Peterson, Todd, ed. The Negro Leagues were Major Leagues: Historians Reappraise Black Baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing Company, 2020.
Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy
Todd Peterson has brought together an impressive array of authors to try to answer a long-debated question regarding the Negro Leagues. Historians, researchers, and the general fans have differing views of the quality of play in the Negro Leagues. These views affect how one considers the statistics and records of Negro League teams and players. One’s view of the quality of play will determine whether or not one includes the Negro Leagues in any discussion of baseball records, honors, championships, and more. Peterson and his group of authors try to provide statistical and qualitative evidence to support the view that the Negro Leagues should be considered the same as any other Major League.
Fifteen authors provide readers with a variety of approaches to support the contention that the Negro Leagues are a Major League. The book begins with a short introduction by Peterson, in which he identifies the time frame the book focuses on (1920-1948). He also asserts the authors’ desire to see Negro Leagues included in MLB’s official record, an inclusion that would mean Negro League players would be eligible for the Hall of Fame membership status that is now only possible for Major League Baseball players. Readers will be able to decide for themselves if these authors successfully make this case.
The book is divided into two sections, entitled Equality and Equity. The essays in the first section argue for equality on the playing field while those in the second focus on the efforts to attempt to achieve equality, starting in the 19th century. Peterson is quick to point out that the various essays acknowledge that not all Negro Leagues deserve Major League status. It is clear the case is being made for the two Negro National Leagues, the Negro American League and the Eastern Colored League but not for all the other regional and short-lived leagues.
The opening article by Larry Lester is a great starting point as he points out what the math can and cannot do for the Negro Leagues. Before going any further, the volume addresses what some of the shortcomings of Negro League research are, thereby acknowledging they are aware of many of the criticisms before jumping into the evidence. Peterson then begins the work of the book by providing a wide analysis of Negro League vs Major League competitions, breaking them down with an array of statistical approaches. He persuasively argues the Negro Leagues had a winning record against Major League competition.
Rich Puerzer chooses to conduct a single-season (1925) comparison, while Scott Simkus examines the record of the Homestead Grays versus minor league teams. These chapters narrow the focus but help the reader see the overall argument, using the individual player level to show that Negro Leagues players’ talent varied as much as it did for those in the Majors. Homestead’s easy victories over lower minor league teams proves the Grays’ talent was worthy of Major League competition. Between 1920-1948 the Grays had a 62-12 record against the lower minors and a 104-40 record against Organized Baseball (p. 54). The numbers seem to speak for themselves.
Michael Haupert moves in a different direction as he examines salary differentials. His purpose is to show how much money was lost to Negro League players compared to players of similar standing in the Majors. Jeffrey Williams takes another look at the interracial competitions from 1885-1948 and determines that Negro Leagues clubs tallied a 325-314 record (p. 94). Ted Knorr then presents a top ten list for why the Negro Leagues are Major Leagues. He begins with the simple admonition to do the right thing and then walks through a series of different statistical comparisons, ending with team records.
After presenting these arguments for equality, the second section focuses on equity, beginning with art historian James Brunson looking at the foundations laid in the 19th century, from 1867-1890. Brunson focuses on hotel waiters, barbers, and journalists, especially in Saratoga Springs, NY and other resort spots, to show how their work laid the foundations for the professional players of the 1920s and beyond. Tony Kissel follows Brunson’s foundation by examining the play of the Cuban Giants, the first black team to defeat a Major League team. Over a ten-year time period (1885-1895), Kissel shows the Cuban Giants compiled a 239-184 record versus Organized Baseball (p. 146).
Robert Cottrell and Peter Gorton examine the careers of two legendary names, Rube Foster and John Donaldson. Cottrell gives an extensive biography of Foster to argue for his importance in establishing the Negro Leagues and their quality of play and structure. Gorton simply argues that Donaldson proved over and over again that he could best any Major Leaguer and was simply denied that opportunity because of the color of his skin. Donaldson excelled regardless of who the competition happened to be on any given day.
Historian Thomas Aiello takes an interesting look at the struggles of black baseball in Atlanta in the 1930s as a way to foresee the similar struggles of Major League baseball in the city in the 1970s. Aiello argues that not all Major League teams were good and, just like Negro Leagues teams, struggled to survive. Historian Michael Lomax takes a new look at Jackie Robinson’s season with the Montreal Royals in 1946, not to rehash what everyone already knows but to make the argument that what Organized Baseball learned that season paved the way for integration. Phil Lowry follows Lomax’s look at Robinson’s breakthrough with a discussion of the consequences of not seeing the Negro Leagues as Major Leagues. Lowry emphasizes the continued presence of “separate but equal,” even though, after Boston added Pumpsie Green to their roster, all Major League teams were technically integrated. The reality, of course, was much different. Josh Howard contributes the final essay, arguing that the way the Negro Leagues have been remembered has continued to place them in a lesser position to the Majors. As he writes, there have been two basic narratives: “overcoming” and “what-if”. (p. 199). This means never just being celebrated for their great play.
Each of these essays can stand alone but their strength comes in the cumulative nature of their argument. By the end of the book you are armed with all kinds of numbers and stories to counter anyone’s claims that the Negro Leagues do not deserve to be called Major League. If you are still not convinced, the book concludes with six appendices providing all the team records, dates, scores of games, and individual player stats. The information contained here and, in the notes and bibliography, make the book a must have for baseball historians and aficionados.
Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University at Stark. Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues.