Negro League Baseball is More than the Negro Leagues
Retrosheet's focus, throughout its history has been on "major league games". It is important, then, to try to understand what constitutes a "major-league game" with respect to Negro League baseball.
The first Negro League, the Negro National League, began play in 1920 as a collection of eight mostly Western teams (note: "Western" in 1920s baseball basically meant "not on the East Coast"). A second Negro League, the Eastern Colored League, began play in 1923 and, as the name of the league suggests, featured teams who were mostly headquartered on the East Coast. In both cases, the teams who initially formed these leagues were already in existence and had already been playing each other for several years prior to the formation of these leagues. In addition, some teams spent some time within leagues but spent other seasons outside of any league structure. It was probably not until the mid-to-late 1940s that Negro League baseball was fully organized into a system akin to the white game where all of the "major league" teams of the day were organized within the top Negro Leagues of the day (the Negro National and Negro American Leagues).
The term "Negro League baseball" here is intended to encompass all teams of major-league quality during this time period regardless of formal league afficilations. This runs the risk of creating a circular definition but, in effect, a game was a "major-league game" if the participants in the game were major-league players. And a player was a major-league player if he played primarily for "major-league" teams.
The Negro National League ceased operations after the 1948 season. The Negro American League continued on - and, in fact, expanded in 1949 to absorb some former NNL teams - through 1960, but the number of teams in the NAL shrank over time and the quality of play worsened as more and more black players were integrated into the American and National Leagues (as well as various minor leagues). At some point in that process, the teams within the Negro American League ceased to be major-league teams as the term is generally understood.
For Retrosheet's purposes, the last season for which Negro League teams are treated as "major-league" teams in 1948. The dissolution of the Negro National League serves as a useful marker here. This is consistent with MLB's recent declaration that the "Negro Leagues" were "major leagues" between 1920 and 1948 and was the consensus position of Negro League experts within a recent ad hoc committee organized by SABR to evaluate this issue (note: two members of Retrosheet's board, Tom Thress and Trent McCotter, served on that committee). There was a clear shift in focus between about 1946 and 1948 by the African-American press away from the Negro Leagues and toward the newly integrated American and National Leagues. Hence, the choice of 1948 as the last year in which the Negro Leagues were major leagues is, in part, a practical decision based on the reality of available newspaper coverage. That said, the decision of exactly when the Negro American League ceased being a major league is a subjective one and Retrosheet's decision here is not intended to end the debate.
Negro League Baseball Games Released to Date
For its preliminary releases of Negro League baseball games, Retrosheet has chosen three sets of games: All-Star games, Championship series, and interracial games. All-star games, by their nature, include the best players. Championship series, by definition, involve the best teams. And interracial games between white major leaguers and their Negro League counterparts offer the most direct way of evaluating the quality of Negro League baseball players vis-a-vis players from the American and National Leagues.
In addition to the East-West Classic, a North-South Classic was played for several years in the late 1930s and early 1940s, mostly in New Orleans. Newspaper coverage of these games has been more elusive so far, but Retrosheet has been able to find box scores for eight North-South All-Star games.
Finally, All-Star teams from the Negro National League and the then-newly formed Negro American League barnstormed against each other following the 1937 and 1938 seasons. Retrosheet has thus far found box scores for six such games.
Box scores and play-by-play accounts for Negro League All-Star games can be found here.
With its most recent release, Retrosheet has expanded its coverage of Negro League playoff games to include all known playoff series which took place within formal Negro Leagues.
Outside of the formal league structure, teams would frequently meet in series in order to stake more informal claims as the "champions of Colored baseball" and the like. Retrosheet has box scores and (limited) play-by-play for three seasons in which such series took place: a 1913 series between the Chicago American Giants and the New York Lincoln Giants; a 1921 series between the NNL Champion Chicago American Giants and the independent Hilldale Club of Darby, Pennsylvania; and several series in 1930 between the top two NNL teams of that season, the Detroit Stars and St. Louis Stars, and the top two independent teams of the east, the Homestead Grays and New York Lincoln Giants.
