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Introducing: The Negro Leagues Database

Our appreciation of baseball history is inextricably linked to statistics. While some may attempt to deny the centrality of the quantifiable in baseball, these people would be lying if they said that they don’t remember players like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron for their respective statistical achievements. Indeed, the fundamental reason we remember players like Cy Young and forget players like Cy Morgan is the former’s statistical achievements and the latter’s lack thereof. True, some statistics are more useful than others for discerning how productive a player truly is, but generally speaking, “traditional statistics” do a decent job of highlighting the players that are worth remembering. And the great thing is that all of this information is only a quick internet search away.

Unfortunately, though, not all professional baseball players throughout history have the benefit of a lasting, easily accessible record of their on-field accomplishments. In particular, I am speaking of the Negro Leagues. We know they were great assemblages of talent, and to some, the exclusion of black players from the Major Leagues acted as a sort of “performance enhancing drug” to the game’s “Great White Legends.” But the woefully inadequate statistical record of Negro League play means that for the last century or so, we have been deprived of a richer understanding of it and the history of baseball in general. Although we may each know at most a handful of Negro Leaguers, for the most part we don’t really know what they did (let alone what they did relative to their contemporaries).

I am happy to say that someone is finally here to fill this historical lacuna. Today, the fine folks at Seamheads.com have launched their Negro Leagues Database, which begins the arduous task of compiling the long-lost statistical records and biographical information of Negro Leaguers — rescuing them from the dustbin of history to which they have hitherto been relegated.

Take it away Gary Ashwill:

Among the injustices visited upon the ballplayers of the Negro leagues, the lack of a statistical record of their accomplishments might not leap out as one of the worst; but it has proved one of the most lasting. The Negro National League was founded in 1920; it has taken 91 years to find out for sure that Cristóbal Torriente was the batting champion, that Sam Crawford struck out the most batters, that Dave Brown compiled the best ERA, Pete Hill collected the most walks, and Oscar Charleston garnered the most win shares.

Many thanks and much credit should go to Mike Lynch, Kevin Johnson, and Dan Hirsch for putting this website together. I compiled all the statistics for the seasons we’re starting with, and yet I find myself constantly surprised and amazed at what Dan and Kevin’s work reveals. Even if you’re a Negro league aficionado, you’ll find something new here, from unknown great teams to unknown good pitchers to unexpectedly bad hitters.

Here at the beginning of our project, we’re presenting four seasons of pre-Negro league play, 1916 to 1919, and the first three seasons of Rube Foster’s Negro National League, 1920 to 1922. You’ll see the likes of Oscar Charleston and Cristóbal Torriente at their very best, as well as two-way star Bullet Rogan. We’ve also got nine seasons of the Cuban Winter League, from a slightly earlier era (1905 to 1913). Cuban pro ball was racially integrated, and featured some of the very best African American ballplayers of the time, like Cyclone Joe Williams, John Henry Lloyd, and Pete Hill. So these numbers give us a rare glimpse of these players in their prime.

Something that may also be of interest to the NotGraph/Fangraphs crowd: the database isn’t restricted to traditional stats. Among the advanced stats included are WAR, win shares, and wOBA.

As Ashwill notes, it is still a work in progress. I, for one, look forward to keeping up as our knowledge of our national pastime and its history continues to grow along with the database.