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Cuban Winter League

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Negro Leaguers and Standard Deviation, Part I

A lonnnng time ago now, we presented findings about how standard deviation may color our perceptions of any given MLB season. The rough answer is that for whatever reason, in some years performance is bunched closely together so that the highest WAR total in the land is under 7.0, and in other seasons, it’s practically the wild west, and we see players racking up WAR at every integer between -2 and 12.

I created a seasonal adjustment factor to compensate for this phenomenon, which I use in my home-cooked WAR. As I’ve rolled out a few articles recently about the Negro Leagues, I’ve begun to wonder about the effect standard deviation might have on blackball players.

There are several indicators that suggest player performance varied more widely in the Negro Leagues than in MLB:

  • Leagues came and went with all the bumpiness that accompanies startups and expansions
  • Especially before the late 1930s, teams came and went during the season as well as between seasons
  • Players in some cases jumped from team to team or league to league
  • The best Negro League teams were further apart from the worst than their counterparts in the majors
  • The Negro Leagues had many teenage players and 40+ players
  • Field conditions were likely worse than on MLB diamonds
  • In some seasons, for example, 1938 through 1948, international leagues signed away large numbers of players who then required replacement
  • Negro League teams typically had much shorter rosters than big league teams
  • The Negro Leagues played much shorter schedules, which means some jumpier stats didn’t have time to stabilize as they would in the 154-game slate
  • Negro League talent procurement and development was likely not as systematized and routinized as white organized baseball.

That’s a lot of indicators that variance among players, between leagues, and between seasons might have swung wider than the majors. Further clouding the picture is the sheer number of leagues we’re talking about. To properly evaluate Negro League players, we’d need to know not only about the Negro Leagues themselves, but also about various Caribbean leagues (winter and summer), the Mexican League, and, for Integration-era players, the minor leagues as well as certain independent leagues.

So I, your trusty servant, decided to look into things, and I pulled out my trusty spreadsheets, opened BBREF and the Negro League Database, and got to work.

The Method

For now, I’ve only worked up hitting stats. To keep this reasonably simple, here’s what I did:

  • Calculate the RC/27 for each player in the league that either BBREF or the Negro Leagues Database indicates qualified for the batting title. I use Bill James’ version from Win Shares because it accounts for the effect of an individual player on his lineup, and because it’s a little easier to deal with than Base Runs.
  • Find the STDEV of RC/27 among these players.
  • Compare the STDEVs found in step 2 to the MLB-wide STDEV for the corresponding season.
  • Adjust the quotient in step 3 such that the difference between average (1.0) and step three is reduced by half.

The result is a STDEV factor.

A note of caution. Many leagues, including MLB, did not tally some or all among caught stealing, GIDP, intentional walks, HPB, SF, strikeouts, and even walks in various seasons. We’ve avoided calculations that don’t involve walks, and we’ve worked around the lack of caught stealing by assuming that hitters will be caught stealing 80% as often as they are successful. That’s a 55% success rate, approximately the MLB average for most of the time span we’re dealing with. In some cases, if too little information exists, we haven’t included the season in our researches.

The Negro Leagues

Let’s start with the Negro Leagues themselves. That term refers to a collection of at least 8 different loose affiliations and actual organizations. The Negro Leagues Database does not yet have complete information for all seasons. Nor does it currently have park factors or strength of schedule adjustments. Ideally, these would be made before doing the STDEV calculation, but we didn’t make this adjustment for big leaguers either. We’ll take it in chunks of time so we can fit more information in.

