In both talent and in some cases box office draw, the Negro Leagues were equal to the white major leagues, but they were never treated as such. This was true after MLB siphoned the talent from the Negro Leagues leaving the latter to crumble and have its stories drift from memory. These stories were not wholly forgotten, however, thanks to the work of various historians, fans, former ballplayers, etc.
This is not a complete or exhaustive list of all the organizations and individuals who have kept the Negro Leagues alive, but it is easy to contribute to the four following organizations whether financially or materially. Each have done important work in preserving the history of the Negro Leagues and baseball as a whole is better because of them.
Though some stars of the Negro Leagues achieved celebrity status in their own time and continue to be household names, many Negro Leaguers were forgotten and were buried in unmarked graves. Olivia Taylor, for instance, the owner of the Indianapolis ABCs and the first woman to own a professional baseball team laid in anonymity from the time of her death in 1935 to 2013. Taylor was given a headstone by the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, an organization dedicated to honoring ballplayers who were ignobly buried.
Initiated by Jeremy Krock’s mission to place a grave marker on Jimmie Crutchfield’s resting place, the NLBGMP has provided headstones for 40 Negro Leagues players, coaches, executives, umpires, and sportswriters. There are several more who still lay in unmarked graves and the NLBGMP intends to provide markers for them as well. This list includes the great Dizzy Dismukes.
Earmarked donations to the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project can be made through SABR here.
Often, when Negro Leagues statistics are brought up, there’s a caveat included that goes along the lines of: “Negro Leagues statistics are murky at best.” This simply isn’t true. The Negro Leagues statistical record isn’t as complete as the record of the white major leagues of the time. That’s because the Negro Leagues had a looser structure and fewer financial resources both in the press covering them and the leagues themselves. In addition, later records like the MacMillan baseball encyclopedia declined to include Negro Leagues numbers.
The stats aren’t gone, though, and that’s thanks to the team at the Seamheads Negro League Database who have spent decades unearthing box scores and reconstructing the numerical picture of the Negro Leagues. Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Kansas City Call included detailed box scores and those have allowed for full schedules to be rebuilt.
Seamheads hasn’t stopped at standard “back-of-the-card” stats either. They’ve determined park effects for the various Negro Leagues fields, so adjusted metrics like OPS+ can be calculated. That’s how we know that in 1937, Josh Gibson was 172 percent better than his peers. Defensive metrics have also been constructed, so we know that Oscar Charleston was worth 17.3 runs as a center fielder in 1920.
The Seamheads database is constantly growing as new box scores are found, so like WAR (which is also included at Seamheads), these numbers will evolve as more information is discovered.
Starting as a one-room office in 1990, and growing into a center that has welcomed more than two million visitors, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is the world’s only museum dedicated entirely to Black baseball. Founded by Buck O’Neil and Frank White who originally took turns paying the rent on that one-room office, the museum now sits in Kansas City’s 18th and Vine district, a mere two blocks from the YMCA where Rube Foster founded the Negro National League in 1920.
A highlight of the museum is the Field of Legends where visitors can among twelve life-sized bronze statues of Negro Leagues stars like Martín Dihigo, Ray Dandridge, and Cool Papa Bell.
In addition to the brick and mortar location in Kansas City, the NLBM also maintains an eMuseum filled with player biographies, photos, and reference materials. It even includes a host of lesson plans for grades 9-12 that teachers can implement in the classroom, which means that even in times when non-essential travel is unsafe, the NLBM continues to spread the history of the Negro Leagues.
Donations to the Negro League Baseball Museum can be made here.
Though not strictly devoted to the Negro Leagues, the SABR BioProject is a wealth of freely available information on many of the greatest stars from pre-integration. The BioProject was an indispensable resource for me over the course of this month, and no matter what entry I read, I come across something endlessly fascinating.
The BioProject is ever-expanding both in the number of players given biographies and the range of topics it covers. The team ownership histories project is currently in progress and includes teams such as the Hillsdale Daisies. Meanwhile, in the games project, one can read about the myriad no-hitters thrown in the Negro Leagues including Claude Grier’s no-hitter in the 1926 Eastern Colored League championship.
The BioProject also has room to grow and some players are conspicuously absent. Julián Castillo, one of the greatest hitters who played before the founding of the Negro National League, lacks a biography. Heavy Johnson, who posted a 1.011 OPS in 11 Negro League seasons, also lacks a biography. SABR members are welcome to contribute to the BioProject, so if you have a penchant for historical research, there are endless stories yet to tell of the Negro Leagues. It’s incumbent on all of us to keep telling them.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.