Could Hank Aaron pass Barry Bonds as baseball’s home-run champ? Negro League inclusion is the key
At first, Bob Kendrick wasn’t excited by the news that the glory days of baseball’s Negro Leagues, 1920-48, would be added to the official Major League records. Kendrick was defiant.
The 59-year-old president of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Museum didn’t just know of the grand old players who played in the obscurity of segregation. He knew many of them personally. Minnie Minoso. Monte Irvin. Buck O’Neil.
“Legendary players,” Kendrick said. “And they were very self-assured men. They knew how good they were and they knew how good their league was. So they never sought validation from anyone.”
But baseball’s December decision to include Negro League statistics doesn’t validate the Negro Leagues. It validates baseball.
And the more Kendrick thought about it, the more he changed his attitude.
“I was absolutely elated, man,” Kendrick told me the other day. “It was a long time coming. It’s great that baseball did the right thing. And this was indeed the right thing to do. To finally, publicly acknowledge the Negro Leagues for exactly what they were. A major league.”
The numbers of the legends we never saw — Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Oklahoma City’s own Bullet Joe Rogan — no longer are in a separate category. They share the ledgers with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
And the inclusion of all those games played by the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays and Chicago American Giants might eventually come with an added bonus.
A new home run champion.
Barry Bonds hit 762 homers, many of them ill-gotten gains in baseball’s steroid era. Bonds trumped the regal Henry Aaron, who hit 755 and died in January at age 86, an American hero.
Aaron played for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 at age 18. He spent three months with the Clowns; the available statistics show that Aaron hit .366 in 26 games, with five home runs.
Aaron, of course, needs seven home runs to catch Bonds, and the Negro Leagues 1952 season isn’t included in the latest baseball decree.
But don’t give up hope.
The 1948 cutoff seems arbitrary. In 1948, major league baseball had six players who had broken the color line. In 1949, nine. In 1950, 10.
Some of the Negro League talent had moved to the minor leagues, but 18-year-old Hank Aaron, coming out of Mobile, Alabama, in 1952, wasn’t signed by one of the 16 historically-white franchises. He was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns.
“Honestly, I had hoped they would extend it to the ‘50s,” Kendrick said. “There was still some tremendous talent in the Negro Leagues.”
By 1955, the Negro Leagues clearly were minor league best. But not in 1950. The year 1952 might be a line of demarcation. Black players made up 2.9% of major-league rosters in 1951 and 1952; that number rose to 3.7% in 1953 and 5.6% in 1954.
In 1953, the Clowns started barnstorming as a comedy act and signed a couple of female players. So the Negro Leagues had a quick fall.
Still, Kendrick maintains hope that the time period will be broadened.
Of course, Aaron remains stuck on five home runs with the Clowns. But there’s hope there, too.
The Negro Leagues’ database has been painstakingly built over decades through newspaper and periodical research. Basically, scouring box scores and reading stories from journalists who covered the games.
“We’re going to trust the data they have, take it and do the best we can with it,” said John Labombarda, editorial head of the Elias Sports Bureau, to USA Today. “This will be an evolving project. As more data is unearthed, we will add it — and that’s true of Major League Baseball history. Finding holes, correcting mistakes. This will be no different.”
This happens with every sport, on all levels. I’ve done similar research on high school football. My pal Mike Brooks has done similar stuff for Sooner football, scouring The Oklahoman archives for long-lost stats from OU’s pre-World War II days.
Maybe someone will find more Clowns box scores. Maybe baseball will broaden the Negro Leagues era it considers official.
Baseball’s decision was not some kind of peace offering for the social-justice year of 2020. The inclusion was a rebuttal of baseball’s 1969 Special Committee on Baseball Records, which declared six leagues “major.” The American and National leagues, plus the Federal League of 1914-15, the American Association of 1882-91, the 1890 Players League and the 1884 Union Association. But not the leagues that included Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard and Smokey Joe Williams.
“It was never their desire to play in a separate league,” Kendrick said of such epic players. “They played in a separate league because they had to play in a separate league.
“So much of these records will never be a part of what will be brought into the fold of what will be major league history.”
Kendrick said the search for Negro League box scores isn’t like a needle in a haystack, “but damn near. So much of this was lost to time, or conceivably lost to time.
“I do tip my cap to the historians and researchers who have done yeoman’s duty going back and combing through box scores and searching these papers to try and come up with quantifiable numbers. Because that’s what you have to have, in order to make this work. These had to be quantifiable numbers.”
Were some of the Negro League statistics forged against players who were not major league level? Yes. Absolutely. In the same way that Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson pitched against hitters who were not major league level, and Tris Speaker and Mel Ott batted against pitchers who were not major league level.
Open the American and National Leagues of all those decades ago to players of any color, and all kinds of players would be minor leaguers real fast.
Kendrick, who runs a marvelous museum in Kansas City, knows all this. And soon enough after hearing the news, his umbrage departed, replaced by pride that a part of American history is coming a little bit more out of the shadows.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.