Why the Negro Leagues deserve equality

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Now is a good time to start treating the Negro Leagues equally

On Sunday, Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. This was the first-born of what collectively became known as the Negro Leagues — a set of seven independent baseball circuits formed in the 1920s and ’30s, when segregation was still the law of the land in much of the American South. It was also an unwritten rule in Major League Baseball, where the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” (an awfully generous name) prevented teams from hiring Black players. So the Negro Leagues represented the highest level of professional baseball available at the time to Blacks. Many Latinos also found a home there, making up an estimated 10-15 per cent of the rosters.

By the time Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s colour barrier in 1947 (after a cup of coffee in the Negro American League), most of the Negro Leagues had disbanded. The remaining ones followed as more of the best Black players joined Robinson in the bigs. The final so-called “Negro World Series” — between the champions of the Negro American League and the second incarnation of the Negro National League — was played in 1948. The Negro NL ceased to exist after that, leaving the Negro AL as the sole survior. It technically kept going until 1962, but baseball historians believe it stopped being close to major-league quality around 1950, by which time the integration of MLB had cost the Negro AL much of its talent base — and thus its fan appeal.

Integration, of course, was long overdue, and it came too late for two of the Negro Leagues’ most beloved legends.

Josh Gibson — often described as “the Black Babe Ruth,” though some say the Bambino should be known as “the white Josh Gibson” — never got a chance to play in the majors. Negro Leagues stats are notoriously spotty, so we can’t really judge Gibson by his numbers. But, like with Ruth, the stories are better anyway — even if they sound far-fetched. Gibson’s plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame credits him with hitting “almost 800 home runs” in his 17-year career. The Sporting News, which was the baseball publication of record back in the day, once reported that he hit a 580-foot bomb during an exhibition at Yankee Stadium.

James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, in addition to having probably the best nickname in sports history, was a renowned speedster who also hit for a high average (think Rickey Henderson, though with less power). Legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige famously said that Cool Papa was so fast, he could flip the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark. Unfortunately, he was never given the chance to show off his wheels in the big leagues.

Paige, who was the Negro Leagues’ greatest pitcher and also their best storyteller, was lucky enough to get a shot at the majors in the wake of Jackie Robinson. But when he debuted for Cleveland in 1948, Paige was already two days past his 42nd birthday. Still, he spent five quality seasons in the majors (mostly as a reliever) and came back for a stunt start late in the 1965 season — when he was 59 (!) years old. Pitching for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox, Paige worked three shutout innings and gave up just one hit.

Paige, Bell and Gibson were all inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1970s. Earlier this year, MLB and the MLB Players’ Association made a joint donation of $1 million US to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. And Sunday’s centennial commemoration was nice. But some believe baseball ought to go a step further in both recognizing the quality of the Negro Leagues and making an effort to repair some of the hurt caused by the segregation-era policies that made their existence necessary in the first place.

The best way to do that, they argue, is for Major League Baseball to officially reclassify Negro Leagues players as major-leaguers. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh recently reported that MLB is considering it, and he lays out a strong case for the move in this excellent piece.

To summarize the argument, four defunct leagues (in addition to the existing American and National Leagues) are currently classified as “major leagues” for baseball record-keeping purposes. That decision was made in the late 1960s by an all-white, five-man panel that purportedly didn’t even discuss including the Negro Leagues. But many baseball historians and statisticians consider the quality of play in the Negro Leagues to be close or even roughly equal to the contemporary American and National Leagues. One historian even found that the Black teams had a winning record in their exhibition games against big-leaguers. Sabermetrics godfather Bill James is also among the baseball thinkers who believe the Negro Leagues should be treated as major, based on the evidence available.

As for the potential counter-arguments, yes, figuring out a way to square the Negro Leagues’ statistics and records with the MLB ones and present everything in a proper context would be an enormous undertaking. But there’s an army of hardcore baseball number-crunchers out there who would be all too happy to take on the task — and do it well. And for those who say Negro Leaguers’ performances were inflated by not having to face many of the best (white) players of their day, well, couldn’t you make the same argument against the white guys? Babe Ruth, for example, never had to worry about hitting one of Satchel Paige’s pinpoint fastballs. Seems like treating them equally is not just the right thing to do, but the correct one as well.

There’s a more meaningful way than this for baseball to honour its Negro Leagues greats. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Dale Hawerchuk died

One of the most quietly consistent stars of the 1980s NHL, Hawerchuk was picked first overall in the 1981 draft and immediately became a sensation in Winnipeg. As an 18-year-old rookie, he notched 45 goals and 103 points to win the Calder Trophy and finish fifth in MVP voting.

