Negro Leagues stats put Josh Gibson on top

For almost a century, Negro Leagues baseball player and power hitter Josh Gibson was called the Black Babe Ruth. But now, perhaps all baseball fans should refer to the Babe as the white Josh Gibson!

Left to right: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, 1942

Why? For the first time in baseball history, the excluded statistics of over 2,400 players from the Negro Leagues have been incorporated in Major League Baseball record books. This has put Gibson ahead of stars and heroes like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and others!

History was made on May 29 when Major League Baseball announced that statistics from the seven different Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948 were officially combined with their historical records.

Now, Gibson is the new MLB all-time batting champion. His career batting average of .372 is ahead of Ty Cobb’s .367. He is also the new leader in slugging percentage (SLG) and on base plus slugging (OPS) percentage, surpassing Ruth in both categories.

Finally, everyone who played in the Negro Leagues is on par with all major league baseball players.

And yes, women. While MLB has never had a woman player, there were actually three women in the Negro Leagues. The first was Toni Stone, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns and the Kansas City Monarchs. Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson followed.

The New York Amsterdam News validated the talents and temperament of Stone, Morgan and Johnson when the Clowns played the Monarchs in a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in 1954, writing, “The girls take a back seat to no one on the field.” (

Recognition after ‘decades of denial’

A revealing editorial in the May 29 Los Angeles Times said: “After decades of denial about the exceptional performance of Black players before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Major League Baseball agreed in 2020 that the seven major Negro Leagues were indeed major leagues, as much as the National League or the American League.

“That year is considered the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues. The racial reckoning following the police murder of George Floyd probably played a role as well.” 

In 2020, Major League Baseball recognized records and statistics from 3,400 players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948. The inclusion of these players into the MLB official records was a result of efforts by the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group. The MLB-supported group amassed the most comprehensive statistical database of the Negro Leagues by culling box scores from 345 different newspapers. Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, led the NLRAG and continues to audit the statistics.

After the announcement in 2020, MLB set up the Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee, with 16 members plus the chair, John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball. The committee included Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; C.C. Sabathia, a former MLB player; Claire Smith, longtime baseball journalist; Larry Lester, baseball author/researcher and Negro Leagues expert, and Sean Gibson, of the Josh Gibson Foundation. Others were noted authors, historians and statisticians.

A May 29 MLB press release quoted Thorn: “Shortened Negro League schedules, interspersed with revenue-raising exhibition games, were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices. To deny the best Black players of the era their rightful place among all-time leaders would be a double penalty.”

The closest baseball ever came to having the best teams play each other was in the early years of the last century, when all-white and all-Black teams competed against each other in offseason exhibition games. But the National and American league clubs got shellacked by the Black teams so often that the embarrassed owners of white teams — along with the MLB commissioner — ended interleague play.

Segregation the rule until 1947

Until Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color line in 1947, Black players’ professional baseball opportunities were limited primarily to the Negro Leagues. These leagues showcased impressive talent, from power hitters Walter “Buck” Leonard and Josh Gibson, to pitchers Satchel Paige and Joseph “Smokey Joe” Williams. Thirty-five players from the Negro Leagues have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

On Nov. 20, 1951, a baseball scout signed Hank Aaron to a contract on behalf of the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League.

Aaron said: “Negro League baseball has been so important to my life. I won’t ever forget the way I felt when I walked on the field for the Clowns — like I was already in the major leagues. There was nothing else I wanted to be doing. And the Negro Leagues gave me the opportunity to go on to play Major League Baseball. Those months I spent on the Clowns helped me tremendously — not only teaching me how to play the game itself but also showing me that I belonged at that level. I’ll never forget that.” (Andscape,Jan. 27, 2021)

Two former Negro Leagues players — Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles and Leroy “Satchel” Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs — helped the Cleveland Indians — now the Cleveland Guardians, after a decades-long campaign led by Indigenous activists against its racist name and mascot — win the 1948 World Series. 

In a Facebook post on June 1, Black Men in Higher Education wrote: “Paige listed his age as 42-years-old (wink, wink) when he joined the Indians as the oldest rookie in major league history. ‘Vintage’ Paige showed white America what Black America already knew. That Satchel Paige was not only the greatest pitcher in the world; he was also the greatest show on earth. He recorded a 6-1 season with a 2.38 ERA, with three complete games and a save, while also making the Indians and Major League Baseball a ton of money at the box office.

“We can only imagine what a ‘Prime Paige’ would have accomplished if he wasn’t barred from the ‘all-white’ majors for 20 years. We can only imagine the pitching records he would have broken, the championships he would have won, and the legend he would have left behind in Major League Baseball lore.”

In 1948, Paige became the first Black player to pitch in the World Series when he pitched two-thirds of an inning in Game 5. He recorded the final two outs in the seventh inning of Game 5, with one of the outs being a fly ball hit to his fellow Negro Leagues star Larry Doby.

Doby and Paige decisive in Cleveland win

In Cleveland’s World Series victory over Milwaukee, Doby batted .318 and smacked the decisive home run in Game 4. He was the first Black player to hit a home run in a World Series.

Paige and Doby were the first Black players to win a World Series. These two won World Series in both the Negro Leagues and “white” major leagues. Paige won in 1942 with the Kansas City Monarchs. Doby won the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series, when his Eagles beat Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs. Both men shared a special time together in helping to lead Cleveland to victory in 1948.

While Gibson and Cobb now number one and two in career batting average, Negro Leagues players actually make up half of those with the top 10 highest batting averages: Oscar Charleston (third, .363), Jud Wilson (fifth, .350), Turkey Stearnes (sixth, .348) and Buck Leonard (eighth, .345).

A CNN opinion piece posted on May 30 said: “Consider, for instance, that Gibson’s jaw-dropping .466 season of 1943 came two years after the incomparable Ted Williams’ magical 1941 season when he batted .406, the last time any major league player crossed the .400 barrier.

“Few players were as covetous towards their achievements or their craft as Williams, who was also a keen scholar of baseball history. So much so that at his own Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1966, Williams devoted part of his acceptance speech to encourage Cooperstown [National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum] to devote its space to honor Negro League players like Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard and others who ‘are not here only because they were not given a chance.’” 

The struggle against racism in MLB has been going on for over a century. The first MLB commissioner of baseball, appointed in 1920, was a racist named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

In 1938, a white player, Jake Powell, was asked on live radio how he stayed in such good shape. Powell replied that he was a cop in the off season in Ohio and, using a racist slur, replied that he cracked Black people over the head with his nightstick. Listeners were outraged, calling the radio station and Landis’s office to complain. A delegation of Black leaders presented a petition to the umpires that demanded that Powell be barred from baseball for life.

Although MLB had ignored criticism of its denial to allow Black people to play, it could not dismiss the outrage over Powell’s slur. Landis suspended Powell for 10 days. The Sporting News reported that it was the first time that a major league ballplayer had been suspended for a racist remark.

Landis did give the racist player a slap on the wrist, but he and MLB had long practiced racist discrimination against Black players. This incident united people who had been advocating for MLB to allow Black players into major league baseball.

Petitions target MLB racism

During the 1930s, Black sportswriters, along with writers for the Communist Party USA’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, intensely campaigned for the integration of baseball. CPUSA activists organized protests and circulated petition drives outside the ballparks of New York’s three Major League teams — the Yankees, Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers — demanding that teams sign Black players.

The petitions, which had almost a million signatures, were then sent off to the commissioner’s office. They were ignored.

Landis refused to allow players and managers to speak on the issue of ending MLB segregation. When Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher was quoted in a 1942 Daily Worker article saying he would sign Black players if he were allowed to, Landis ordered Durocher to deny that he made the statement.

Landis died in December 1944, and Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract just a few months later, ending the racist rejection of Black players in major league baseball. 

In 2020, the membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America overwhelmingly voted to remove Landis’s name from the Most Valuable Player trophies it hands out each year. Among those who have been suggested to replace Landis on the MVP trophy is Josh Gibson.

Gibson’s great grandson, Sean Gibson, is hoping the BBWAA chooses to use Gibson’s name. He said: “Renaming the MVP award in memory of Josh Gibson would do more than just honor a great baseball player. It would remind people of some of the many victims of racism — the players who were denied their life’s dream of playing ball at the highest level. For all those who came before Robinson, the ‘Josh Gibson MVP Award’ would be an act of redemption. And poetic justice.”  (Andscape, Aug. 14, 2020)

The stories of the Negro Leagues players can fill a book. Those players played baseball because they loved it. They put up with sleeping on buses and eating sandwiches because hotels and restaurants wouldn’t accommodate them. They were bold and courageous. They had fun and they made history. 

Paige a ‘legend-builder’

Some players were outright characters. Satchel Paige, the first Negro League player voted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, was one of those characters. Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1906, he said he learned baseball doing time in reform school and began his career at age 14. He played his last professional game at age 59!

David Schoenfield, Senior Writer at ESPN, said in 2015: “I don’t think there’s ever been anyone quite like Satchel Paige. He was tall, 6-foot-3, and skinny and threw hard, although his command was probably his greatest asset. He was also the ultimate self-promoter and legend builder.”

This is one of Paige’s quotes: “I got bloopers, loopers and droppers. I got a jump ball, a be ball, a screwball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry-up ball, a nothin’ ball and a bat dodger. My be ball is a be ball ‘cause it be right where I want it, high and inside. It wiggles like a worm. Some I throw with my knuckles, some with two fingers. My whips-dipsy-do is a special fork ball I throw underhand and sidearm that slithers and sinks. I keep my thumb off the ball and use three fingers. The middle finger sticks up high, like a bent fork.” (, Feb.24, 2015) 

James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell was another outstanding Negro League player, known for his speed. Satchel recalled pitching to him, “Once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.” And there’s the story about them rooming together on the road. Satchel would say that “Cool Papa was so fast that when Cool Papa went to turn the room’s light out, Cool Papa was already in bed before the room was dark!” (, Feb. 1, 2024)

There are thousands of stories to be told. Just check out some of the players’ names. Each one has a story. Besides Cool Papa Bell and “Satchel” Paige, there’s Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Arthur “Rats” Johnson, James “Biz” Mackey, David “Gentleman Dave” Malarcher, George “Mule” Suttles, and Jud “Boojum” Wilson.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, has housed and promoted the history of the Negro Leagues since being established in 1990. The NLBM operates two blocks from the Paseo YMCA where Andrew “Rube” Foster established the Negro National League in 1920.

“The addition of Negro Leagues baseball players’ statistics to MLB’s record books is bigger than baseball,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said at a press conference the day after the announcements on statistics. “It’s a part of American history.” (Kansas Reflector, May 29) 

An updated MLB database will become public on June 20, before the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants play a Negro Leagues tribute game in Birmingham, Alabama. It will be at Rickwood Field, the oldest professional baseball park in the United States. It was built for the Birmingham Barons in 1910 and served as the home park for the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.

Change can be slow, but, thanks to decades of struggle, change in baseball is now on a roll, correcting its history of racism and making a new history of inclusion. Youth of all nationalities growing up today will have heroes to admire like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige!

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