May 27, 2024

With Negro Leagues, Baseball Reference Rewrites Its Record Book

That is why, Lester said, rate statistics like at-bats per home run or strikeouts per nine innings are better ways to show the talent of players like Gibson and Paige.

Gibson was a power-hitting catcher whose Hall of Fame plaque says he “hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball” but, as of Tuesday, only 165 were accounted for on Baseball Reference.

Other obstacles with the Negro leagues statistics: players often took part in games outside of league play, such as barnstorming exhibitions — some of which were played against players from the American and National leagues — and there are gaps in the documentation. While Lester estimated that researchers have statistics from at least 90 percent of the Negro leagues games from the 1920s and 1940s, they have approximately 60 to 75 percent of the games during the 1930s, with gaps caused by the Great Depression.

One frustrating example for Lester is the belief, supported by at least three newspaper accounts, that Gibson achieved the rare feat of hitting four home runs in a game. The game is believed to have been played in Zanesville, Ohio in 1938, but Lester has been unable to locate a complete box score so that it — and the entire game — can be officially counted.

Game-by-game data from the Negro leagues is not currently available on Baseball Reference, but Forman said he hoped to expand the site’s offerings as more research is unearthed, including by other organizations such as Retrosheet, a website which has documented the box scores of nearly all of the games in American and National league history.

“We hope that our publication of these initial stats will spark more research, and as the research is done, the accuracy and completeness of what we present on the site will increase,” said Forman, who cautioned that players’ totals may change, such as Gibson’s 1943 batting average, which, barring significant new findings, will eventually unseat Hugh Duffy’s mark of .440 in 1894 as the official major league record.

When M.L.B. made its Negro league announcement over the winter, Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean, said there were many unanswered questions about how recognition would take place. He said being included in this way on Baseball Reference was one example of how the change matters. He imagined how excited one of the few living Negro league players, former outfielder Ron Teasley, 94, might feel when he sees his page listed among the major leaguers online. Gibson also wondered if the change could bolster the Hall of Fame case for players like Rap Dixon, a star outfielder in the 1920s and 1930s.

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