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Negro Leagues

Thinking About the Negro Leagues: 5 Questions

This is not an announcement of action. But Miller and I are trying to wrap our very limited brains around the very complex question of whether we can do a high-quality job of electing Negro Leaguers to the Hall of Miller and Eric. So this is the first in a series of articles about how dudes like us could go about this process, what hurdles we’d face, and what degree of rigor we think we could bring to the job. If by the end, we feel pretty good about things, we may take on the challenge. If not, well, we may have to leave it go. We don’t like lousing things up.

Here are five questions we’ve been asking ourselves. We’ll explore them in greater depth in the weeks to come, but these are the big-picture items that we’re wrasslin’ with right now.

  1. How many Negro Leaguers should we elect?

The Baseball Hall of Fame is our guide for all other electoral questions, so this one’s easy. They’ve elected 29 Negro League players, 5 executives, and 1 manager. That’s our goal. Next!

  1. Who qualifies as a Negro Leaguer?

Things were so easy in our first question…. See, this stuff gets sticky fast. Take Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso, two candidates very close to the borderline at their respective positions. They played most of their careers in MLB, had some seasons in the Negro Leagues, and spent some time in the minors as well (Doby very little, Minoso, a couple seasons). Does that mean we should only count them as Major Leaguers? We don’t think so. The larger point isn’t who was a Negro Leaguer and who wasn’t, but rather who had his career disrupted or distorted by the color line? That’s every player who only played in the Negro Leagues and every player whose path from the Negro Leagues to the Majors went a little sideways because of their skin color. Other folks in this camp include Elston Howard, Toothpick Sam Jones, and Luke Easter.

It turns out that, like nearly everything in human life, players fall onto a continuum of experiences. After experience in the Negro Leagues, Bus Clarkson, Willard Brown, and Artie Wilson, for example, got cups of coffee in the big leagues but spent nearly all their post-Integration careers in the high minors. Others like Marv Williams never got to MLB and bounced up and down the minors. Since many teams were slow to integrate, and since it appears that most integrated teams may have informally kept the number of black players artificially low well into the 1950s or 1960s, we can’t even say that Negro Leaguers got the same opportunities as their white counterparts to participate in the baseball market, suppressing their ability to get MLB jobs.

Even before the Integration generation, there are strange exceptions. Dark-skinned Latino players who competed against Negro Leaguers but rarely played in the Negro Leagues themselves. Careers like Dobie Moore’s, Bullet Rogan’s, and Heavy Johnson’s that included playing top-level baseball in the army. There’s weirder stuff yet, such as Quincy Trouppe taking a year off after a boxing injury.

So earlier our rule of thumb helps here: Who had their career disrupted or distorted by the color line? Dobie Moore played top-level baseball in the army for good money prior to the formation of the first Negro National League and came over to the new league as soon as the war was over. He was playing at the or at a top level available to him. Same goes for Trouppe, really. He was an amateur and met Joe Louis just before the Brown Bomber went pro. Boxing was more lucrative in 1937 in depression-era America, especially with Louis paving the way for black athletes to earn bigger paychecks as pugilists. Trouppe’s decision to box in the offseason was radically different than one faced by his white MLB counterparts whose incomes were very safe. Trouppe was playing summers for an All-Star independent team in Bismarck, North Dakota. Independents could fold up shop at any time. Even were Trouppe with a league team, the Negro Leagues frequently had capitalization issues and were more vulnerable to bad economic times. MLB players were not in danger of such instability, so Trouppe’s boxing dalliance makes sense as a young man trying to find the best way to earn a living. We have to answer the question, then, should we give Trouppe some credit for a hypothetical 1937 season?

Oh, and I have no idea what to do with Bobby Estalella.

  1. In which case, how do we integrate Negro League data with Major League data?

Over at Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit, you’ll see a lot of discussion about Negro Leaguers, which includes translations of stats into Major League contexts. Yours truly (as Dr. Chaleeko) did a lot of that work with Chris Cobb doing the most important thinking and work with big assists from KJOK, Brent, and other members of that online community.