Hawerchuk would never do better than second in the MVP race, and he never won a scoring title or a Stanley Cup (all tall orders at a time when Wayne Gretzky roamed the earth) but he put up big numbers year after year for the Jets. In his first eight seasons, Hawerchuk reached the 40-goal mark seven times and topped out at 53 in 1984-85, when he had 130 points.

Following a relatively off year in 1989-90, Winnipeg shipped him to Buffalo in a blockbuster trade that netted defenceman Phil Housley. Hawerchuk remained productive for a few more years, but he never reached those Winnipeg heights again and he retired in 1997 at the age of 34 with a bad hip.

On the international stage, Hawerchuk was involved in one of the most famous goals in hockey history: he won the faceoff that led to the iconic Gretzky-to-Lemieux winner against the Soviet Union in the final of the ’87 Canada Cup.

Hawerchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001. He died today of cancer at the age of 57. Read more about the life and hockey career of the “low-maintenance superstar” here.

Quickly…

The NBA playoffs are off to an interesting start. Sure, the favourites won all four openers played yesterday. But there was plenty of stuff to chew on. The Raptors countered their traditional Game 1 struggles by routing Brooklyn 134-110 with a monster performance by Fred VanVleet (30 points, 11 assists, 8-for-10 on threes). Luka Doncic (42 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists) and the Mavericks nearly shocked the Clippers despite the controversial ejection of star big man Kristaps Porzingis. Canadian Jamal Murray poured in 36 points (including 10 in OT) to lead Denver past Utah, which wasted a 57-point showing by Donovan Mitchell. Boston survived a bit of a scare from Philly, but the Celtics are down a man now after losing Gordon Hayward for a month due to an ankle injury suffered late in the game. And this just in, right before out publish time: Orlando shocked top-ranked Milwaukee 122-110 in Game 1 this afternoon.

The Vancouver Canucks lost control of their series. A couple of days ago, Vancouver had defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis on the ropes after winning the first two games. But the Blues took Game 3 in OT and won 3-1 last night to even the series. Game 5 is tomorrow night. St. Louis said today that star forward Vladimir Tarasenko is out for the series with a shoulder injury.

Three other NHL teams took control of their matchups. Tampa Bay, Colorado and Boston all went up 3-1 in their series with wins last night. The Avalanche looked most impressive in their 7-1 drubbing of Arizona, while Boston showed the most heart by overcoming the absence of Tuukka Rask and David Pastrnak — and a 2-0 deficit with less than 13 minutes left — to beat Carolina. Tampa is in tough again vs. upset-master Columbus, but the Lightning battled for their third one-goal win of the series. Today/tonight, two teams have a shot to become the first to advance to the second round: the Islanders can sweep Washington and Vegas can eliminate Chicago. Calgary and Dallas will break their 2-2 tie, while Montreal hopes to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole vs. Philadelphia. Watch Rob Pizzo’s two-minute recap of last night’s NHL action here.

The Champions League semifinals start today. Both of the final-four matchups in soccer’s top club competition pit a German team vs. a French one. Today, RB Leipzig takes on Paris Saint-Germain. Tomorrow, it’s Bayern Munich vs. Lyon. That one features 19-year-old Canadian rising star Alphonso Davies, who recently helped Bayern win the Bundesliga title and was named the German league’s rookie of the year. Normally, the Champions League semifinals are two-leg contests. But, due to the lengthy hiatus caused by the pandemic, this year’s quarter-finals and semis were shortened to single-match affairs in an effort to cram them into a tighter window. The final, which was always a one-off, will take place this Sunday in Portugal.

And finally…

Major League Soccer’s Canadian teams open a weird stretch tonight.

After pulling off its MLS is Back Tournament inside the confines of a bubble at Disney World, soccer’s top North American league is ready to resume its regular season with teams playing out of their home stadiums. But, due to the travel restrictions in place right now, the three Canadian-based teams can’t fully participate. Instead, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal will each play six matches against each other. Those start tonight with a Whitecaps-TFC matchup in Toronto and run through Sept. 16. After that, the hope is that they can start playing against the U.S.-based teams again.

The upcoming all-Canadian matches will also double as qualifiers for this year’s Canadian Championship final. The team that earns the most points will face the winner of the Canadian Premier League season, which is currently being played as a tournament in Charlottetown. The winner of that matchup advances to the CONCACAF Champions League. Read more about the MLS’ Canadian workaround here.

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