Something Significantly Good Happened in 2020, but What? Leading the Diversity Conversation V

December 31, 2020
Something good and significant did happen in 2020: Major League Baseball declared the Negro Leagues to have been major leagues and combined their statistics with those of Major League Baseball (MLB), in this the 100th anniversary year of the founding of the Negro Leagues. That founding represented acts of adaptive and defiant resilience as well as of entrepreneurial resistance to being denied the opportunity to ‘play ball’ with the white guys, to participate in their show, what so many characterized as ‘the show’. MLB tweeted the following on December 16:
“MLB is correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history by officially elevating the Negro Leagues to “Major League” status.”
What does this actually mean? Why would anyone aside from an ardent baseball fan and statistical geek and especially an organizational leader care? Start here: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted the importance of Jackie Robinson breaking MLB’s color barrier in 1947 (Jackie Robinson Larry Doby and Lessons in Change), “Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.” (The History of Baseball and Civil Rights in America). Sport and society reflect and interdigitate with one another. Both provide not just a view of but a portal to the other.
That said, American history being what it is means that answering the questions of what this action by MLB means and why it might matter, as with answering so many questions related to diversity and discrimination, benefits from a little background and a little patience, so much of meaning stemming as it does from context.
Racism, discrimination, segregation and baseball. A long story about whites and Blacks (black Latinos included). The story of systematic and universal exclusion of Blacks runs from the late 19th century into post WWII America, expressed through a formal vote in the minor leagues and a ‘gentlemen’s’ agreement’ in the Major Leagues. Symbolically, baseball’s Hall of Fame (HOF) admitted Negro Leagues stars in 1971…and planned to put them in a separate room in ‘the Hall’. Plaques of black stars, primary casualties of baseball’s historic racism, racism reflective of and backed by society’s racism, were to be permitted in the building, but not in the main room or intermingled with plaques of their white contemporaries. In other words, a modicum of change was to come—kind of. An immediate and intense firestorm led promptly to a further change, namely one HOF ‘Hall’ for all. Decades of struggle followed concerning criteria, process, and statistics for considering HOF admission for Negro Leagues stars.
On December 16, 2020, MLB, as noted, took another step, merging MLB and Negro Leagues statistics by declaring the Negro Leagues to have been major leagues. This may seem strange, insignificant or perhaps out and out wrong-headed—yet it isn’t. Firstly, the “major leagues” has come to mean America’s American and National Leagues. Many nations from Australia to Korea to Japan to the Netherlands to Canada to Mexico to the Caribbean and much of Central America play baseball and have leagues. In fact, numerous leagues (and their statistics) have, over time, come under the MLB umbrella, e.g., Union Association, Players’ League, and the Federal League. These ‘other major leagues’ had all vanished by 1916 as MLB developed into its current two league form, although with notably fewer franchises than today…and with no black players.
To be regarded as a true fan of MLB baseball today means, and perhaps has always meant, fascination with individual performance statistics along with not just a willingness but indeed a keen desire to debate endlessly GOATs and performance across time, especially by position. The structure of the game fosters its fandom filling to bursting with individual statistics—the low required interdependence of players when playing the game as compared to football or soccer makes individual performance easier to track and more predictive of team success (Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business by Robert Keidel). Hence, baseball fans brandish proudly the debating of individual statistics and relative greatness across time: dead ball and live ball eras, changes in the strike zone and pitching mound (height and distance from the plate), size and structure of ballparks, modern training and sports medicine, depletion of talent due to world wars, expansion, and the rise of other sports, performance enhancing drugs, height of seams on the ball, …and discrimination on the field (and in the front office).
Officially acknowledging the Negro Leagues as Major Leagues means that any fan not including its stars such as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson or Buck Leonard or… in the never-ending debates about GOATs and places in baseball’s pantheon of stars will likely be called on the omission or find their debate opponent including just those Negro Leagues stars and arguing for their pre-eminence. As for the statistics themselves, MLB’s recent act of inclusion will drive more researching and writing, more mining of existing data sets and searching for additional ones. It will mean increased combing through records of exhibition games between MLB and Negro Leagues teams and quotes by white players and black players regarding one another’s talents. It will precipitate broader and deeper storytelling, the recounting of legendary performances and moments in white and black baseball, especially when they played one another. Anything that furthers the comparisons and the discussions of relative greatness will work its way into more and more baseball conversational stews. (To get started, try Scott Simkus’ 2014 Outsider Baseball or the much older (1970) Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson.)
And now each participant discussing the relative greatness of players will more likely mutter: ’this vagueness, this incompleteness of comparison shouldn’t be. They should have played together.’ And that muttering will affirm the ability of all players under consideration. It will also acknowledge the value and appropriateness of talent playing talent, regardless of demography which, of course, will feed application of the far greater value of inclusion and of fairness, and… and somewhere in the midst of a headshake of disbelief, frustration, and sadness, a fan discussant will exclaim (at least privately) ‘what a shame!’ With that exclamation will come the sense that we were all deprived, no, cheated out of collective memory of Satchel and the Babe squaring off, one more time in a long and cherished series of squaring off, perhaps this time with a championship on the line or of Lefty Grove and Josh Gibson going head to head when it mattered most. As Marvin Miller, founder of Baseball Players’ Association, said once to me, ‘the fans keep the history of the game, not the players.’ The official acknowledgement of the Negro Leagues will help fans to remake the history of the game, to patch together what prejudice split apart.
Perhaps most importantly, though, designating Negro Leagues statistics as worthy of full consideration bears witness to the power of the sentiment in Ted Williams’ declaration at his 1966 induction into the HOF. Williams declared from the podium that you couldn’t call yourself a great player unless you’d played against all the great players, all of them. Therefore, he called for the HOF to admit Negro Leagues stars.
Williams, arguably the greatest hitter ever, knew, as did so many other white ball players, that racism had deprived him of countless moments to have his greatness tested by great black and Latino players. Just as decades before the legendary New York Giant manager John McGraw allegedly kept a list of black ballplayers he’d sign if he could and tried to sneak a black player onto the Giants by claiming (in a particularly rich historical irony) that the player was Native American. In other words, set aside the complaint that Negro Leagues numbers don’t reflect the same level of competition as playing in the MLB. Set that aside at least for a moment and ask a less frequently asked question: how might the white MLB numbers look had all white players in the segregated MLB faced the same percentage of non-white players then as white players do today (namely about one third)?
Briefly stated, racial discrimination cost everyone– clearly Black players most of all, but also white players and all fans. It failed to allow all the best players on the field. It failed to make the greatest games possible. Indeed, it prevented the game from being played at the highest level that it could have been played at for decade after decade.
As an organizational leader…. Who is getting cheated out of what by discrimination today? How are you keeping score and of what and whom? What and whose numbers go on the dashboard? As Deming famously said, ‘we treasure what we measure’, so what are you measuring? How long might you and those who report to you define inclusion primarily as ‘they’re missing the chance to play with us’ and not also as ‘we’re missing the chance to play with them’? The former statement may create a sense of obligation—easily ground down with a return to ‘normal’ after a heated and exhausting summer punctuating a seemingly endless pandemic. The latter statement drives a felt need born of recognized deprivation on the one hand and of collective aspiration on the other–to test one’s self by playing with and against the best, all the best. Just how good are you? Do you really know? How good might you be? Do you dare to find out? Do you dare to build the skills and hire the people to play in an expanded, evolving, and talent hungry truly major league?
Something significant and good did happen in 2020. It happened by stopping and looking again at games played—and games not allowed to be played—as part of a self-proclaimed American National Pastime called baseball.
Play ball!