With Negro League stats, MLB links legends like never before

How MLB record books are changed by incorporating Negro Leagues stats (1:11)

With Major League Baseball record books incorporating Negro Leagues statistics, check out what it means for players such as Josh Gibson and Babe Ruth. (1:11)

WHEN MLB ANNOUNCED last week that its official statistical record would be updated with the treasure trove of Negro Leagues data researchers have uncovered over the years, it was merely the next step in a story that was already in motion.

It was also a no-brainer.

Those at the highest levels of Black baseball in the decades before Jackie Robinson were playing at a major league level. The players in those games knew that. The white players who played against those players -- and often lost to them -- knew it. Anyone who has studied the history of Negro Leagues baseball with any kind of a clear mind has always known it.

For decades, though, history-inclined fans were able to ignore the numbers put up by segregation-era Black players because the statistical record was considered incomplete, murky and unverifiable. Up to a certain point, that was true -- but no longer.

Thanks to the remarkable efforts of baseball statistical archaeologists, much of the record has been restored. It has been compiled with carefully thought-out procedures and methods. The numbers aren't perfect, but that's true of most numbers from baseball's early history.

And their imperfections make the effect no less miraculous. These updates don't make the likes of Bullet Rogan, Martin Dihigo or Cool Papa Bell any more major league than they already were. Instead, they give those legends new life by putting them in the same leaderboards as Lefty Grove, Shohei Ohtani and Rickey Henderson. The numbers link those players together, just as they always should have been.

The merger of those databases -- that of the old official major league record and the new one -- rekindles old stories and gives them a larger audience. It gives solid footing to the mythology that has always surrounded them, though the mythology itself will remain, just as it has for all of baseball's early stars. In taking this next step in an ongoing project, baseball now has the most complete and accurate official record it has ever had.

They are numbers, just numbers, but in baseball, numbers have always meant so much. They mean even more now.

THE LEADING BASEBALL statistical sites -- Baseball Reference and Fangraphs -- started folding in Negro League data some time ago. MLB took more time, but after all, the league's record is the record, and it had to get it right. Even now, some of the numbers among these leading sources vary. This has always been the case, but now there are a lot more discrepancies.

But it's important to keep in mind the reality that the record has always been dynamic, ever since the first Baseball Encyclopedia was compiled in the late 1960s. (It, sadly, did not include the numbers from Black baseball that are now available.)

For example: For nearly 70 years, the all-time single-season RBI record was 190, set by Hack Wilson of the Cubs in 1930. In 1999, someone figured out that an RBI that should have gone to Wilson 69 years before had been inadvertently attributed to a teammate. Someone else signed off on that discovery, and suddenly the all-time single-season RBI record was 191. Good research changes the record.

Last week's news meant that Josh Gibson, not Ty Cobb, is now the "official" all-time batting king, with his .372 surpassing Cobb's .367. But .367 probably wasn't right anyway. Research conducted a few years ago determined that Cobb's 4,191 career hits, a number long recognized and the one that Pete Rose surpassed back in 1985, is at least two hits too high, which drops the rounded career average down to .366, the number you see at Baseball Reference. That site also has Gibson at .373 against major league competition, but doesn't list him as the all-time batting champ (for now), likely because of qualification standards that differ from those on which MLB's research committee landed.

No one can say for certain that Gibson should rank above Cobb in career batting average, nor should he outflank Ted Williams' on-base percentage or Babe Ruth's slugging percentage. The converse of these things is also true. Williams never played a regular-season game against a Negro League team, nor did he play one against a National League team. Likewise, Stan Musial's remarkable record of breadth and consistency did not include any regular-season contests against AL pitchers. Until 1997, there simply was no such thing as interleague play.

The leagues were their own entities and when we contextualize statistics from those days, we adjust for AL context or NL context, not some imagined overall MLB context. The Negro Leagues deserve the same consideration.

