MLB’s recognition of black leagues should spark excitement

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Larry Lester, the Negro Leagues historian who spent five decades in libraries combing old newspaper clippings, seemed a little shocked as he became a celebrity overnight.
“The phone has been ringing since the decision was announced,” Lester said from his home in Kansas City.

While no active players or current franchisees were involved, Major League Baseball’s decision on Wednesday was heavily loaded with significance: MLB granted full recognition to seven Black Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. At l In the future, these leagues will be recognized as official majors. leagues, with their records and statistics counted in the baseball record books.

“Anyone who loves baseball has long known that the Negro Leagues have produced many of the best players, innovations and triumphs in our game against a backdrop of injustice,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the Negro league players in their place: as the major leagues as part of the official historic record.

Perhaps others have lent stronger voices to this just cause, but no one has contributed more than Lester, an honored member of the Society of American Baseball Research. In fact, his research began before the founding of SABR, those people who delve deeper into gaming history on every level.

Lester called the announcement from the commissioner’s office “bittersweet.”

“I never thought it would happen, but it does,” he said. “I am extremely happy. It’s been a long journey and if it never happened I would always be happy with the work and research I did.

If the wait makes the payoff more attractive, then neither of us is likely to experience Lester’s satisfaction with the decision. For many, and probably most, 2020 was a year we could live without, a year torn by tragedy. It was, however, the year that the push for recognition for Negro League Baseball gained critical mass.

“It was a matter of timing. The Black Lives Matter movement taken into account, without a doubt. There is a different social consciousness and greater awareness across the country and more and more people have started to watch the Negro leagues. And they would come back thinking, “Maybe black baseball matters too. ”

Lester believes the decision should be good news for MLB and not just good news – that is, this embrace of history and diversity should have a positive effect on the game, not just generate a day of positive publicity.

“It should help Major League Baseball recruit black fans,” he said. “They can start seriously including a history of black baseball and some of these new statistical leaders, whoever they are, in the minds of the fans. This should generate more excitement. The decision to give full recognition to the Black Leagues benefits MLB as much as it benefits black baseball history.

That said, Lester said he was ready for a backlash and had already encountered some resistance. The meanest things he could easily dismiss and laugh at.

“People have their agendas,” he says. “I take a step back and it was not unexpected. There are people who say that they are baseball authorities who don’t want black leagues included because then they have to study black leagues… or people who collect Hall of Famers autographs but with Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame, their collections become incomplete. I know a trivia champion [with SABR]. He hates it because he’s going to lose to me next year when they ask me what was the only opening day, no hitters in baseball history. He only knows Bob Feller. Right? I know Bob Feller and Leon Day [with the Newark Eagles] in 1946. »

However, he acknowledges that other criticism will not only be more difficult to accept, but also intended to discredit the position of the Negro Leagues as a major league. Opponents will claim that the records of Negro League players remain incomplete and unreliable and will look for holes and errors in statistical history.

“Some people are worried that the black leagues will take control of the record books based on our research, but that’s just not true,” he said. “They will say the numbers and records are unreliable, but going back to the 1920s we found 99% of [the box scores of] Negro League games. It fell a bit during the Depression with struggling black newspapers, but by the late 1930s all the games were there again.

“We’re not trying to beautify records and we’re not trying to do it. More importantly, we won’t say Josh Gibson hit 800 home runs when he had never played in 803 games. We don’t need this embellishment that’s happened. This type of hype is unnecessary to show its greatness, statistically speaking. There is fear among the criticisms that we will try to make [Gibson] the all-time career leader when it isn’t.

Lester wasn’t quite achieving a winning lap on Wednesday. “I can’t do cartwheels anymore,” he says. He also didn’t view MLB’s recognition of black baseball history as an endpoint to his work. In fact, he assumes that the spotlight on the Negro League will raise the stakes in his research.

“I need to be punctual [about delivery of research] and more specific in the documentation, ”he said. “If I make a mistake, the critics will try to discredit everything. I have to be prepared to stand up for whatever I put in there because the naysayers are out there looking for any mistakes they can find. It’s just how the company works.

At this point, however, Lester’s life’s work took a significant turn. He no longer has to advocate for the black leagues as a major league. On the contrary, he is able to defend the historic MLB verdict and he seems eager to rise to the challenge.

“Bring it,” Lester said. “I’m ready for this. I am very competitive. I welcome the opponents. I welcome the critics. Anyone who wants to debate me on whether the Negro Leagues are a major entity, I welcome your emails and phone calls. This is what I have wanted for 50 years … an equal chance to present my case.

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