“They knew that their league was as good as anybody’s league,” he added.
Numerous leagues made up of Black players formed as early as the late 19th century as a result of the color line observed by the American and National leagues. The quality and organization of the leagues varied wildly, but Major League Baseball determined that from 1920 to 1948 seven distinct organizations met the standards of major leagues.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Mays said on Wednesday in an interview with John Shea, his collaborator on a memoir, “24,” released this May. “It recognizes guys who played way back. I’m talking a lot of good ballplayers.”
The group of seven leagues has already produced 35 Hall of Famers, including recognizable major league stars like Mays, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson, as well as figures who made their names entirely in the Negro leagues, like Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston. The leagues were dominated by champions like the Chicago American Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs.
Negro league play continued during the early years of the integrated majors, but John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, said the landscape changed so profoundly after 1948 — the year of the last Negro World Series — that Major League Baseball used that season as the cutoff.
Thorn attributed the changes to a bleeding of talent to the American and National leagues, and the dissolution of the second Negro National League. Recognizable stars like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks came to the Negro leagues after 1948, and some leagues played as late as 1960. But extending the window to include them was not appropriate, he said.
“We’re trying not to honor individual players but the league experience, and the Black experience in baseball and America,” Thorn said.
The greatest challenge in incorporating Negro league statistics into the official record is the scattered nature of the various leagues, which led to somewhat inconsistent record-keeping. The statistics are complicated by barnstorming exhibitions — some against players from National and American league teams — and other competitions that do not show up in the numbers soon to be added to the official record.