Major League Baseball keeps vowing to redress its racist past, but its half-steps only reinforce the elusiveness of that goal, for it and the rest of America.
The league’s latest push, unveiled with fanfare last week, was to formally recognize the most prominent of the Negro leagues as equal to the American and National leagues.
That, M.L.B.’s commissioner says, means that more than 3,400 players from seven distinct all-Black conferences will become part of big-league history, and included in its statistical records.
Easier said than done, as the case of the most celebrated of those players — Leroy Robert Paige, better known as Satchel — makes clear.
Incomplete records were kept of Paige’s games in the Negro leagues, which couldn’t afford to hire the kind of record-keepers the major leagues had. The Black press was comparably cash-strapped, unable to send reporters to many games or to publish full-dress box scores. The upshot is that statistics have been sketchy, especially for second-tier players, although researchers are filling in some of those holes.
Paige knew better than to trust the spotty Black press, or white sportswriters, who paid little attention. So he kept track himself, carrying a notebook that listed innings pitched, game scores, strikeouts, walks and, perhaps most important, his share of gate receipts. The Paige almanac had him pitching in more than 2,500 games and winning 2,000 or so. He professed to have labored for 250 teams and thrown 250 shutouts. His capstone for strikeouts in one game was 22, against a postseason touring team of Major League players, known as barnstormers, which would have been a record for all of baseball. Other claims that would have set marks: 50 no-hitters, 29 starts in a month, 21 straight wins, 62 consecutive scoreless innings, 153 pitching appearances in a year and three wins the same day.
The numbers were dizzying, but each required an asterisk explaining that Paige kept records the way he set them: with flair, grace and hoopla. His tally of no-hitters seemed to change with his mood — from as low as 20, to as high as 100, to perhaps most accurately “so many” that “I disremember the number.” The picture was equally muddled for shutouts. Press accounts, and Paige’s, offered several options: 250, 300 or 330.
Just when any serious statistician might be tempted to dismiss it all as a ruse, closer scrutiny and dogged fact-finding by historians of Black baseball suggests that much of it was true. Pitching 2,500 games seems inconceivable since the major league record-holder, Jesse Orosco, managed just 1,252. But Orosco’s numbers are just for the big leagues, where he pitched 24 years starting every April and ending, when he was lucky, in October. Paige’s include games played as a semipro and professional, in the Negro leagues, on barnstorming tours, in Latin America and Canada as well as the United States, and in the major and minor leagues. He played spring and summer, fall and winter. He often threw just three innings, but he did it every day, sometimes twice a day, or every couple of days for 41 years. By that schedule, pitching 2,500 games amounts to slightly more than 60 games a year, which does not seem high enough.
Same for his other assertions. One hundred no-hitters, or even 20, looks like a stretch considering that Nolan Ryan holds the major league record with just seven. But press accounts confirm Paige’s extraordinary exploits against highly touted opponents like the all-Black Homestead Grays. It is easy to imagine him repeating the feat against the sandlot and standout teams he faced in his wayfaring across the Western Hemisphere. His 2,000 wins would give him four times as many as Cy Young, whose name is attached to the award signaling pitching excellence. Some pitchers were brilliant during short runs; others are known for duration as much as dominance. Paige excelled at both, to the point where it is difficult to dismiss even his most outrageous boasts.
Will those records count under the new major league edict? Probably not, since it only wants to count official Negro league games. But why not include the carefully chronicled games Paige pitched against all-white All-Star teams like the ones headed by the fireballers Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller? And what about when, to earn a living and a legend, Paige played against the best players from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico?
Such exclusions aren’t new for the 3,400 Negro leaguers. First they were told they weren’t good enough for the Majors. When Paige, the slugger Josh Gibson and others proved them wrong, money kept them out: white owners were addicted to the rents they charged Black teams during the days their white teams were on the road. Paige finally broke into the Majors in 1948, a year after his Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson toppled the race barrier and during a season when, at the over-the-hill age of 42, Paige helped propel the Cleveland Indians to the World Series. (Paige would pitch his last innings for the Kansas City Athletics at the inconceivable age of 59, a record unlikely ever to be topped.)
In 1971 the Hall of Fame announced that it would let select Negro league players into the Hall of Fame, starting of course with Paige — but it would be to a wing separate from other honorees.
“This notion of Jim Crow in Baseball’s Heaven is appalling,” the sportswriter Jim Murray argued in The Los Angeles Times. “Either let him in the front of the Hall — or move the damn thing to Mississippi.” It did admit him, reluctantly, and a statue of Satchel Paige now graces the grounds of the Hall of Fame Museum.
Now, for his stats. Doing justice to Paige’s accomplishments in the Negro leagues will be hard enough, and any fair accounting would add games against other top-notch competition. Whatever the tallies, there is sure to be outcry from aficionados who already argue and re-argue the most esoteric issues. But the truth is that baseball’s statistics are nothing if not malleable. M.L.B. didn’t toss out its record book when the pitching distance increased to 60.5 feet from 50 feet in 1893, when spitballs were outlawed in 1920 or when, in the mid-1960s, the long-defunct American Association, Union Association, Players’ League and Federal League were deemed statistical equivalents of the modern-day major leagues — much like the Negro Leagues were last week.
What has sullied big-league baseball over the decades isn’t its erratic record-keeping. It’s the way the titans of the sport excluded for so long Black players from its rosters and its archives — and the way, even today, it isn’t doing enough to address how few African-Americans there are on the field and in the front office.
True reckonings aren’t meant to be easy.
Larry Tye is the author of “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend.”
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