Why The Negro Leagues Still Matter

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: May 17, 2005

“In an alternate universe, this is the man, not Babe Ruth, whose short, compact swing produces the longest, and most home runs. He would be the charismatic figure that would first reach 500, 600, and 700 career home runs. Playing in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s, he never got the chance to play Major League Baseball. The home-run record for a catcher in the major leagues was only 209 until the mid-1950s. Gibson would have had two or three times that amount.”

– Elliott Kalb on Josh Gibson.

Josh Gibson

Josh Gibson

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — Just a few years ago, FoxSports.com ran a column by noted sports historian Elliott Kalb ranking the greatest catchers in baseball history.

We here at BASN were delighted to see Hall of Famer and Negro League great Josh Gibson sit atop the list over such greats as Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and another ex-Negro Leaguer, Roy Campanella.

To no surprise however, there were some that had a problem seeing the great slugger even on the list, let alone being ranked No. 1. They questioned the validity of his career and also questioned his all-time numbers.

They even went as far as to say the Negro Leagues couldn’t compare to Major League Baseball. Those of you who are familiar with our site know that I’ve enjoyed writing several spotlights on the Negro Leagues over the years.

It bugs the hell out of me that even in this day, these great players still get shortchanged on their contributions to the “National Pastime”.

That kind of narrow minded thinking is the one of the reasons why we here at BASN firmly embrace the history and great legacy of these players. As I’ve stated several times, I personally don’t acknowledge anything about Major League Baseball before April 15, 1947 for obvious reasons.

One of the biggest myths about the Negro Leagues is that there aren’t any definitive sources of information about their players. Let me be the first to tell you that is one of the greatest lies of the century.

Since the early 90′s and beyond, there are several books available either through your local book stores, libraries, or the Internet. Many have definitive stats or yearly chronicles of league play as far back as the 1800′s.

Two books that come to mind are one’s that I personally use as research for my articles.

“The Complete Book of The Negro Leagues: The Other Half Of Baseball History” written by historian John Holway goes into detail year by year, with statistics on every player by team, plus text and stats on the Cuban Leagues, Puerto Rico, and the great post-season games, plus match ups against the best white stars.

Holway, who’s been researching the sport of baseball since 1944, has also released previous books on the Negro Leagues. He along with author and fellow historian James A. Riley are among the nation’s most knowledgeable experts of the Negro Leagues.

Riley’s book “The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues” also serves as a definitive guide on the history of the league and its players. It’s lists individual biographies and statistics on every player who ever put on Negro League uniform while including team histories as well.

He also maintains a comprehensive website (www.blackbaseball.com) which has many other Negro League publications and memorabilia as well.

Since the release of these two epic publications, there have been several other books that have come out shedding even more light on the great legacy of the Negro Leagues.

One of my other favorites is Larry Lester’s book on the history of the league’s showcase event. In “Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game 1933-1953″ takes an in-depth look at the yearly game which was a staple of the league for many seasons.

What makes this book an even greater treasure is reading the writing of some of the great black sportswriters from that era. Articles from Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith, and Bill Nunn give vivid accounts of the impact of the East-West Classic and the Negro Leagues as a whole.

What I want to do is to challenge all you non-believers out there.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Negro Leagues were on the same par as the Major Leagues. In a lot of instances, the Negro Leagues were better and a helluva lot more innovative.

The Negro Leagues played night baseball before the majors. The teams traveled all around the country and spread the sports overseas long before the majors did. The only difference was that the Negro Leaguers weren’t given the same platform that the majors had and still have to this very day.

For those of you who still are skeptical, I challenge you to get off your arrogant ass and check out these books I’ve mentioned. See for yourself what many other baseball fans have seen.

In truth, the only thing that kept the Negro Leagues from being mentioned in the same breath as the majors was simple prejudice, ignorance, and lack of inclusion.

Until you see the entire history that’s out there, as far as I’m concerned you really can’t tell me Josh Gibson or any Negro Leaguer for that matter doesn’t belong on any list of baseball’s greatest players.

Take a trip to 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Missouri and check out The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. See the league’s history and I promise you’ll think twice about what you may have felt about the Negro Leagues and their players.