EAST = Independent clubs in the east
NAC = National Association of Colored Professional Clubs of the United States and Cuba
WEST = Independent clubs in the west

YEAR     MLB |     EAST     |     NAC      |    WEST
       STDEV |  STDEV  ADJ  |  STDEV  ADJ  | STDEV  ADJ
=========================================================
1905   1.39  |  3.68  0.69  |              |
1906   1.16  |  7.81  0.57  |              |  3.53  0.66
1907   1.03  |              |  1.96  0.76  |
1908   1.10  |              |  2.30  0.74  |  3.40  0.66
1909   1.10  |              |              |  6.34  0.59
1910   1.24  |  2.96  0.71  |              |  7.61  0.58
1911   1.46  |  2.62  0.78  |              | 14.55  0.55
1912   1.58  |  4.42  0.68  |              |  3.33  0.74
1913   1.31  |  2.76  0.74  |              |  6.84  0.60
1914   1.27  |  3.85  0.67  |              |  2.87  0.72
1915   1.21  |  2.97  0.70  |              |  2.08  0.79
1916   1.26  |  3.09  0.70  |              |  3.03  0.71
1917   1.18  |  3.78  0.66  |              |  7.90  0.57
1918   1.09  |  2.53  0.72  |              |  1.97  0.78
1919   1.41  |  2.47  0.79  |              |  4.80  0.65

We can see already the whopping difference in STDEVs, and the proportionally whopping adjustment that can result from it.

Here’s 1920–1932, a very active time for league formation and for league destruction thanks to the Great Depression.

NNL = first version of Negro National League
ECL = Eastern Colored League
EWL = East West League (only played in 1932, for convenience placed in the ECL column)
EAST = Independent clubs in the east
IND = Independent clubs

YEAR     MLB |      NNL     |    ECL/EWL   |     EAST     |   IND
       STDEV |  STDEV  ADJ  |  STDEV  ADJ  |  STDEV  ADJ  | STDEV  ADJ
=======================================================================
1920   1.90  |  1.89  1.00  |              |  3.07  0.81  |
1921   1.81  |  2.30  0.89  |              |  3.09  0.79  |
1922   1.78  |  2.29  0.89  |              |  4.61  0.69  |
1923   1.89  |  2.13  0.94  |  2.17  0.94  |              |  1.74  1.04
1924   1.92  |  1.35  1.21  |  1.94  0.99  |              | 
1925   1.81  |  2.16  0.92  |  2.34  0.89  |              |
1926   1.59  |  1.98  0.90  |  2.12  0.87  |              |
1927   1.80  |              |              |              |
1928   1.84  |              |  3.04  0.80  |  4.19  0.72  |
1929   1.82  |              |              |              |
1930   2.03  |              |              |  3.55  0.78  |
1931   1.80  |              |              |  3.00  0.80  |
1932   1.74  |              |  2.20  0.90  |              |  4.13  0.71

With more organized leagues bringing a higher level of owner and team into the festivities, the NNL’s and ECL’s STDEVs both dropped rapidly from the independent teams’ of the previous decades. These two leagues and the EWL in 1932 were nearly on par with the majors in terms of STDEV especially compared to the independents and the previous era. But even the Eastern indies in this period moved toward MLB’s level of variance. That said, whiteball moved toward blackball as well. The sudden surge in run scoring in the 1920s increased the variance among MLB hitters’ performance.

Now onto the final phase of the Negro Leagues, the more stable era of 1933–1944.

NNL = second version of Negro National League
NAL = Negro American League
IND = Independent clubs


YEAR     MLB |      NNL     |      NAL     |     IND
       STDEV |  STDEV  ADJ  |  STDEV  ADJ  |  STDEV  ADJ
=========================================================
1933   1.73  |  2.07  0.92  |              |  7.02  0.62
1934   1.74  |  2.77  0.81  |              |  2.48  0.85
1935   1.67  |  2.50  0.83  |              |
1936   1.93  |  2.79  0.85  |              |  4.62  0.71
1937   1.94  |  3.39  0.79  |              |
1938   1.81  |  2.66  0.84  |              |
1939   1.62  |  2.70  0.80  |  2.27  0.86  |
1940   1.56  |  1.96  0.90  |  1.83  0.92  |
1941   1.89  |  2.45  0.89  |  2.17  0.94  |
1942   1.59  |  1.92  0.91  |  1.96  0.90  |
1943   1.30  |  3.30  0.70  |  1.73  0.88  |
1944   1.60  |  2.63  0.81  |  2.71  0.80  |

Generally, the NNL and NAL stayed relatively close to the majors. Mexican League defections and World War II probably increased performance variation overall in 1943 and 1944. The big leagues had whole farm systems full of replacements of decent quality and a huge white population (and light-skinned Latino population) to draw from. Black Americans numbered hundreds of millions fewer and so were more difficult in some ways to find reasonable replacements for.