And we did all that work before WAR was a thing and before Gary Ashwill had published out more than 10% of his body of work.

So those translations are old and in need of updating. We need a new protocol for translation to get into the WAR era. With translation, however, comes a host of necessary calculations:

  • Park effects
  • League-quality conversion factors
  • League-level origination and destination information
  • Possibly even information about standard deviation.

That’s big-picture stuff, and there’s tons of nitty-gritty details too.

But what should be clear is this: Our goal must be to get as accurate a look at how a Negro Leaguer would have performed in MLB as possible because in some cases we must meld big league and Negro League information to evaluate the career of a player.

  1. What qualifies as a Negro League?

The short answer: any league that allowed dark-skinned people to play in it. In addition to the Negro Leagues themselves, prior to Integration that includes various Caribbean winter leagues, the Mexican league of the 1930s and 1940s, the integrated California Winter League of the 1920s, and occasionally the minors. There existed minor blackball circuits as well, and only in a precious rare instance do we include them. In addition, and especially prior to 1920, there were loose affiliations of independent teams that barnstormed and scheduled games against one another. Even thereafter, in the heart of the Great Depression when the leagues broke apart for a couple years, surviving independent teams continued to loosely affiliate in this way. All these and some others count.

  1. What sources of information can we trust?

This is one of the key questions, and we fortunately live in a time when Negro League information has become more plentiful and more trustworthy. Here’s a list of helpful sources we’ve already discovered.

There are more but that’s a great starting list. That said I’m not so willing to trust some sources:

  • The Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract: At about 17 years old, the statistical information James used is out of date, and he relies heavily on anecdotal research, which is often at odds with the statistics that we now have (and which he didn’t in fairness). It’s good, however, for jumpstarting some outside-the-box thinking about certain players.
  • Various sources by John Holway: I don’t mean to be a jerk about this, but Holway seems to have fallen too deeply in love with his subject. I appreciate his passion, but he often makes claims that feel hyperbolic, decontextualized, and less objective than feels safe for me to rely on.
  • The opinions of former players: Just like with Major League players, only worse. There’s lots of grade inflation. If someone says that so-and-so was the greatest fielder he’d ever seen, that probably means the guy was above average with the glove. If they say he was about average, that probably means he was below average. That sort of thing.

This article shows you why I’m skeptical of anecdotal information about the Negro Leagues.

We’ll be investigating most of these questions and some important details within them in future posts. They will be our pathway toward making our final decision about whether or not to pursue this wing of the HoME.





2 thoughts on “Thinking About the Negro Leagues: 5 Questions

  1. I urge you to add the Negro Leaguers in. You guys have proven very good at finding and extrapolating information in a way that make sense (without reference to whether I agree with your conclusions) and I’m certain you can do it with the NL. Those guys deserve it.
    For a start, the Wikipedia page on the 2006 Hall of Fame election has a list of all the guys the special Negro League election committee considered when they made the mass enshrinement of ’06. It’s a decent place to start if you’re looking for a list of who the “experts” thought were the best of the Negro League lot that wasn’t already in place.
    There’s also a site called “The Negro Leagues Up Close” that has info that might help you. It’s highly anecdotal and seems to have gotten sidetracked with the graves project recently, but might be of some assistance. And “Shades of Glory,” the book the compilers of stats for the above mentioned committee wrote has some useful statistical information (although it seems to be mostly the same as Baseball Reference.
    Good luck.

    Posted by verdun2 | April 28, 2017, 8:06 am
  2. Great stuff Eric, hope you and Miller reach a point in the future to start including Negro Leaguers, even if it’s a gradual phase in to get the guys in your Top 100 ever list, then add in when you feel comfortable.

    Posted by Ryan | April 30, 2017, 10:12 pm

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