Steven Greenes’ Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame is a thoughtful, well-informed, and well-reasoned look at the politics of glory as it relates to black players from the era prior to Jackie Robinson’s crossing of the color line. Naturally, the book got us thinking, so we invited Steven to answer a few questions by email.
HoME: How did you become interested in the Negro Leagues, and what drove you to write Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame?
Greenes: I’ve always been intrigued by the outliers of baseball. I was fascinated by Jackie Robinson and the integration story and became convinced through research that he was just the tip of the iceberg. The real story to me was never Robinson, great as he was, but the league which spawned him. I think we miss the story by singling out Robinson alone and not focusing on the true significance of all of the players who never made it to the white Major Leagues. The style, speed, and finesse Robinson brought to the game were not unique. They were byproducts of the Negro Leagues. In the same way that the NBA was influenced by street ball, the Negro Leagues energized the white Major Leagues in the 1950s, even though there was still in informal quota in effect as to the number of African Americans allowed on each team. I concluded that that the Negro Leagues were a major part of the American baseball history—and not necessarily the lesser part. If the Hall of Fame is truly the temple of American baseball, it needs to fully recognize this fact.
HoME: How did researching and writing the book change or deepen your understanding of the Negro Leagues and its players?
Greenes: I did not fully appreciate the extent to which Negro League play was truly equivalent to white Major League ball. While the Negro League multiverse was not directly analogous to the white Major League world, it was breathtaking in its scope, ranging through Winter ball and the entire Western hemisphere. Not only were the batting averages and ERA of the Negro and white Major Leagues statistically equivalent, but the black ball teams won a majority of head-to-head offseason contests. It was hardly an anomaly that, when the National League integrated first, nine of the eleven National League MVPs between 1947 and 1959 were former Negro Leaguers. Or, as sabermetrician Bill James pointed out in naming his 100 best players of all time, if five of the 100 came out of the last few years of the Negro League’s existence, imagine the greats there must have been earlier on. I think Negro League catcher Joe Greene was on to something when he claimed that the Negro Leagues were the real Major Leagues.
HoME: I came away from your overview of the Hall of Fame’s Negro Leagues elections with the sense that Cooperstown has taken a reactive stance to pre-Robinson black baseball ever since Ted Williams used his 1966 acceptance speech to advocate the enshrinement of its stars. What do you think motivated the Hall’s leadership in 2006 to want to close the door on Negro Leaguers even while they continued to review the cases of white ballplayers? Or for that matter what would motivate them to create voting instructions where the Veterans can’t count Minnie Miñoso’s pre-MLB play, and the 2006 panel couldn’t count his major league play?
Greenes: Aside from the 2006 election, it almost seemed that the HOF was being dragged kicking and screaming through the process of designating Negro Leaguers. In the past, the HOF used the lack of Negro League statistics, or the fear that the existing veterans might resent the Negro Leaguers as arguments for curtailing further admissions. Even the 2006 election can be viewed as an attempt to create a final one-time group of admissions. As I suggest in the book, there were many implied caps on the 2006 Committee, including the fact that they were limited to assessing Minnie Miñoso’s Negro League play (only three years). By examining the ad hoc nature of the overall HOF voting processes for the Negro Leagues, it also became evident why all of the best players were not necessarily admitted and how many more great players are still out there, worthy of induction. Dick “Cannonball” Redding and Dick “’King Richard” Lundy are but two examples from the all-time pantheon who were unfairly passed over. I concluded that there are at least twenty-four additional Negro League individuals who should be in the Hall of Fame, and I try to point out in my book that it could easily be more.
I am not as interested in ascribing motives to past actions as hoping that more modern HOF leadership will understand that the time has come in 2020 for a full and continuing assessment of the Negro Leagues. I recently read that Commissioner Rob Manfred is considering accepting all Negro League stats from league games as official Major League statistics. If he does so, and he should, there will be no excuse for the HOF not to fully reopen their process to the Negro Leagues. Imagine the significance if, for example, it becomes an accepted fact that Charlie “Chino” Smith is the all-time Major League leader in lifetime batting average.
HoME: You made it very clear in Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame that you balance traditional qualitative data with advanced metrics from the Negro Leagues Database. How do these two informational approaches complement one another?
Greenes: Advanced metrics are often necessary to differentiate the top Negro League stars. The fact that Home Run Johnson, who played in an era lacking extensive traditional data, has the highest WAR per 162 games in American Negro League history is perhaps the best analytical evidence we have of his stature. Another example is Bingo DeMoss. While his batting average was modest, he turns out to be one of the two best fielders in Negro League history, using the modern metric Runs Saved Above Average (RSA). For pre-Negro League players, I also felt it important to include player testimonies and polls to fill the analytical gaps. DeMoss’ speed and spectacular bunting, which sparkplugged many teams, are also not evident from the traditional stats alone as so few hard figures exist from the pre-Negro League era.
HoME: As our pool of Negro Leagues data has increased, what player’s performance has surprised you the most? Either impressing you or falling short of how you thought they’d turn out?
Greenes: I had no idea how impressive Dobie Moore and John Beckwith were as players. Dobie Moore, known for his slugging and high batting average, may have been the best fielding shortstop in Negro League history. Clearly, John Beckwith’s rough reputation and Dobie Moore’s violent end to his career (shot by his girlfriend in a whorehouse) affected how the HOF voters viewed them. I was also surprised by the extremely strong resumes of certain ball players who are rarely touted, men such as Bill Pettus, Hurley McNair, William Bell, Juan Padron and Dave Barnhill.
[Note: The Hall of Miller and Eric has elected Moore, Beckwith, and McNair as well as the aforementioned Lundy and Redding.]
HoME: If you could travel back in time to see just one Negro Leaguer, who would it be, and why?
Greenes: I would have loved to see the 1931 Homestead Grays in action, just so I could have seen what I regard as the greatest baseball team of all time, black or white. Six Hall of Fame players (including Oscar Charleston and a young Josh Gibson) and a Hall of Fame manager, all on one team. How about a pitching staff including Smokey Joe Williams , Willie Foster and Satchel Paige (although Paige appeared in only one game that year)?
HoME: Last question, and I’m aiming to help readers who may be just beginning to learn about the Negro Leagues. There’s so much to learn about them; they are so different than big-league baseball; hundreds of resources exist about them. Besides your own book, of course, what one or two resources would you recommend to not only get a great flavor for black baseball but also to get someone hooked on it?
Greenes: To me, Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America; Larry Tye’s biography Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, and John B. Holway’s oral history Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers are extraordinary introductions to the black ball world. Each will leave the reader wanting more.
We greatly appreciate Steven taking time out of his schedule to answer our questions and for writing a book that, deservedly, moves the conversation about black ball stars forward.