Latin Leagues

Some of the information that follows includes calculations based on data that won’t be available on the Negro Leagues Database for a little while yet. I happened to have access to it, and it is ultimately all derived from Pedro Cisneros’ Mexican League encyclopedia. The information for the various Cuban leagues is all from the Negro Leagues Database.

CWL = Cuban Winter League (la Liga general de base ball de la República de Cuba)
PV = Cuban Summer League (el Premio de verano)
GP = Grand Winter Championship (el Gran premio invernal)

YEAR     MLB |      CWL     |      PV     |      GP
       STDEV |  STDEV  ADJ  |  STDEV  ADJ |  STDEV  ADJ
=========================================================
1902   1.39  |  1.82  0.91  |             |
1903   1.39  |  1.27  1.03  |             |
1904   1.39  |  1.53  0.89  |  2.53  0.74 |
1905   1.39  |  1.45  0.98  |  2.06  0.84 |
1906   1.16  |  1.45  0.90  |  2.08  0.78 |
1907   1.03  |  1.66  0.81  |  2.67  0.69 |
1908   1.10  |  1.71  0.82  |  1.99  0.78 |
1909   1.10  |  2.63  0.71  |             |
1910   1.24  |  2.19  0.78  |             |
1911   1.46  |  2.29  0.82  |             |
1912   1.58  |  1.97  0.90  |             |
1913   1.31  |  1.70  0.89  |             |
1914   1.27  |  2.11  0.80  |             |
1915   1.21  |  2.67  0.73  |             |
1916   1.26  |  1.88  0.84  |             |
1917   1.18  |              |             |
1918   1.09  |  1.44  0.88  |             |
1919   1.41  |              |             |
1920   1.90  |  1.83  1.02  |             |
1921   1.81  |              |             |
1922   1.78  |  2.53  0.85  |             |
1923   1.89  |  2.00  0.97  |             |  1.76  1.03
1924   1.92  |              |             |
1925   1.81  |              |             |
1926   1.59  |              |             |
1927   1.80  |  2.74  0.83  |             |

The Cuban winter leagues show roughly the same range of standard deviation that the latter-day Negro Leagues did. The early summer league looks similar, if a little tighter than, the NAC did.

YEAR     MLB |     MXL
       STDEV | STDEV  ADJ
===========================
1937   1.94  |  3.68  0.76
1938   1.81  |  2.28  0.90
1939   1.62  |  1.98  0.91
1940   1.56  |  2.20  0.85
1941   1.89  |  2.24  0.92
1942   1.59  |  2.29  0.85
1943   1.30  |  1.66  0.89
1944   1.60  |  1.74  0.96
1945   1.32  |  1.97  0.83
1946   1.55  |  1.74  0.95
1947   1.46  |  1.23  1.09
1948   1.59  |  1.85  0.93
1949   1.50  |  1.65  0.95
1950   1.43  |  1.67  0.93
1951   1.50  |  1.81  0.91
1952   1.17  |  2.05  0.79
1953   1.49  |  2.02  0.87
1954   1.65  |  2.05  0.90

La Liga comes in consistently close to the big leagues for quite some time in terms of the spread of its hitters’ performance. Drawing on a large native population that only rarely made it to the Big Leagues, taking the cream of the crop from the Negro Leagues, and pinching a few players in 1946–1947 from MLB and the US minors, Mexico reduced its overall spread in talent and performance. It rates as a little more tightly bunched than the NNL and NAL of the same period.