After all, the argument that the Negro Leagues weren't comparable in quality seems harder to make when you investigate the evidence. From the time that Robinson broke the color line, other standouts from Black baseball followed. And they weren't just any major leaguers -- they were among the very best players of their era and beyond. Phillip Lee, author of the essential "Black Stats Matter," notes that among the first 20 Black players in the extant majors, beginning with Robinson, there were four Rookie of the Year winners, one Cy Young winner, seven MVP winners and eight Hall of Famers. Lee's entire book is a convincing argument that statistics from the top Negro Leagues should very much be taken at face value.

Even in the years before Robinson, we have plenty of evidence of the strength of the Negro Leagues through an ever-growing database of exhibition encounters between Black and white teams. The authority on these games is researcher Todd Peterson, who has credited Negro Leagues teams with winning about 53% of the more than 600 contests against white teams between 1900 and 1948.

Do these numbers need to be understood in context? Of course. All numbers do.

And luckily, these days we have better tools for doing that than ever. Now we have a better and more complete dataset to work with than ever before, one that folds in crucial chapters of baseball history that have too long been ignored.

JOSH GIBSON'S JOURNEY to becoming MLB's all-time batting champ is steeped in mythology. For decades what we heard about him was that, all told, he hit more than 800 homers -- including exhibitions, league games, winter games, etc. -- and perhaps as many as 1,000. This linked him not to Cobb, but Ruth. But that number was seen as a legend, taken no more seriously than the tales of Gibson hitting 700-foot bombs.

Yet stories of Gibson's real, legit greatness only grew over time, as people shared their recollections, documentaries were made and books were written. Buck O'Neil connected Gibson to Ruth by the thundering clap he heard that they -- and only they -- made when making contact.

In the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James called Gibson, "Probably the greatest catcher in baseball history, and probably the greatest right-handed power hitter." In 1972, he became the third Negro Leagues player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, following Paige and Buck Leonard.

Now, Gibson's Baseball Reference page takes on extra meaning. The term "black ink" has long been used to denote the boldface font a number gets when it leads a league. Great players tend to have records with a lot of black ink. Gibson's table seemingly has more black ink than regular font.

Year after year, Gibson led the Negro National League in homers and RBIs, OPS and OPS+. For every 162 league games he played, he rolled up 217 hits, 36 doubles, 16 triples, 45 homers, 165 runs and an astounding 197 RBIs.

We have many good analytical tools for making sense of all that and for bringing those numbers into comparison with AL and NL players. Gibson doesn't currently meet the qualifying standards at Baseball Reference, but if he did, his 214 OPS+ would outflank Ruth's 206 for the best of all time. According to Fangraphs, his 202 wRC+ tops the charts, ahead of Ruth's 194.

If you go to MLB's all-time leaderboard -- the one that matters most -- all you have to do is sort the OPS column. Gibson's 1.177 OPS leads Ruth (1.164), Williams (1.116), Lou Gehrig (1.079) and Charleston (1.061). That's what an all-time leaderboard should look like.

We can debate from there about who should rank where. We can point out that Gibson's number is based on many fewer games than Ruth or Williams. We can debate the relative strengths of the leagues, the AL vs. NL, the AL vs. the Negro National League, etc. We can measure the standard deviation of performance in the leagues to help make the comparisons from one circuit to the next that much sharper. But all of these debates will begin with a list of names that finally makes sense.

NO ONE IS more ensconced in mythology than Paige, someone who has had more stories told about him (real or not) than perhaps any player in history with the likely exception of Ruth. The stories are so rich and plentiful that it almost obscures just how good Paige was as a pitcher.

How good? James wrote, "Satchel deserves to rank with Cy Young, Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson as the guys you talk about when you're trying to figure out who was the greatest that ever lived." Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, a contemporary of Paige and frequent loser to him in head-to-head exhibitions, said, "If Satch and I were pitching on the same team, we'd clinch the pennant by the Fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time." Joe DiMaggio said that Paige was the best -- and fastest -- hurler he ever faced.

