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Adding Negro League stats to MLB records offers more complete picture of history

3 min read
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FILE - Baseball catcher Josh Gibson in an undated photo. Josh Gibson became Major League Baseball's career leader with a .372 batting average, surpassing Ty Cobb's .367, when records of the Negro Leagues for more than 2,300 players were incorporated after a three-year research project. (AP Photo/File)

In a distant corner of Pittsburgh’s sprawling Allegheny Cemetery, you have to march up a steep hillside to find the grave of Josh Gibson.

It’s a flat stone, set in the ground, and has Gibson’s game engraved on it, his dates of birth and death and the words “Legendary Baseball Player.”

It’s decidedly low-key when you consider that, indeed, Josh Gibson is among the most legendary of baseball players, his feats on the field spoken of in awe. He was among the greatest hitters the game has ever seen, not merely hammering hundreds of homers, but swatting them way out of the park. He was an adept catcher with an arm like a cannon. Fellow players believed he could fulfill just about any role on a team and maybe do it as well as they could or even much better.

But most of Gibson’s breathtaking achievements were carried out in the shadows.

That’s because Gibson played in the Negro Leagues in the days before baseball was integrated. A member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, he was never catapulted to national prominence the way a Babe Ruth or a Ty Cobb were in their heyday. Gibson died in relative obscurity of a stroke in 1947 when he was just 35 and just months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. If he had been born in a different time and different place, Gibson would have probably been surrounded by the trappings of fame and paid a multimillion-dollar salary. Instead, his own grave was unmarked until a stone was finally put in place in 1975.

Gibson may have been denied the glory his skills deserved when he was alive, but Major League Baseball has taken a step toward righting the wrongs Negro League players were subjected to by finally adding their statistics to baseball’s official records.

As a result of the decision, Gibson should now be considered baseball’s greatest hitter, with a .372 average that just puts him past Ty Cobb’s .367 average. Gibson now also passes Babe Ruth in on-base and slugging percentages.

Though it’s been Gibson who has grabbed the headlines in the last few days, he was one of more than 2,000 Negro League players whose statistics have been added to Major League Baseball’s records following a three-year research project that has involved deep dives into archives, libraries and Black newspapers that covered the Negro Leagues.

Putting Gibson and other Negro League players into the official records has raised the ire of some baseball purists. They argue that players in the Negro Leagues had a shorter season and had to play exhibition games in order to stay afloat, so it’s not really possible to compare Gibson with the likes of Cobb and Ruth. The counterargument, though, is that record-keeping in all of baseball’s early years is not perfect, and what does exist offers a pretty solid picture of what Gibson and his compatriots accomplished.

Ken Rosenthal, a sports columnist for The New York Times, put it this way: “Baseball’s history is what separates it from other sports. Fans compare players from different eras, trying to figure out who was best. These comparisons are almost always imperfect, apples to oranges. And so it will be with Negro Leagues players. I can’t say if Josh Gibson was better than Babe Ruth. But I’m sure eager to advance that discussion.”

Gibson may not have played against the masters of Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field back in the day. Now, though, he can officially stand alongside them.

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