Here’s an overall look at the entire span of time for each of the leagues mentioned above. The MLB column includes only those seasons that correspond to the seasons with available data for each respective Negro or Latin league.

Average Standard Deviation 1902–1954
           YEARS | STDEV | MLB STEDEV
=====================================
CWL   1902–1927* |  1.94 |  1.38
PV    1904–1908  |  2.26 |  1.18
EAST  1905–1931* |  3.58 |  1.48
WEST  1906–1919* |  5.25 |  1.26
NAC   1907–1908  |  2.13 |  1.06
NNL1  1920–1926  |  2.02 |  1.81
ECL   1923–1928* |  2.32 |  1.81
IND   1923–1936* |  4.00 |  1.81
GP    1923       |  1.76 |  1.89
EWL   1932       |  2.20 |  1.74
NNL2  1933–1944  |  2.60 |  1.70
MEX   1937–1954  |  2.01 |  1.56
NAL   1939–1944  |  2.11 |  1.59
*Indicates span includes discontinuous seasons

Here we see the strong effect of a league structure. The East, West, and Independent teams show a far higher degree of variance (about 50%–100%) than the more structured league setups. Other than those three, however, the rest of the leagues show a fairly narrow range of STDEVs, roughly a half run or less among them. Setting aside the East, West, and independents for a moment, MLB shows a similar overall range but with a little more clumping around the 1.80 level.

Let’s remember that the spread of performance in a league shares many markers with the league’s overall quality of competition. But factors beyond those indicating quality of play influence variance, and others that influence quality may not affect STDEV as much. The long and short of it is this: Standard Deviation is a real thing, and it is a statistical thing. I adjust for it because as a statistical thing, all statistics derived from the league’s record will be influenced by the degree of variance. And that variance is outside an individual player’s immediate control. Just as his park, his league, his run environment, the strength of the schedule he faces, and many other factors that have an impact on his numbers, subtly or not so subtly.

Next time out, we’ll check in on the Integration-era minor leagues to see how they compare to the big leagues. Then in a final article, we’ll recap by showing how adjusting for STDEV may change our perceptions of several Negro League stars.

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Negro Leagues: Measuring the Quality of Competition

How good were the Negro Leagues? If you’re considering translating Negro League statistics to a Major League setting, you have to have an answer to this question. If you want reasonable translations, you have to have a really good answer to the question. If you want all your translations to line up systematically, you have to answer that same question for many, many leagues. So today, that’s what we’re considering.

In some sense, organized baseball has answered parts of the question for us. Under the National Agreement, the minor leagues have been classified since the early 1900s. We’ll soon see how those classifications have changed repeatedly over the years, but fans today recognize this structure:

  • MLB: The AL and NL
  • AAA: The Pacific Coast and International Leagues (and the Mexican League)
  • AA: The Eastern, Southern, and Texas Leagues
  • Hi-A: The California, Carolina, and Florida State Leagues
  • Lo-A: The Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues
  • Short-Season A: The New York-Penn and Northwest Leagues
  • Rookie (non-complex): The Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues
  • Complex Rookie: The Arizona Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues
  • Foreign Rookie: The Dominican Summer League

Today, the classification of these leagues represents a ladder that young players climb on the way to The Show. In past eras, however, the National Agreement based classification on the size of the population the league served. But when you think about, this was a strong proxy for quality. Of course, the larger the area you drew from the more talent you could scout locally, the more ticket sales you could do. But remember, unlike the organized minors of today, until the 1960s or so, most minor league teams were trying to win their league’s pennant. So fans of the time also exerted more pressure on minor league squads to win. The point is this: The ladder existed then and exists now.

So what’s this got to do with Black Ball? Simply put, if we can figure out the quality of play at each minor league level, we may be able to place the Negro Leagues and other independent leagues that signed dark-skinned players into the framework. It’s a method that can produce a reasonable and familiar estimate of play.

