Impact

1949 MVP Trophy

I received two very thoughtful and well thought out comments on my post “The Dynamic Duo”. I suggest you read both. Neither comment attempts to diminish the skills of the players in the Negro Leagues, but both comments raise a major issue about the Negro Leagues that is always going to be a problem: how do these players relate to the white players of their era in terms of baseball skills? Unfortunately, we do not know, nor can we make more than educated guesses. Even the statistics I quoted in the article are fragmentary and complete statistical information is probably impossible to find.

Anyway, the comments got me to thinking about the issue (which is not necessarily a good thing).  I asked myself “Is there a way to get something of a handle on how good these players may have been (and I stress May Have Been)?” I decided that there was no way to get a real answer to the question, but at least there was one way to get something of a feel for the answer. We can look at how well black players did in the first twenty or so years after integration (1947) of the Major Leagues. Although the players that make it to the Major Leagues are different from the Negro League stars like Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and John Henry Lloyd, they possess skills that can be quantified because we have the stats. Did the big leagues get lucky and the greatest set of black ball players ever all show up in the 1950s? Maybe, but the odds are against that being true. Surely some of the prior players were the equal, or at least almost equal, of the black stars of the 1950s. If that’s the case, then the Major Leagues missed out on some truly fine talent.

To determine just how good the first set of black players were, I decided to look at one simple set of information, awards. It may not be the best set to look at, but it has the advantage of being simple to find, reasonably simple to interpret, and is supposed to be a  measure of greatness. Having said all that, I acknowledge that the voting can be down right goofy to say the least so that everything said above about a measure of greatness and simple to interpret can be utter nonsense in specific years (For instance I still think Duke Snider should have beaten Roy Campanella at least once for an MVP.). I also decided to concentrate on the National League because it was first to integrate, got deeper into it quicker than the American League, and had no superior team like the Yankees who won consistently from 1947 through 1954 without a black player (and, yes, I know they lost in 1948 and 1954). Finally I stopped the research in 1966, twenty years after the initial appearance of Jackie Robinson. All that means this is fairly arbitrary in both what I’m looking at and when I end it, but I have neither the time nor inclination to carry this on to 2010 or look at every possible bit of statistical information.

Rookie of the Year: The initial RoY was in 1947. In both that season and the next there was only one award. Both years a NL player won the award, so we have a full 20 seasons of RoY’s in the NL. Of the 20 winners 11 were black (Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Sam Jethroe, Willie Mays, Joe Black, Jim Gilliam, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, and Dick Allen). That’s more than half. But also if you look at the dates, an inordinate number of them appear early in the period. By the 1956 choice ( Frank Robinson), seven had already won the award. By the last half of the twenty years (1957-66) the ratio reverses and there are more white winners (6) than black (4).

MVP: The MVP award had been going since 1931, so it was already established with a supposedly known criteria (Yeah, right). Between 1947 and 1966 black players won 12 National League MVPs (J. Robinson, Roy Campanella-three, Mays-two, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks-two, F. Robinson, and Cepeda). That’s almost exactly the same number as RoY wins (12 to 11). This time the awards are more well spread across the twenty years, but because you can only be a rookie once and an MVP lots of times, there is duplication in the MVP vote meaning that only eight black men won the MVP award.

For the same period in the American League it wasn’t until 1964 (Tony Oliva) that a black player won the RoY and the first black MVP in the AL was Elston Howard in 1963. Obviously black players made less impact in the AL in this period. Also I did not do the Cy Young award because it did not begin until 1956 and only went to two awards in 1967. (FYI Don Newcombe is the only black pitcher to win the award through 1966.)

So it’s certain that black players made an almost immediate impact on the Major Leagues, especially the NL. One other stat of interest is that 1947, the first year of integration, gave us the first black player in a World Series. In 1948 saw the first team (Cleveland) win the Series with a black player. The last all white Series was 1950 (New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies) and the first Series where both teams had black players was 1954 (Cleveland and New York Giants).

 Does all this prove that the Negro League players who were denied entry into the Major Leagues were Hall of Fame quality or even big league quality? Of course it doesn’t. But to argue they weren’t becomes a least a little more difficult when you see just how good their immediate followers were when they reached the Majors.

Roy Campanella freely credited Biz Mackey (Baltimore Elite Giants catcher and Hall of Fame class of 2007) as both a mentor and the man who made him a better catcher. Was Campy better than Mackey? Don’t know. But I do know that if Campy learned to be as great as he was by watching and listening to Mackey, then Mackey was one heck of a ballplayer. I’m afraid that’s the best we’re ever going to be able to say about the Negro League players who never got to the big leagues.

