The Myth of the Negro Leagues
Joe Posnanski gives us a long article on the Negro Leagues, honoring the creation of a Negro League card set for Strat-o-Matic. As one of the few places that talks much about the Negro Leagues, I felt a sort of duty to comment on it. Posnanski, author of a classic book on Buck O’Neill called The Soul of Baseball, gets at many of the complexities of looking back on the Negro Leagues. We know that many of the best players in the Negro Leagues would have been the best players in the major leagues; at the least, I hope my series on the first people to integrate baseball has made that clear. Robinson, Doby, and Irvin, Hall of Famers and superstars all, were not considered the best players ever to play in the Negro Leagues, yet they lit up the majors. But the question is, why are the Negro Leagues so hard to grasp?
Three reasons explain why the Negro Leagues are so easy to forget. First, they are old. Modern baseball fans forget the Negro Leagues, but they also forget Honus Wagner. We forget Buck Leonard, but we also forget Jimmie Foxx. We forget Mule Suttles, and we forget Mel Ott. People rarely remember things that happened 60 years ago, and that is the timeframe for the end of the Negro Leagues. The last World Series was in 1948, followed by the collapse of the Negro National League. The last recognized champion of the Negro American League were the Kansas City Monarchs in 1957, long after the Monarchs had ceased to be anything more than minor league team. It has been 50 years since the Negro Leagues existed in any form. Sadly, that means they have been forgotten.
Second, the Negro Leagues lack statistics. As Posnanski notes, the genesis of the Strat-o-Matic card set was a collection of 3,000 Negro League box scores that Scott Simkus had. That is one of the largest collections in the world. In contrast, I can go to Retrosheet and see box scores for nearly every MLB game back to 1952, with a sprinkling of earlier games, without leaving my house. Baseball is defined by its statistics. Look at the forgotten names listed above. Many have forgotten who Mel Ott was, or that he hit a home run in the 10th inning to win the 1933 World Series. Anytime someone looks at a list of 500-home run hitters, though, his name appears. The same cannot be done for Negro League stars. What did Turkey Stearnes hit from 1933-1935? “Unofficial records” put him at .342, .374, and .430, but the record is too spotty to put much faith in those numbers. Was he a great hitter? Yes, but it is hard to prove by pointing at his statistics.
Third, the Negro Leagues are almost overwhelmed by their myths. According to Posnanski, Buck O’Neill considered stories about the Negro Leagues essential to keeping them alive in the popular imagination. The stories lend depth to otherwise faceless players on a sheet of paper. But the clearly mythical content, i.e. Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room got dark, cast some unfair aspersions on all of these stories. Are these stories any more outrageous than stories about Babe Ruth? Of course not. Exaggeration is inherent in story-telling, but the lack of statistics or box scores makes it easy for the exaggeration to overwhelm the history. Ruth stories are certainly exaggerated, but I can see that he hit 714 home runs, regardless. I cannot do the same for Cool Papa Bell. Despite the best efforts of people like the late-Buck O’Neill, we lose sight of the real human beings that played the game.
This is a charitable interpretation of why we forget the Negro Leagues. It can also be blamed on racism, and that surely is a part of the story. Why wouldn’t leagues that existed primarily because of the racism of white baseball owners be forgotten at least partially because of the racism of white baseball fans? Yet racism is no more than part of the story. In order to capture the richness of baseball history, we must remember the Negro Leagues. They are an essential part of our past and our pasttime.