Anyone who truly loves baseball has long ago had to deal with its ugly history of racist practices, most notably a ban that kept Black players out of the leagues from the late 19th century until Jackie Robinson’s entry in 1947. The sport in recent years has repeatedly struggled to regain the Black fan base it enjoyed from the ‘50s until the ‘70s, and try and stop the steady erosion of potential youthful multi-sport Black talent opting for careers in football or basketball, lately even soccer or hockey.
This past Wednesday they took another step in trying to address past inequities. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced Major League Baseball was elevating the Negro Leagues to “Major League” status, meaning the statistics and records of the 3,400 players who took part in the seven involved leagues from 1920 to 1948 would now officially be recognized.
The move represents the continuation of efforts that began in 1969. Then the sport’s Special Baseball Records Committee, which for reasons remaining unknown was comprised of five white men was assembled. They identified six “Major Leagues” as worthy of statistical inclusion: The National League, American League, American Association, Union Association, Players’ League and Federal League. Somehow, The Negro Leagues were not considered for inclusion, even though some of its players had an indelible impact on the game and even though the leagues involved were operational for much longer than most of the leagues on that list.
“It is MLB’s view that the Committee’s 1969 omission of the Negro Leagues from consideration was clearly an error that demands today’s designation,” MLB announced Wednesday in a statement.
“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” Manfred said. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
According to John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian: “The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices, and denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates before Satchel Paige’s induction in 1971. Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”
With this being the Negro Leagues Cenntennial season, the announcement took on more gravity. Seven organized leagues are recognized as members of the Negro Leagues, starting with the Negro National League in 1920. MLB is using 1948 as a cutoff date because by that year stars such as Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and others had left the Negro Leagues after being signed by MLB clubs, reducing the leagues’ quality of play. The year 1948 also was the last in which the Negro World Series was played between the champions of various leagues.
But although MLB is officially recognizing the Negro Leagues’ Centennial Sunday, not everyone wants to congratulate them. Longtime sports writer, current college professor and regular on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” Kevin B. Blackistone scorched the sport in the Washington Post for taking bows without truly setting the record straight about its past.
“But you won’t hear that (its racist history) explained Sunday as baseball marks the centennial of the Negro Leagues,” Blackistone wrote. “Instead, Major League Baseball will cover it up with a 100th-anniversary logo patch on players’ uniforms in Sunday’s games. Pat itself on the back for joining the players’ union in making a $1 million contribution to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Have some virtual conversations in pandemic-empty stadiums about some of the Black men who made for great tales over a 60-year span playing just among themselves.”
“Few entities have done better than baseball at whitewashing an ignominious history,” he continued. “Just look at how the game commodified Jackie Robinson into a national celebration in the 1990s while wrongfully alluding to him as its first Black player — Fleetwood Walker predated Robinson as the majors’ first Black player by six decades — and ignoring its policy that dashed countless Black men’s dreams of playing big league baseball over three generations simply because of their heritage.”
“In this summer of America’s racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a White policeman, what baseball is doing Sunday in remembering the Negro Leagues doesn’t correct the record,” Blackistone concluded. “It doesn’t measure up to the remedies to systemic racism in all corners of society; protests have forced changes to hiring practices, government budget reshuffling to better address the ravages of inequities and even the toppling of monuments to it all, such as those of Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus and the bigoted White founder of Washington’s NFL franchise, which boasted a racial slur as its name for 87 years.”
Only time will tell if MLB is truly ready to not only face the music, but profoundly and positively change the future.