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Negro Leagues are elevated to major league status. What does it mean for baseball?

From 1920 to 1948, Black baseball players barred from the Major Leagues could only play in what were called Negro Leagues. As a result many of their accomplishments have been forgotten. But on Wednesday, Commissioner Rob Manfred said Major League Baseball was elevating seven Negro Leagues to major league status. John Yang spoke to ESPN's Howard Bryant to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Encyclopedic knowledge of records and stats is the true sign of a die-hard baseball fan.

    As John Yang reports, Major League Baseball today announced what it calls a long overdue rewrite of its record books. But that decision raises questions for some fans and die-hards.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, from 1920 to 1948, Black players, barred from the Major Leagues, could only play in what were called the Negro Leagues, and, as a result, many of their accomplishments have been forgotten.

    Today, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said the MLB was elevating the seven Negro Leagues to Major League status. That's going to add their 3,400 players' names and their statistics to the official record books.

    Howard Bryant is a senior writer and commentator for ESPN. He's written several books on sports, race and baseball. His latest is "Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field."

    Mr. Bryant, thanks for joining us.

    From your perspective, what's the significance of what commissioner Manfred announced today?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Notes from an Uneven Playing Field": Well, I think the significance is clearly an attempt at redress, especially with the tumultuous year that we have had in the country.

    I think that the significance also is the legitimacy of the league, at least in the eyes of Major League Baseball. I'm very troubled by it, if I'm being completely candid. I don't think it's the right move for Major League Baseball, because of the statistics and such.

    But I do understand that the year that we're in, Major League Baseball has tried to deal with this and wrestle with the idea of what to do with the statistics and what to do with the careers of the people that they essentially destroyed in the early part of the 20th century.

  • John Yang:

    What are your reservations?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, my reservations are the statistics.

    I think, if there's one thing we know about baseball, is the numbers are always sacred. And I don't think that you can — I don't you can retrofit this.

    The — you're not looking at a mirror, John. You're not looking at, well, OK, from 1920 to 1948, there was the American League and the National League on the white side and then there was the Negro Leagues on the other side.

    That's not what took place. What segregation did to Black players is, it destroyed them. It created a permanent inferiority that you cannot retrofit 100 years later. You had inferior conditions. You had tattered record books. You don't know how many games guys played.

    When Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, he hated the Negro Leagues for two reasons. One of them was, it offended his sensibilities on fairness. But the other reason was because the games were so scattershot, you didn't know what game was a barnstorming game, you didn't know what was an exhibition, you didn't know what games were official.

    He couldn't calculate his batting average. So, I think that, while well-intentioned, you cannot retrofit everything. I think that baseball has to carry this history. I think a smarter move would have been for them to acknowledge that the players were Major League level and to classify them as Major League level, but you have to leave the record books alone.

    That got destroyed by segregation. That got destroyed by your racism during those years, and you can't fix that part.

  • John Yang:

    But, I mean, is this an opportunity to sort of to take — to reassess the accomplishments that these players had. You say that they're — and what they contributed to the game?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, you can do that and not mess with the record book. You can absolutely — the reason why the Negro Leagues are so steeped in legend is because nobody knows what happened because of the record — the lack of the record books, the lack of the great record-keeping that you had on the white side of the sport.

    People talk about Josh Gibson maybe having hit 800 home runs in the Negro Leagues. That is part of legend. The official Negro League record book shows that Josh Gibson hit 113 home runs. So, what is fair?

    I think that, when you're doing this, you're trying to fix something that history is telling you, you cannot fix. And I think that there are plenty of ways for baseball to celebrate Negro Leaguers. I think there are plenty of ways for Major League Baseball to acknowledge Negro Leaguers.

    And especially elevating their status, one of the things that baseball could do is certainly elevate their pensions, but all the players are dead. So, I'm starting to wonder how much of this is performative and how much of it is actually down the road a little bit more destructive.

    One of the things that we think about when you think about records is, well, OK, the Jackie Robinson of the worlds, but before Jackie Robinson, never got to play against the white players. But we already have a built-in asterisk, which is 1947.

    You know that those players that came before, the Josh Gibsons and the Cool Papa Bells, we know we didn't — that you didn't play — that those guys didn't play against the Ruths and the Gehrigs because we know that 1947 is that magic number.

    But messing with these numbers now, it looks very distorted. And it looks like good intentions, but poor execution to me.

  • John Yang:

    You know, Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro League's Baseball Museum said, while he welcomed this, he said that the Negro League players — quote — "never looked to Major League Baseball to validate them."

    I mean, who do you think this is being done for? Who do you think Manfred is doing this for?

  • Howard Bryant:

    I think they're doing it to make themselves feel better. And I think this is a — it's an approach, an attempt to try and rectify a time period that cannot be rectified.

    I think that we're not very good at telling the truth. I don't think you can fix this. The truth of the matter is, is that those Black players, those generation of Black players were destroyed by segregation.

    And I think the smarter move is to acknowledge that, instead of trying to do some 100-year retrofit that cannot be done. And when you look at the numbers — so, are we really going to say now that some of these other great players in the Major Leagues, that they start to fall down further on the record books for themselves because we're adding — we're adding games in that never counted for 100 years?

    It's just — I don't think that this satisfies the Black players, but I think it makes people feel good about a period that nobody feels good about.

  • John Yang:

    Howard Bryant of ESPN, thank you very much.

  • Howard Bryant:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot to think about there.

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