What a stunner: commissioner Rob Manfred today announced that the Negro Leagues are now designated as “major league,” meaning that the careers of 3,400 players will now be recognized in the MLB record books.
Does this make Satchel Paige the all-time ERA leader, or Josh Gibson the single-season home run king?
Well, yes and no. Gibson’s storied, 82-homer season (in 101 games!) is nowhere close to a matter of official record; Gibson never hit more than 20 official homers in a Negro League season. Even Paige’s “official” Negro League tally of games is relatively small, given the number of games he pitched for Negro League teams in exhibitions.
But per Seamheads, cited above as a driving force behind this decision, does have official records for Negro League play, and it will alter the record book.
Take ERA+, which measures how much better or worse a pitcher was in a season/career vs. his peers (100 being an average measure). By that standard, Paige, over 265 official Negro League games in 18 years, sees his 171 ERA+ in the Negro Leagues integrated into his statistics. (Mariano Rivera, at 205, is the all-time leader, but sitting second and first among starters is Clayton Kershaw — at 158!). Paige’s MLB ERA+ per Seamheads is “only” 135, but that is unlikely to draw Paige below Kershaw ... my very back-of-the-envelope math would put Paige’s overall (MLB and Negro Leagues) career at 163 ERA+ — yes, the best starter ERA of all time.
But no matter the effect on all-time records, what today’s astute decision by Manfred does is right a wrong, correcting a faulty decision made in 1969 to exclude the Negro Leagues as “major.” It affects our perception of all-time greats by legitimizing the careers of so many players.
Many Negro Leaguers were belatedly voted into Cooperstown, thanks in large part to Ted Williams’ advocacy, beginning in 1971. But today’s decision will shine light on players who might fall just out of Cooperstown’s spotlight, elevating 29 years of play and (belatedly) recognizing the legitimacy of the competition.
And more than anything, it might finally allow us to push Oscar Charleston (78.6 career WAR in just 6,802 plate appearances!) into the discussion of the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived.