In this Aug. 2, 1942, file photo, Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Leroy Satchel Paige warms up at New York's Yankee Stadium before a Negro League game between the Monarchs and the New York Cuban Stars.
( AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman, File
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway. The last Wednesday, Major League Baseball announced it would officially elevate the Negro Leagues to major league status. That means the MLB will recognize statistics and records from the roughly 3,400 Black players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948. The move is an attempt by the league to directly acknowledge the achievements of these players who were systematically excluded from Major League Baseball.
While the change has been met with some praise, others are viewing it as an attempt to sweep baseball's history of racism under the rug. ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant criticized the decision last week saying, "The Negro Leagues and the scattered and incomplete logbook is and always will be the game's eternal burden. The sport must carry it and it cannot be undone." Joining me now to discuss is Marc Carig, National Baseball writer for The Athletic. Marc, thanks for joining us.
Marc Carig: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: It's been 100 years since the Negro Leagues began. Why is the MLB doing this now?
Marc: Well, I think given the events of the summer, and the attention being paid to this conversation about Black Lives Matter, idea of social injustice, I think that brought it to the forefront. There's also an anniversary at play here. This is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues. I think, Major League Baseball spotting that timing, felt compelled to start looking at this a little bit closer.
There had been some talk about it a few months ago. As you say, it happened last Wednesday, where it became official in baseball speed, that's awfully fast, really over just the course of a few months. I think you're seeing a convergence here of a centennial anniversary also, you've had, the tone and tenor of the country at this point, I think push them toward this move.
Tanzina: Marc, are there many Negro League players even left to witness this happening?
Marc: No, there aren't. The time period that Major League Baseball is recognizing is 1920 to 1948. The Negro Leagues actually persisted for several years after 1948. There are players in that later group that are around but certainly as you go further back to the period of time that Major League Baseball is designating here, I think it's really not a lot of guys at all. Maybe 5, 10 guys, maybe, from that time period. It's a relatively small group.
Tanzina: We should look at this with somewhat a little bit of skepticism here. Is this an attempt by Major League Baseball to monetize on the Negro Leagues?
Marc: I think you could see it that way, for sure, because what Major League Baseball has done to lots of parts of the game is bring it under one umbrella. I think the Negro Leagues fit into that. The current minor leagues fit into that. There's a big controversy within the sport right now about a reorganization that MLB is undergoing at effects, the minor leagues. I think it speaks to the nature of the game itself, this entity that we know as MLB is relatively new.
Before that, baseball had been broken down into a lot of independent organizations. The two leagues in baseball were once independent organizations. I think what the Negro Leagues and how they fit in to that bigger puzzle, I think, is a part of this too. Yes, there's probably going to be an element of monetizing this. I think, mostly though, it fits under just getting everything under the same umbrella, which has been a bigger goal of the lead here for the last 20 years.
Tanzina: Marc, in order for these stats and records to go on the books so to speak, there was a lot of research that had to happen in order to get that information. Tell me a little bit about the project that really took place in order to accumulate all that data.
Marc: Negro League data is scattered and very difficult to come by. I think that's partly a result of the systemic racism that we're talking about. The league's really had to survive, and a lot of times barely did so. I think oftentimes, there wasn't the financial resources, for instance, to have official record-keeping. What researchers have done over a very long period of time we're talking three, four decades here, an army of researchers gathered primary sources, newspapers, box scores, and have assembled as best they can these last season's.
It's really been a process of gathering a lot of far-flung data and then trying to make sense of it, which, as we know, these are imperfect procedures. It's an inexact science to do so. To their credit, they've been able to recapture, I think it's 73% of games, that would be counted by MLB. That's a big number and it's certainly larger than it was even two years ago.
Tanzina: What about off the field? Has the has Major League Baseball acknowledged their treatment of the Negro Leagues or ignoring the Negro Leagues?
Marc: That's actually been talked about a lot after this announcement was made. Even the word elevate, which was used in the press release, sends a message that I don't think they're intending to send. Then also, when you look at the press release, there's a feeling that they're trying to absolve themselves a bit of this. For instance, this decision to not recognize the Negro Leagues earlier, was called an error, a mistake.
I think that wording takes away responsibility. That was a decision by organized baseball not to do so in real-time. That is not some omission, that is an active attempt to ignore this league, to deny it its existence. I think that's a major distinction that, I think, raise some eyebrows amongst people who pay close attention to these things.
Tanzina: What about the family members and the descendants of Negro League players? Will there be some compensation for them, given that the players themselves are many, if not, almost all of them are not alive to have this moment and to relish in this moment?
Marc: After the announcement of this news, I think there is an initial feeling of goodwill because on the surface, I think that acknowledgment was long overdue. Most historians and scholars that study the game and study this era would agree with that. Now, what happened after that initial enthusiasm is people start to ask the question, "Okay, well, what does it mean?" I think, by and large, there aren't any answers to that.
It feels like this was a decision made without thinking through some of the details. One of those includes compensation, or what does this mean for pensions and, what does it mean for the people that either survive or the descendants of the players that are impacted by this? Frankly, I don't think there are any clear answers right now. In fact, that seems to be an overall theme with this whole thing is that yes, this is a designation that was long overdue but in practice, I'm not sure anybody knows exactly what it's going to mean and that even includes how these statistics get represented in the books moving forward.
Tanzina: Marc Carig is a senior writer for The Athletic. Marc, thanks so much for joining us.
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