Posts Tagged ‘integration of baseball’


February 16, 2011

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.