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Josh Gibson is now baseball’s all-time home run king. Move over Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth. No, that’s not official, unless you count this: Officially, it’s my opinion.
It’s not a political statement, and there is no detailed analytical statistical proof that Gibson holds one of our most-cherished sports records. His plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame notes his great Negro Leagues accomplishments by saying he hit “almost 800 home runs.’’
Bonds hit precisely 762.
Major League Baseball announced this week that it had reclassified the Negro Leagues, during their prime years of 1920-1948, as a major league.
So now, the verified stats of roughly 3,400 Negro Leagues players will be added. And it’s going to create a big mess.
That mess is one of the best parts about this because stats are such an important part of baseball. An obsessive part. Stats have helped to identify baseball as an uptight white-guy thing.
For whatever reason, the Negro Leagues were about oral history, which I trust much more than statistics. You hear about Cool Papa Bell being so fast he’d steal two bases at a time. Did that technically, actually happen?
Who cares? It tells more of a true story than Barry Bonds’ 762 home runs. We don’t even know what those home runs mean. As time goes by, the context of numbers disappears. With the Negro Leagues, the numbers might not be there, but the context still is.
We’re going to question the legitimacy of Josh Gibson’s homers for the Homestead Grays, but allow Bonds’ to stand? How many of Bonds’ were legit? How many were because of steroids?
Did you know that Gibson once hit a fly ball so high and hard at the end of a home game near Pittsburgh that it got lost in the clouds and didn’t come back down? The next day in Philadelphia a ball dropped from the sky, and when the opposing outfielder caught it, the umpire pointed at Gibson and said “You’re out, yesterday in Pittsburgh.’’
I’m not claiming to be an expert on this, but while Negro Leagues teams had an official season, they mostly barnstormed around the country to go to the fans, rather than the other way around. That’s how they survived.
Baseball isn’t planning to count these unofficial barnstorming tours, partly because we don’t know who they were played against and partly because there weren’t meticulous stats kept.
That’s the messy part. Gibson, a catcher, is going to go down as having hit just 238 home runs, only those verified from official Negro Leagues games. The people at Seamheads.com have done the grueling work over the years of piecing together and compiling as many Negro Leagues stats as possible.
I’ve never really known where the “almost 800’’ number came from, and always just assumed that it was made up as a way of saying that Gibson was better than Ruth, who hit 714.
Baseball people are not going to be comfortable living in the world of “almost.’’ They believe the numbers tell the story. So Bonds hit 762 home runs. Hank Aaron hit 755. Aaron also played one season for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues. At this point, he is known to have hit five home runs for the Clowns. What if further research finds three more? Would that make him the greatest home run hitter?
Or, wait, no. He played for the Clowns in 1952. Baseball isn’t counting the Negro Leagues after 1948, because they started dropping off in quality after Jackie Robinson got into the Majors. Top black players followed suit, and the Negro Leagues eventually died off.
Baseball people live by numbers. Ten years ago, researchers determined that Roger Maris had been credited with one additional RBI in 1961. I’m not kidding. Forty-nine years after the fact, researchers were still combing through the details of specific games. That year, however, Maris had won the American League RBI title by one.
That meant that in 2010, Baltimore’s Jim Gentile was suddenly the co-RBI champ of 1961. I tracked down Gentile, who said that he had missed out on a $5,000 raise because he hadn’t won the RBI title. So I started a campaign on his behalf.
And the Orioles came through and gave him the 5,000 bucks.
God knows the gymnastics baseball put itself through in 1961 when Maris broke Ruth’s single-season home run record. The sport, not wanting to eliminate Ruth from the record books in any way, just put Maris’ record next to Ruth’s and put an asterisk next to it, noting that the season was eight games longer in 1961 than during Ruth’s era.
There has been no such asterisk on Bonds now, noting that Gibson’s “almost 800’’ homers aren’t counted.
So baseball did the right thing here by including the Negro Leagues after excluding their players for a century, even if it does smack of political correctness. It’s way too late, but it is something. It’s just unfortunate that it took a year of Black Lives Matter and social justice to make baseball move.
Baseball is never going to be comfortable with its statistics again, but it created this mess in the first place. Next time a ball falls from the sky, no one will call Gibson out.