Here’s a timeline of minor league classifications presented for puzzlement/enjoyment. The hashed arrows indicate that a league shifted to a new level. It’s a pretty wacky timeline, so…this is a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up. Okay?

What if we knew the discount (if you will) off of major league performance for each of these leagues? That is, if we knew that a person created 100 runs in AA, what percentage of those 100 runs created would he give back by moving up to the majors?

Luckily for you and me, others have plumbed these very depths and done the math. I pieced together information from an excellent article by Ben Lindbergh at the former Grantland as well as some of Clay Davenport’s work to reach some SWAGs for conversion rates for leagues in the current minor-league classification system. To the best of my ability to use Google, I haven’t been able to find an updated table that includes all levels and indy and international leagues and their conversion rates to MLB.

To provide some context, let’s see how the discount structure works using two players’ 2016 seasons. Mike Trout led the AL with 148 runs created, 64 more than average in his 681 plate appearances. Lorenzo Cain created 52 runs in 434 PAs, exactly average for a player in his playing time in the AL of 2016. What would we expect these guys’ major league performance to be if they had created the same number of runs in AAA? Or in AA?


                   CONV
LEVEL LEAGUES      RATE  TROUT CAIN
======================================
MLB   AL  NL       1.00   148   52
AAA   IL  PCL      0.80   118   42
AA    EL  SL  TXL  0.72   107   37
Hi-A  CAL CAR FSL  0.62    92   32
Lo-A  MWL SAL      0.58    86   30
SSA   NYP NWL      0.50    74   26
NCRK  APP PIO      0.50    74   26
CXRK  AZS GCL      0.50    74   26
FNRK  DMS VZS      0.50    74   26
AAA   MXL          0.49    73   25

When you are as good as Trout was in 2016, you can be playing as far down on the farm as LoA and still produce an approximately average MLB season. Even down in Rookie ball, you’re not yet at replacement. On the other hand, Cain plummets to roughly replacement level in Hi-A. Now, obviously, this bootstrapping-like method has limitations. Guys in the Arizona Summer League have probably never seen a great breaking ball and won’t until they hit A ball. But on the whole, it appears defensible because it’s telling us that a Trout-like season by a veteran player in Lo-A would only appear as about average in the bigs. As we’ll see below, this may make good sense.

Let’s bust thing out a little further to include some foreign and independent leagues.


                          CONV
LEVEL LEAGUES             RATE  TROUT CAIN
============================================
MLB   AL NL               1.00   148   52
INT   NPB                 0.90   133   47
AAA   IL PCL              0.80   118   42
WINT  DMW                 0.80   118   42
AA    EL SL TXL           0.72   107   37
IND   ATLANTIC            0.72   107   37
WINT  AZF PRWL VZWL MXWL  0.72   107   37
INT   CUBA                0.63    93   33
Hi-A  CAL CAR FSL         0.62    92   32
IND   AA CANAM            0.62    92   32
Lo-A  MWL SAL             0.58    86   30
IND   FRONTIER            0.58    86   30
SSA   NYP NWL             0.50    74   26
NCRK  APP PIO             0.50    74   26
CXRK  AZS GCL             0.50    74   26
FNRK  DMS VZS             0.50    74   26
AAA   MXL                 0.49    73   25
INT   KBL                 0.49    73   25

That’s a pretty reasonable spread to work from, right? So how would the Negro Leagues fit into this? The Negro Leagues are variously described as anywhere between Nippon Pro Baseball and AA quality. That would put them in the range of 0.75–0.90 of MLB. I suspect the truth is they come in at both ends of this spectrum at different times in history. Did I mention that the Negro Leagues are complicated?

The Negro National League and Eastern Colored League of the 1920s were probably close to NPB level leagues. The talent was well concentrated in those leagues, and while the cream of the crop were Hall-level players, the very bottom end were probably Hi-A or Lo-A players. The spread of talent was larger than in MLB, but the cream got more playing time, and the really bad teams with mostly nobodies tended to play fewer games and/or fold quickly. Compare that to the early 1940s. At that time, the league’s biggest names jumped to Mexico and/or went to war. Pending further research, the combination of the two seems likely to me to have lowered the quality of play to AA quality. Once the color line was broken and the exodus of talent hastened, the quality of play sank rapidly.

