, a prototypical lead-off man who hit for a high average and was said to be so fast that he could flip the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark.

The guy who invented that line, Satchel Paige, was the Negro Leagues’ greatest pitcher and best storyteller. He was lucky enough to still be playing when MLB integrated, and he debuted for Cleveland in 1948. Though he was already 42 years old, Paige managed to spend five quality seasons in the majors (mostly as a reliever) and came back for a stunt start late in the ’65 season — when he was 59! Pitching for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox, he worked three shutout innings and gave up just one hit.

Paige, Bell and Gibson were all inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1970s. But that honour can’t make up for their exclusion from the majors.

Adding to the injustice of this shameful period in baseball (and American) history, an all-white panel in the 1960s decided to classify four defunct leagues as “major leagues” for record-keeping purposes — right up there with the current American and National Leagues. Not only were the Negro Leagues left out — they weren’t even discussed. This despite the fact that many baseball historians and statisticians (including sabermetrics godfather Bill James) consider the quality of play in the Negro Leagues to be close or even roughly equal to the AL and NL of the time. One historian even found that the Black teams had a winning record in their exhibition games against big-leaguers.

Calls for the Negro Leagues to be granted “major” status intensified this summer as MLB celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League (the first of the seven) at the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement gained steam. Today, MLB finally answered.

The next step is for MLB to work with statisticians from the Elias Sports Bureau to figure out how exactly to incorporate Negro Leagues stats. Record-keeping was spotty, so it’s unlikely that there will be enough documentation for, say, Gibson to surpass Barry Bonds’ all-time record of 762 home runs. But Willie Mays could have 16 hits added to his career total from his cup of coffee in the Negro Leagues, and it’s expected that Paige will add 146 more major-league wins. He’s currently credited with only 28.

Today’s move doesn’t erase the horrendous treatment of Black players for much of baseball history. But it’s the right thing to do. And it’s not often Major League Baseball comes through like this. So that’s worth celebrating. Just like the lives and careers of those players who never got a fair shake.

MLB found a more meaningful way than this to honour Negro Leagues greats. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Quickly…

Canada won its first two medals of the World Cup ski cross season. On the second of back-to-back days of medal races in Switzerland to open the season, Marielle Thompson took silver in the women’s event and Kevin Drury grabbed bronze in the men’s. Thompson is the 2014 Olympic women’s champion and 2019 world champ. Drury took bronze at the ’19 worlds. Reigning Olympic men’s champ Brady Leman was eliminated in the 1/8th final today. Read more about the races and watch highlights here.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer passed the legendary Pat Summitt to become the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history. VanDerveer earned her 1,099th victory last night when the No. 1-ranked Cardinal routed Pacific 104-61. The 67-year-old started at Idaho in 1978 before moving to Ohio State and then Stanford in ’85. She’s won both her NCAA titles and all four national coach of the year awards there. Summit racked up all her wins at Tennessee, where she won eight NCAA championships. Her career was cut short by dementia and she died in 2016 at age 64. Read more about VanDerveer’s record-breaking night here.

The WHL postponed its season again. It hoped to open on Jan. 8 but has pushed the start date back indefinitely because of public health restrictions in Western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where the league’s 22 teams are located. The QMJHL is the only one of Canada’s three major-junior hockey leagues to start its season, but it was forced to hit pause in late November. The OHL hopes to start in early February, but who knows? And yet, the world junior championship is still scheduled to start Christmas Day in Edmonton. Read more about the WHL delay here.

And finally…

This is a sacred date for Canadian curling. December 16 is the birthday of Colleen Jones, John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes. Between them, they’ve won seven Scotties, three Briers, four world championships and four Olympic gold medals. Hat tip to CBC Sports curling reporter Devin Heroux for this factoid. His birthday is also in December, and he would add two Saskatoon high school curling titles to the list of accomplishments if these four formed a mixed team. Read Devin’s latest story, on the Paralympics adding a wheelchair mixed doubles curling event, here.

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