Negro League Statistics: Long Overdue, Imperfect, And Still Amazing

Something's been bothering me for a while.

Twelve years ago, Major League Baseball commissioned a massive effort to track down statistics from the old-time black baseball leagues, the most significant of which were the Negro National League and the Negro American League. As you know, until 1947 many of the world's best baseball players were restricted to those leagues, because professional baseball in America, like so many other things in America, was strictly segregated.

A great deal of money was spent on this effort, and a number of people deserve a great deal of credit for the resulting work, up to and including Commissioner Bud Selig, who would have signed off on the project.

The project was officially completed in 2005 -- though, of course, the actual work of piecing together Negro League statistics will never actually end -- and the results were available to the people who elected, in 2006, a huge number of new Hall of Famers with ties to black baseball.

That was six years ago, and essentially nobody has seen the comprehensive data since then.

In my old job, I wrote about this a number of times. The whole point of the project, or so we were told, was to celebrate black baseball; to provide to the public a greater appreciation for the feats of those wonderful players whose statistical accomplishments were, for so many years, almost completely lost.

Now, you might argue that losing those agate-cold numbers from the newspaper box scores was actually a good thing; that black baseball was actually more interesting when its history was defined by colorful stories rather than heartless statistics. Perhaps you don't want to know that some Negro Leagues great, perhaps enshrined in the Hall of Fame some years ago, really didn't deserve that honor. Statistically speaking, anyway.

But we're big kids. We can handle the truth. And for every player who might have been overrated before we had the numbers, there will be a player who was underrated before we had them. And he deserves to be appreciated, too.

And wouldn't you like to know how strong the Negro American League in 1938 really was? I sure would. And something like the comprehensive statistics from that league will, in a roundabout (and imprecise) way, help us answer that question.

Anyway, the numbers just sat around for a year, and then another and another. I like to think they were wiped from all computer machines in Cooperstown and New York City, leaving only a pile of thick, leather-bound ledgers kept inside a vault deep within Bud Selig's secret underground lair in Milwaukee.

Of course the truth wasn't nearly so prosaic. A selected group of lucky souls have been able to look at the numbers, but they were kept from the public in the vain hope that a book might be published. Or something.

The book never came, though. And seven years after the project's completion, Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame have finally done the right thing: Today, Baseball-Reference.com announced the publication of the 1920-1948 statistics in the MLB-commissioned study. But wait! It gets even better! On another track, researchers Gary Ashwill and Scott Simkus have spearheaded an effort to collect statistics from 1903 through 1919, and B-R.com has those data, too.

So suddenly we've got this incredible resource. It shouldn't have taken so long, but that doesn't mean I'm not grateful to Major League Baseball, to the Hall of Fame, and to the many dozens of researchers who spent so many years slaving away over microfilm machines.

Upon initial glance, the data's a little messy and obviously needs some work. But that's just the next important step. The first was finding it. The second was publishing. And now we can all help with the third: cleaning it up. This will take some time, and every moment will be rewarding.

This is a wonderful day if you love the grand history of our game like I do.

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