By Scott Myers
With the recent announcement (December 16, 2020) by MLB that it will now recognize the Negro Leagues for the period of 1920-1948 as ‘Major League’, it is apparent that MLB should be thoroughly embarrassed for taking so long to do so. Thousands of MLB careers were denied to worthy African American and Latino players. Nevertheless, it is a significant step forward spurred on by the inspiration and incredibly hard work of many Negro League advocates.
A question that comes to mind is: Have players of the Negro Leagues (1920-1948) gotten their fair share of Baseball Hall of Fame (BHOF) inductions? This hard to answer because these players were prohibited from playing in MLB, so we can’t do apples to apples comparisons for this era. To have a shot at answering this question we need to look at not only the 1920-1948 time period but what happened in MLB before and after these years.
In the remainder of this essay, I will be analyzing and summarizing lots of numbers to answer the question that has just been raised. This will necessitate examining some fairly detailed demographic data of MLB. My goal is to include sufficient documentation to substantiate my conclusion and sufficient narrative so that readers’ eyes do not glaze over. To use the GPS trip analogy, let me list the steps we will be going through before we begin the actual ‘trip’.
- Analyze MLB for the years 1871-1919 before the ascendancy of the Negro Major Leagues
- Analyze both MLB and the Negro Major Leagues for the years 1920-1948
- Analyze MLB post-Negro Major Leagues during which time MLB became fully integrated (1949-1998)
- State conclusion of analysis
And now, let’s begin the trip…
Step 1: 1871-1919
Let’s start with a relatively easy question: Have Black baseball players of the earliest years of MLB (1871-1919) gotten their fair share of BHOF inductions? Here are the summary numbers for this era that we need to answer this question:
· Number of MLB players that appeared in games = 4,369 (see att1)
- Number of these MLB players in BHOF = 47 (see att2)
- % of these MLB players in BHOF =47/4,369 = 1.08%
- Number of Black players = 2 (brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker)
- Number of Latino players = 9
- Number of Native American players = 19
- Number of Black BHOF players = 1 (Frank Grant who did not play in the MLB)
· Total number of BHOF players who finished their careers during 1871-1919 = 47 + 1 =48
- % of these non-Black players in BHOF = 47/48 = 97.9%
- % of these Black players in BHOF = 1/48 = 2.1%
The answer to the question “Have Black baseball players of the 1871-1919 era gotten their fair share of BHOF inductions?” is a resounding NO! Obviously, it is impossible to achieve a fair share when denied participation in the game, as the numbers and graph above clearly show.
Step 2: 1920-1948
Now let’s focus on that period when the Negro Leagues gained critical mass and thrived. The relevant summary numbers are:
· Number of MLB players that appeared in games = 3,795 (see att3)
- Number of these MLB players in BHOF = 94 (see att4)
- % of these MLB players in BHOF =94/3,795 = 2.48%
- Number of white players = 3,728
- % of white players in BHOF =94/3,728 = 2.52%
- Number of Black players = 0
- Number of Latino players = 41
- % of Latino players = 41/3795 = 1.1%
- Number of Native American players = 26
- % of Native American players = 26/3795 = 0.7%
· Number of Negro Major Leagues’ players that appeared in games is approximately 3,400
- Number of these Negro League players in BHOF = 28 + 4 = 32 (see att5)
- The ‘+4’ includes Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, and Monte Irvin, all of whom had MLB careers of eight years or more
- % of these Negro Major League players in BHOF = 32/3400 = 0.94%
· Total number of players in BHOF who finished their careers during 1920-1948 = 94 +32 =126
- % of these that are non-Black players in BHOF = 94/126 = 74.6%
- % of these that are Black players in BHOF = 32/126 = 25.4
94 of 3,728 white MLB players (2.52%) were voted into the BHOF during the 1920-1948 time-period and 32 of 3,400 Negro Major Leagues’ players (0.94%) have gained access. White MLB players are represented in the BHOF by a rate of 2.7 times (2.52% vs 0.94%) the rate of the Negro Leagues’ players for this era. Are Negro Major Leagues’ players of the 1920-1948 era fairly represented in the BHOF? Assuming that the caliber of play in the MLB and Negro Leagues were equivalent, evidence to this point has the answer looking like a ‘no’, that Negro Leagues’ players are under-represented. But remember, the MLB and Negro Leagues’ did not compete against each other except for exhibition games. So, we must further investigate by looking at the 1949-1998 years, when MLB became integrated, which will lead us further down the road as we ultimately answer this question. For this era, we will have a ‘level playing field’ to examine.
Step 3: Post 1948 years (1949-1998)
We are examining the 1949-1998 years specifically for several reasons:
- Racial integration of MLB had just started in 1947. It should be noted that it did not happen overnight. Jackie Robinson became the first Black player of the MLB modern era on April 15, 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Twelve years later (July 21, 1959) the last of the existing 16 MLB teams to integrate, the Boston Red Sox, debuted Pumpsie Green.
- The demise of Negro Leagues happened concurrently with the MLB introducing racial integration.
- 1998 is the latest debut season for any player currently in the BHOF (Roy Halladay).
- ‘discriminated against’ is a term I use below to include any player who would have been prohibited from playing major league baseball before 1947. Players included in this category are African American and Latino players.