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7 Responses to “Impact”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Very reasonable, logically argued, post. There is no question that MLB missed out on a boatload of at least good if not always great black ball players in the first half of the 20th century. Your research into the award winners of the ’50’s and ’60’s supports your theory.
    But you are also correct that we can never really know how good, exactly, a player like Josh Gibson (who supposedly hit 800 home runs) would have been in MLB. Who knows, he might have been the first MLB catcher to top 500 home runs. Then again, he might have hit 275, still an excellent total for an MLB catcher. That’s why it seems foolish to me to try to figure out where Gibson and the other great Negro League players would rate among the all-time great white (and Latino) players.
    Unfortunately, we can’t change history. We’ll never know for sure how great a President Bobby Kennedy, to use an example from history, might have been if he hadn’t been assassinated. To go back and try to re-write history to redress a past wrong is not going to change the facts of the situation.
    What we can do is simply remember those who were unfortunately victimized by past wrongs, and use it as a lesson going forward.
    Obviously, you have hit upon an important topic. Well done, Bill

  2. Vinnie Says:

    Excellent piece. We have to always keep in mind the times when doing our evaluations. When you look at all the sports as they started to integrate, you’ll notice how they had an unspoken limit on the number of black athletes that the team carried on its roster. This meant that the black players themselves had to be the very best, or close to the best of the black talent available. This would explain the disproportionally high numbers of blacks who made an impact on the sports and their high levels of performance.
    What they did in fact was open the door for the black journeymen to be able to take their places on major league rosters.
    How would they have impacted the history of the sport? As a guess, the increase of competitive talent would have made the .400 hitter less frequent than he was in the first forty years of the game and the statistics we marvel at when we look back at the old timers, would be more in keeping with the performances we’re seeing today.
    An even better way of judging may be to evaluate the performances of the recent wave of Japanese imports to the game. As we can see for the most part, the change between leagues can, and usually is a dramatic drop off in their statistical performances, just as the performances of many former major and minor league players have made great impacts in the other direction.
    Let’s honor these great black ballplayers for their contributions both on the field and to the lore they’ve left us, but we shouldn’t start building pedestals in our minds. After all, it’s a great game, but only a game, and just another form of entertainment when you come right down to it.

  3. William Miller Says:

    Vinnie, I thought about the Japanese players, too. On balance, though, I think the level of talent in the Negro Leagues was a bit higher than it has been over in Japan. Lots of American journeymen have gone over to Japan and become major stars over there, when they couldn’t hit a lick over here.
    Also, I don’t think that we can call the second wave of black players into the Majors journeymen. A few were, but the number of blacks who dominated the Majors throughout the ’70’s were disproportionately black. The ’79 Pirates, for example, had very few white players. Some of the black players on that team were mediocre, but not at a greater rate than the white players.
    In short, the black players had to be at least slightly above average (not really journeymen) to have a shot at the Majors until at least the ’70’s.
    As far as pedestals for our heroes, well, nothing wrong with that. We all do it. If we don’t dream big, what’s the point of playing?
    Take care, my friends, Bill

  4. vinnie Says:

    Thanks for the catch. What I was trying to say is that today, it’s just as likely for a black ball player to be a journeyman rather than a star or even a starter, whereas before, a marginal white performer would have been taken over a non white.
    This is a nice segue into another question. Could the largest part of the discrimination against black ball players by whites have had more to do with the possible loss of jobs, than having to do with race itself per se? It may be the fear of breaking the racial cartel for jobs that may be the biggest missing piece of the puzzle. Always follow the money. Any thoughts?

  5. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    I was going to say something along the lines of what Bill said, so I just say I agree.

  6. William Miller Says:

    Vinnie, I think the white players fear of losing jobs and their inclination towards racial prejudice are, in this situation, two sides of the same coin. Not only were they afraid of losing their jobs, but, adding insult to injury, it might be a black man taking their job from them.
    Unfortunately for those who enjoy a position of privilege, that’s how a meritocracy works.
    Cheers, Bill

  7. Vinnie Says:

    That, I think, was what I was trying to say. The overt racism was the obvious cover for the deeper fear of the new and real competition that would be lifted with the removal of the monopoly granted to white ball players.
    This over looked fact applies to all areas of commerce whenever we see a business or industry asking government to grant them protection from their competitors, be it foreign or domestic.
    The lesson in all this is that as consumers we all benefit from the better product that competition produces.

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