February is Black History Month around the US. It seems appropriate to look at the Negro Leagues during February, so I’m going to do a couple of posts. Let me start them with a disclaimer. I’m no expert on the Negro Leagues. I find them interesting and the info fascinating, but I’d never pretend to be an expert on the matter. That being said, a few comments follow:
1. There were several of them. Most famous were the Negro American League, the Negro National League (1920s version), the Negro National League (1930s-40s version), and the Eastern Colored League. There were a host of others, but these four dominate most of the conversations about segregated baseball.
2. The leagues were led by the same sorts of people who led the white Major Leagues, entrepeneurs and opportunists. I’ve heard some less than favorable comments about a number of the owners because they made their money in less than “savory” occupations. A couple ran pool rooms (“You got trouble right here in River City”), some were loan sharks, others ran numbers. Of course if you were a black American in the era you had to live in specific places and keep to specific jobs, very few of which were of the “best” quality. I’m reminded of the Christian attitude towards Jews in the Middle Ages. Put them in cramped ghettos, make them hold specific jobs, and then be astounded when they ended up dirty and usurers. So I find it stunning when people are shocked (“Shocked to find there’s gambling going on”) to find so-called disreputable types running teams. I’m also remined that the owners of the white teams frequently weren’t among “the salt of the earth.”
3. Not all the owners were black and male. Two of the most successful franchises were the Kansas City Monarchs and the Newark Eagles. The Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was white and the Eagles owner, Effa Manley, was female (she ran the team, but co-owned with her husband). Both ran very successful franchises, each winning a Negro League World Series and both eventually were elected to the Hall of Fame.
4. The quality of play seems to have been about on par with the Major Leagues. There are few reliable stats about the Negro Leagues, but anecdotal evidence and the few stats that do survive indicate that the top players and top teams were very much the equal of the Major League teams. Certain of the weaker teams may have been only minor league quality, but then the same can be said of a number of Major League teams in a given year.
5. Judging by the impact black players, many of them coming over from the Negro Leagues, made in the majors, especially in the National League in the 1950s, it is evident that the top line players were equal with the best of the Major League players. Between 1949, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to win the National League MVP and 1963 when Sandy Koufax won his (a 15 year period) black players won 11 National League MVP awards (Robinson, Roy Campanella-3 times, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks-twice, Frank Robinson, and Maury Wills) to only four for white players (Jim Konstanty, Hank Sauer, Dick Groat, and Koufax). They also win five of the next six. I can’t prove it, but my guess is that black players would have also done well in the 1930s and 1940s.
6. Finally, there is no way to compare the Negro Leaguers with their Major League counterparts. They play in totally different leagues and even if the stats were available they exist isolated from each other. Does hitting .350 in the National League in 1935 mean the same thing as hitting .350 in the Negro National League? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. I would guess that Josh Gibson, Louis Santop Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith were the equal of any of their contemporaries in the Major Leagues, but I can’t prove it. Great shame.
It’s important to celebrate the Negro Leagues, not to deify them. Josh Gibson doesn’t need an apotheosis, he was good enough as is. But let us remember to celebrate them. Hopefully we won’t see their like again.