With the numbers to back up statements like those, we no longer have to settle for marveling at how Paige finally joined the major leagues at some indeterminate point after he turned 40 and proceeded to go 6-1 with a 165 ERA+ on what remains Cleveland's last championship team. Well, we can still marvel at that, and his All-Star Game appearance in 1953, when his official age was 46, but we don't have to stop there.

Now, we can marvel at all that black ink on Paige's Baseball Reference page and the fact that Paige led the league in strikeout rate at age 20, then again at 38. We can pull up the leaderboard in ERA+ and see that Paige's 150 lands him in the top 10, between Pedro Martinez and Grove.

And Paige isn't even the highest-ranking pitcher by ERA+ from the Negro Leagues. Ahead of him are Bill Foster and Bullet Rogan, who are both always included in debates about who the best pitcher in Negro Leagues history was.

Paige's total is tied with that of Jim Devlin, a pitcher from the years 1875 to 1877. The rules of the game then were wildly different than the ones we know now. But Devlin's leagues, first the National Association and then the first seasons of the National League, were deemed major. He is there. Now Paige is too.

That's what a leaderboard should look like.

YOU CAN GO through a similar exercise with so many Negro Leagues players, all in an effort to pull them from the realm of legend into the realm of the tangible. To give them the consideration they earned so long ago.

Oscar Charleston, who might have been the best player ever, is top-10 in average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. His OPS+ at Baseball Reference ranks third, between Williams and Bonds. The numbers back up what we thought about Charleston.

Turkey Stearnes, often overlooked in discussions about the greats, ranks sixth in OPS+. As a left-handed hitter with acuity in both average and power, James compared him to Williams and Mel Ott. The numbers back it up.

Bell has always been known as much for the awesome "Cool Papa" moniker, plus the story about him being so fast he could flip a light switch and be under the covers before the room went dark. But like Henderson, he played for 25 seasons (including a stretch in Mexico). Like Henderson, he annually led his leagues in steals. He scored 155 runs for every 162 games he played; Henderson's comparable figure was 121.

When Ohtani joined the majors, it was Martín Dihigo, not Ruth, to whom he should have been compared. The bulk of Dihigo's remarkable career unfolded in Cuba, but in the nine seasons he played in the Negro Leagues, he managed to post a 138 OPS+ over 1,617 plate appearances and a 141 ERA+ over 402 innings on the mound. Dihigo performed as a star-level hitter and pitcher at the same time over a number of seasons, which makes him the natural antecedent of Ohtani, who has a 151 OPS+ and 143 ERA+ during his MLB career.

Stories and myths are part of baseball, the best part in many ways, and we aren't going to lose those. But for Negro Leaguers, myths and stories were all that we had for too long.

Now, we have hard numbers to back up those stories. And the farther we are removed from those days, the more the numbers will lead us back to the stories, not the other way around. That, more than anything, is why this change needed to happen.

THE PROCESS OF creating the best possible historical record is ongoing. Just this week, SABR recognized 43 independent teams from Black baseball as major and added the 1949 and 1950 Negro American League campaigns to the list, as well.

For now, this doesn't change the official record. Still, MLB has pledged to continue considering new research in the future, and there is more than a little overlap of the names on the SABR committee and MLB's Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee. Stay tuned.

Among implications of new research is that the all-time leaderboards will continue to evolve. Cobb could even retake the all-time batting crown from Gibson, if some of the latter's early seasons are added to the record.

All of this is great. Embracing research with open arms keeps history in the state that it should be -- always in motion, always freshly understood and re-evaluated as new evidence comes to light and much-needed new perspectives are considered. Baseball is no different in that regard.

The addition of the still-emerging statistical record of the Negro Leagues doesn't obscure the all-time major league leaderboards. It clarifies them.