Notes: Adding the Negro Leagues

I had always intended to include Negro League stars in Apples & Oranges. Using the stats published in the old MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, then John Holway’s “Complete book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues” and Lawrence D. Hogan’s “Shades of Glory,” I cobbled together approximate profiles for 10 players as a start.

But it was frustrating. There were huge chunks of data missing; entire seasons where some players had 3 games listed, for example, or no RBIs. What was there was just offense or pitching; there were no fielding numbers to speak of, and no leaguewide statistics for context.

I came up with estimates to fill out the blanks, but in the end, I didn’t feel like the results were exact enough to post online. And so I put this part of the project on hold.

About two years ago, Twitter or some other online source, made me aware of Seamheads.com’s Negro League Archive. It’s a breathtaking effort in stats and history, and I urge anyone with interest in the subject to check it out.

At the time, there were still some missing seasons, but they’ve steadily filled them in. Using this source, I was able to fill out my 10 Negro League vignettes. There are still some gaps in the fielding record, but we have enough data to plug in better estimates for the missing portions.

Mainstream sports stats are public domain (nobody can copyright Babe Ruth’s batting average), but since this is ongoing research by a few dedicated individuals, I won’t be posting detailed year-by-year stats for each players as I usually do. For that, I will link back to the Seamheads original. What I will post are the derived Apples & Oranges ratings for offense and defense.

There is also the issue of players who spent time in the Negro Leagues and the Majors. Mostly, I’m going to treat each player as either one or the other. For guys like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, it’s an easy decision; they each spent one year in the Negro Leagues, and the effect of that season is minimal either way.

Roy Campanella was a harder case. He spent eight seasons in the Negro Leagues, plus time in Mexico. But he also began extremely young at 15, and a lot of that time was essentially an apprenticeship. I decided his time with the Dodgers adequately represents who he was as a baseball player.

Then there’s Satchel Paige, who joined the Cleveland Indians at 41 as a relief pitcher. Paige’s career was bizarre even by Negro League standards, and this last six-year stint really threw the statistics for a loop, both because of his advanced age and because relief pitching is significantly less valuable than being a starter. After a lifetime of segregation, he wasn’t going to miss his chance at the Majors, but the Majors didn’t get the real Satchel.

He was one of the greatest pitchers ever, maybe even the greatest of them all. And if he’d been given a shot at a normal career, there’s no way he’d still be hanging on into his mid-40s as a broken-down reliever. So we’re going to ditch the “everything counts” mantra for this one, and only count the Negro League years. That’s the real Satchel Paige.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the quality of play in the Negro Leagues. Given the successful transition so many top-quality players made into the Majors after the color line was broken, I think we can treat it as near enough to Major League-level that the stats can be taken at face value. The league seasons were shorter, so that results in lower totals and higher per-game rates, something that is consistent with other sports.

Anyway, here’s the first batch of 10, with more to come:

GamesTotalPer 160Sqr RootSumOffDef
Oscar Charleston1345148.9017.7112.2029.9229.545.89
Josh Gibson74893.0619.919.6529.5531.668.15
Turkey Stearnes950110.0118.5310.4929.0231.225.84
Bullet Rogan70194.8517.679.7427.4116.7618.58
Martín Dihigo48363.8719.147.9927.1323.1315.14
Satchel Paige24152.8619.767.2727.034.4335.09
Cool Papa Bell1212122.7115.8111.0826.8924.976.65
Mule Suttles92994.3616.259.7125.9728.404.11
John Henry Lloyd99595.7815.409.7925.1924.106.70
Buck Leonard60563.1016.697.9424.6328.944.43

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