On the flip side there’s the Mexican League. With so many black stars jumping to it, the league’s quality rose steeply in 1940 and 1941 and ebbed and flowed in the 1940s. It imported several quality MLB players in 1946–1947 before Happy Chandler started handing out suspensions for signing a contract with la Liga. Although this requires more investigation, we can make some initial guesses. Today’s Mexican League draws primarily from Mexico and surrounding countries. Despite its AAA classification, Clay Davenport’s studies show it’s at about a Rookie ball level. Mexico’s best have rarely proven to be superior quality major leaguers. Fernando Valenzuela being an exception that proves the rule. So, add to that Rookie-level league a couple dozen high-profile MLB stars and some veteran AA and AAA players, and what would happen? The ceiling would absolutely rise, but so would the floor because the lesser native players would garner fewer appearances. So the guess here is that the league of the 1940s rose to about an overall AA level. Maybe a tad more, maybe a tad less depending on how much talent it imported for any given season.

Now here’s a kicker. In some seasons, the Cuban Winter League might have been NPB level or better. The Cuban leagues only included three or four teams each season. Numerous Negro Leagues stars made the trip south (or returned to their homeland in Martin Dihigo’s case), their numbers were augmented by the very best Cuban and Latin American players, as well as occasional white minor league or major league players (especially native sons Dolf Luque, Armando Marsans, Rafael Almeida, and Mike Gonzalez). The number of players who appeared for a team fluctuated from small (15) to large (25), and the championships were hotly contested. Talent burst at the seams of the league, though, like the Negro Leagues, this may have been more true some years than others.

Now, finally, we arrive at the organized minor leagues themselves. They are of concern for players who transitioned into organized baseball during integration. If Negro Leagues expat Marv Williams hit .401 at the age of 32 with 45 homers in the 1952 Arizona-Texas League, what does that mean? His stats (with an extrapolation for his walks and other peripherals at known career rates) probably compute to a runs-created total around 150, very close to Trout’s 2016 total. The Arizona-Texas league was a C-level league. Consulting my chart above on the history of league classifications, Williams probably played in a context around Hi-A or Lo-A level by our current nomenclature. It might well mean that Williams’ performance translates to very near the major league average despite the gaudy numbers (especially because the AZTX league was a very high-octane loop with 7.1 runs/game. Yeah, you read that right, 7.1). And that makes sense, doesn’t it? If Lorenzo Cain played all of 2016 in the Midwest League, wouldn’t we expect him to destroy it just like Williams did the AZTX?

So at the very worst, bootstrapping from today’s minor league setup gives us a strong foundation to build conversion factors from. There are issues with it, though. Leagues, especially lower level leagues, from the Integration era were typically populated with older players than they are today. As much as two or three years older. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are as talented as today’s younger players. But it’s a thing. Also, with so many more and more localized leagues back then, we can’t say for sure that something like the Arizona-Texas league wasn’t worse (or better) than other leagues at the same classification. This is also true today in some measure, but the spread must have been much wider back then. Still, despite these issues, we can probably work with some confidence because baseball as a game hasn’t changed much. The minor leagues are minor for a reason, and the big leagues have always used them as a means for procuring and developing talent.

No one has ever said that the translation of Negro Leaguers stats into a major league context will provide highly accurate assessments of performance. Not possible given the limitations of the data. We would instead hope to achieve a reasonably accurate assessment. The definition of accurate remains open in this context, and details like the difference between A and AA ball require attention and a flexible concept of “correct.” But if we go down this path, we could only do our best to arrive an answer that passes the sniff test and doesn’t have any glaring mathematical errors.

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.

 

 

Institutional History

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