Box scores and play-by-play accounts for all of these Negro League championship series can be found here.
There are 29 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who were inducted based primarily on their playing careers within Negro League baseball. The All-Star and championship games released so far by Retrosheet include games played by 28 of these 29 Hall of Famers. The exception is Frank Grant, whose career ended in the first decade of the 20th century (and we certainly hope to get to Grant some day). There is also a token appearance by Negro Leagues founder Rube Foster who is listed by the Hall of Fame as an "executive/pioneer" but who was also one of the star pitchers of the early 20th century. Foster ended the 1913 series by popping out to Grant "Home Run" Johnson as a pinch hitter in his only appearance of that series.
The recent book, The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues: Historians Reappraise Black Baseball (McFarland, 2019), compiled a set of more than 600 games played between teams consisting primarily of white major-leaguers and teams of black players. The book's editor, Todd Peterson, graciously provided copies of the box scores, game stories, and, in a few cases, play-by-play accounts of these games.
Retrosheet has begun to work through these games to create box score files (and event files where possible) using Retrosheet's traditional approach of beginning with the most recent data (1948 in this case) and working back through time. This work is ongoing. A summary of games by season are available at the links below.
Box scores (and a few play-by-play accounts) for interracial series can be found here.
Quality of Negro League Data
Broadly speaking, the quality of baseball data gets somewhat worse and somewhat more variable the farther back in time one goes. This is true of statistics for both white and black baseball but is perhaps somewhat worse for Negro League baseball.
The largest difference between pre-integration white and black baseball is probably the lack of official daily statistics for Negro League baseball, even within organized Negro Leagues. Because of this, at least for now, we are limited to newspaper box scores and game accounts for Negro League games. The quality of newspaper box scores varies considerably as some newspapers provided much more detailed box scores (and game stories) than others.
As a general rule, Retrosheet has tried to include as much information as possible in the game accounts presented here while trying to be as clear as possible about what information may be missing. For example, batter strikeouts are missing from most newspaper box score accounts. In such cases, the column for batter strikeouts is left blank in the box scores shown on our website. In some cases, however, some information may be missing from box scores that is deemed to be "essential" data. For example, box scores from the Los Angeles Times for several interracial games in the late 1940s do not credit individual players with runs scored. Where possible, such information has been pulled from accompanying game stories and, where this information is missing, Retrosheet has made its best guesses. A more common piece of missing information in Negro League box scores is at bats. Some box scores listed only runs scored and hits (and usually putouts and assists). In these cases, at bats by batter have been estimated to the best of Retrosheet's abilities. A few other cases of this sort involve pitching credits when teams may have used multiple pitchers within the same game. Comments explaining precisely what information Retrosheet may have had to estimate are included on all relevant pages showing box scores as well as within the files provided for download.
About half of the play-by-play accounts provided here (98 of 209) are taken from newspaper accounts which explicitly detailed the play-by-play of these games. We have also found 8 scorecards for Negro League games. In the remaining (103) cases, the play-by-play accounts provided here have been deduced from more general game stories (and box scores). Cases where play-by-play data have been deduced in this way are identified by comments on the website and within the files provided for download. Retrosheet has used this technique of "deducing" games to fill in gaps in its coverage of the American and National Leagues for several years now. In many cases, newspaper game stories are sufficiently detailed to generate unique, or very nearly unique, game accounts that, in the judgment of Retrosheet, rise to the level of "event files". For its earliest releases of Negro League games, Retrosheet has mostly deduced games for which game stories were sufficiently detailed that the resulting deduced accounts are of "event file" quality. Even in such cases, however, these games may include some uncertainties. Retrosheet has tried to be as explicit as possible in identifying potential uncertainties within its game files.
Having said all of this, it is important not to be overly dismissive of the data for Negro League baseball (as well as pre-integration white baseball). Retrosheet, and the Negro League researchers who came before us, has worked to try to ensure that the data provided here are as accurate and detailed as possible. We hope that the quality and accuracy of the data will only improve over time as new data sources continue to be discovered.
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Page Updated: 5/24/2021
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