The Negro Leagues were always major leagues

Major League Baseball announced today that it now considers the Negro Leagues to be “major leagues.” This is long overdue. The various leagues that made up what we call the “Negro Leagues” included the Negro National League (which played from 1920 to 1931), the Eastern Colored League (1923-1928), the second Negro National League (1933-1948), and the Negro American League (1937 to about 1950, continuing as a barnstorming circuit through the fifties after Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in 1947 reduced the interest in the Negro leagues).

The players who spent time in these leagues did so because they were prohibited from playing in either the American League or the National League, and in most cases the minor leagues as well. So Black entrepreneurs started their own teams and signed some of the best players in baseball history to play for them. One interesting side effect of this decision, which comes on the centennial of the Negro leagues, will be on the all-time major league statistical leaders.

Anyone who is concerned that the quality of play of the Negro leagues wasn’t up to the same standard as the NL and AL should keep in mind that the following teams’ seasons are already considered to be “major league quality”:

  • 1916 Philadelphia Phillies, 36-117 (.235), finished 54 1/2 games back
  • 1935 Boston Braves, 38-115 (.248), finished 61 1/2 games back
  • 1962 New York Mets, 40-120 (.250), finished 60 1/2 games back (and at least had the excuse of being an expansion team that year)
  • 1904 Washington Senators, 38-113 (.252), finished 55 1/2 games back
  • 1919 Philadelphia Athletics, 36-104 (.257), finished 52 games back
  • And, of course, our beloved 2003 Detroit Tigers, 43-119 (.265), finished 47 games back… in a five-team division!

This doesn’t even include pre-modern era teams that are somehow still considered “major league,” like the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who finished 20-134 for a winning percentage of .130, 84 games back. Their owners also owned the National League’s St. Louis franchise (then known as the “Perfectos”) and they chose to transfer all of the Spiders’ good players to St. Louis, leaving very little in the way of talent behind. The Spiders were terrible, couldn’t draw any fans to old League Park, and ended up playing most of their games on the road. They folded after the 1899 season, but the Spiders nickname is still one of the front-runners to replace the current Cleveland Baseball Team’s moniker.

This increases the number of positive decisions Rob Manfred has made this year from zero to one, though I do wonder what financial pressure was put on MLB to finally decide to do this, seeing as how every decision the commissioner and the owners make seems to be based on how to squeeze the last bit of income out of their “product.”

Finally, I’ll point out that MLB’s decision in no way validates the Negro leagues as major leagues. On the contrary, nothing Manfred or the MLB public relations office did today changed a thing. The recognition is nice, but the men – and women (see Effa Manley and others) – who were involved with the Negro leagues already knew they were major league.