- ‘non-discriminated against’ is a term to include any player who would not have been prohibited from playing major league baseball before 1947. Players included in this category are white.
It is worthy of note, that during the 1920-1948 period, when there were no African American players in MLB, Latino representation was very sparse:
- Cuba: 34 players
- Mexico: 3 players
- Puerto Rico: 2 players
- Venezuela: 2 players
Total Latino: 41 players
% of Latino MLB players = 41/3,795 = 1.1%
As with the 9 Cuban players of the 1871-1919 era, all of these players were ‘light-skinned’.
Also, during the 1920-1948 period 26 Native Americans played in MLB.
The graph below clearly shows that the acceptance of Black players in the MLB brought with it much greater acceptance of Latino players during the 1949-1998 time-period, no matter what their skin color. This is confirmed by the fact that the percent of Latino players in MLB was 11.6% (compared to 1.1% for 1920-1948) while the African American was 14.3% for the same span of years.
A watershed moment regarding Latino players occurred in 1954 when Branch Rickey (who had signed Jackie Robinson) hit the jackpot again with the signing of Roberto Clemente, born in Puerto Rico, to a minor league contract. Unfortunately for Rickey and the Dodgers, he was signed as an unprotected ‘bonus baby’ and the Pittsburgh Pirates soon drafted him to embark on his BHOF career. Imagine if Clemente had stayed with the Dodgers, who were the dominant National League team during the 1950’s and 1960’s, how much more success the team might have achieved.
For the years 1999-2016 the Latino and African American shares are 26.9% and 9.0% respectively. Contributing to the dramatic rise of Latino players in MLB is the fact that developing these players is cheaper than to develop Black and white players in the United States.
Here are the relevant summary numbers for the years 1949-1998:
· Number of MLB players that debuted (1949-1998) = 6,856 (see att6)
- Number of these players in BHOF = 91
- Number of first ballot BHOFers = 49
- Average WAR for these players = 72.616
- % these MLB players in BHOF = 91/6,856 = 1.33%
· Number of ‘non-discriminated against’ players (1949-1998) = 74.04% X 6,856 = 5,076 players (see att7)
- Number of these players in BHOF = 53
- Number of first ballot BHOFers = 24
- Average WAR for these players = 72.268
- % these MLB players in BHOF = 53/5,080 = 1.04%
· Number of ‘discriminated against’ players (1949-1998) = [14.31% African American +11.59% Latino] X 6,856) = 1776 players (see att7)
- Number of these players in BHOF = 38
- Number of first ballot BHOFers = 24
- Average WAR for these players = 73.103
- % of these players in BHOF = 38/1,776 = 2.14%
· Total number of players in BHOF who started their careers after 1948 = 91 (see att8)
- % of these ‘non-discriminated against’ players in BHOF = 55/91 = 60.4%
- % of these ‘discriminated against’ players in BHOF = 36/91 = 39.6%
We can clearly see that for the 1949-1998 time-period, the ‘discriminated against’ class of players have twice the likelihood (2.14%) of getting voted into the HOF as do the ‘non-discriminated’ (1.04%). Using the fairly objective metric of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), we see that the ‘discriminated against’ have a slightly higher average WAR of 73.103 vs 72.268 for the ‘non-discriminated’.
If we drill a little deeper and look at % of first ballot BHOFers (the elite of the elite), we see that ‘discriminated against’ are also more likely to be in this category (63.2% vs 45.3%). So, the evidence is strong that the ‘discriminated against’ players more than hold their own, performance wise, both objectively (WAR), and subjectively (% admitted to BHOF and % first ballot) against the ‘non-discriminated’.
Step 4: Conclusion
Revisiting the 1920-1948 era above shows that 94 of 3,754 white MLB players (2.52%) were voted into the BHOF and 32 of 3,400 Negro Major Leagues’ players (0.94%) have gained access.
Are Negro Major Leagues’ players of the 1920-1948 era fairly represented in the BHOF? Consider that, since the integration of MLB, ‘discriminated against’ players have been twice as likely as ‘non-discriminated’ players to gain access to the BHOF (2.14% vs 1.04%). During the 1949-1998 period of MLB integration a black player has been twice as likely to enter the BHOF as a white player, yet during the segregation period of 1920-1948 a white player was voted into the BHOF at 2.7 times the frequency of a Black player. The overall talent level of the African American/Latino players has shown to be strong since MLB has integrated. There is no reason to believe it wasn’t as strong before integration. Thus, I would conclude that Negro Major Leagues’ players are under-represented in the BHOF. Which begs the larger question of how many thousands of ‘discriminated against’ players were denied the opportunity to have had significant MLB careers prior to 1947?
Scott Myers, born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, currently resides in Lutz, FL, and is retired from a 44-year career where he held various engineering and management positions at ATT, Informix, EMC, and Symantec, centering around IT hardware and software products. He holds a BS in Industrial Engineering from Lehigh University and an MS in Computer Science from Kansas State University. He has lived in the Tampa Bay area since 1991 and considers himself a sports fan (baseball is his favorite) who believes that taxpayers should not have to subsidize billionaire sports franchise owners.
Baseball Demographics, 1947-2016 – Society for American Baseball Research (sabr.org)