One week ago, Major League Baseball announced it would reverse a 1969 decision and officially designate the Negro Leagues as “Major Leagues” for the purposes of statistics and record-keeping.
The decision is long overdue. We know the caliber of play in the Negro Leagues was on-par or even above the American and National Leagues. The success of black players once they were allowed to compete against white players, coupled with the extensive records from exhibition games between white and black teams, makes this indisputable.
In the wake of this official decision, the St. Louis Cardinals should expand how they honor players from those leagues at Busch Stadium. In short: We’re gonna need some more statues.
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote about James “Cool Papa” Bell - the most famous member of the Negro League St. Louis Stars. Bell is the lone Stars player honored with a statue outside Busch Stadium. George Sisler (of the Browns) is the other non-Cardinal with a statue outside the ballpark.
Cool Papa Bell should not be the only St. Louis Stars player honored at Busch Stadium. In fact, given the Cardinals aim to honor great players from all of St. Louis professional baseball history and given their own criteria for who is afforded those honors, at least two other Stars players should be recognized, either with retired numbers, statues or both.
When it comes to retiring numbers, the Cardinals organization did institute an official policy after a bit of a run on retirements in the early 1980s. Only retired former Cardinals - who are in the Hall of Fame - shall have their numbers retired.
As for statues outside the stadium, at least the same standard applies. Ken Boyer, a non-Hall-of-Famer whose number was retired before the current policy was implemented, was the only former player on the outfield wall not honored with a statue. (Bruce Sutter has since had his number retired but not been honored with a statue.)
That policy was purportedly why the team opted at the 11th hour not to erect a statue of Mark McGwire they already had cast. By all accounts it still sits somewhere in storage in the bowels of Busch Stadium.
Cool Papa Bell and George Sisler fit the criteria: Both are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But so are two other St. Louis Stars: Willie Wells and Mule Suttles.
Willie Wells spent the first eight years of his career with the St. Louis Stars. The shortstop posted a gaudy 161 OPS+ over that span, and his 33.2 WAR is the most of any Stars player. (Bell’s 21.6 ranks 2nd.) His 62.5 WAR over his full 24-year career ranked 4th all-time. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
Mule Suttles spent five season in St. Louis, amassing 18.1 WAR. The power hitting 1st Baseman and Outfielder posted a 191 OPS+ and a .741 Slugging Percentage as a Star. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.
I’ll dive into Wells and Suttles in more detail in future posts, but the fact that they are full-fledged Hall of Famers should be more than enough to qualify them for this honor, before we even get into the stats.
When it comes to the stats, it’s also important to understand that the idea many of us were told - that records from the Negro Leagues were spotty or unreliable - is simply not true. That belief likely contributed to the initial decision not to consider these leagues as “major league,” and is also why players like Wells and Suttles have been largely forgotten.
Instead, the Negro Leagues have often been treated more like folk tales than reality. Cool Papa Bell is one of the handful of players most fans remember primarily because of the tall tale - often attributed to Satchel Paige - that “he could turn off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark.”
Those stories are fun and colorful, and they often suggest a spirit of whimsy and showmanship that was likely more prominent in the Negro Leagues. But they are also reductionist.
The fact is, the statistical record of the Negro Leagues is well-documented. The excellent Seamheads Negro League Database has compiled those stats and even calculated the full battery of advanced stats.
Gary Ashwill, who maintains a long-running blog on Negro League and Latin American baseball, says readers are often shocked at the detail of the statistical compilations he is able to do.
“This comes mainly from two sources: 1) a basic unawareness (completely understandable) of the nature of baseball journalism, particularly the box score, in the earlier twentieth century; and 2) the legend of the Negro Leagues, which paints them as half-mythical enterprises that took place mostly in the realm of tall tales.”
To the extent there are inconsistencies in Negro League stats, most often through shortened seasons, those inconsistencies are the result of the racism that dictated the separation of the leagues in the first place.
As MLB Historian John Thorn put it, “the perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices, and denying them major league status has been a double penalty.”
What this means is that the amazing accomplishments of these players - not the just the colorful stories, but the actual on-field numbers - should be considered in exactly the same light as white players of that era.
In 1924, Rogers Hornsby hit .424. In 1926, Mule Suttles hit .425. These accomplishments should be considered side-by-side, not as major and minor or with some kind of an asterisk. I hope that is where we are all headed.
But while you’re digging into the numbers from the Negro Leagues, you should also read Clinton Yates’ blistering take from The Undefeated:
There’s a phrase coined, likely by some old white guy, that goes “winners write the history books.” In the case of Major League Baseball, not only do they write the history books, but apparently they decide when everyone else’s histories are legitimate, too.
That’s the opening paragraph, and it only gets more intense from there. I agree with every word of it.
It’s great that the Negro Leagues have been given this “official” designation. The fact that 74 years after Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball, the institution that was and still in many ways is White Baseball gets to determine what is official and what is not... that shows there is still a long, long ways to go.