This week in 1920, the Negro National League began play. Here’s some sports trivia from our archives that looks back on baseball’s other big leagues.
- A season in the Negro Leagues consisted of about 60 to 80 games played against other league teams. Beyond that, players played in 100 or so other games—against black teams, white teams, semi-pro teams, traveling teams, minor-league teams, small town teams, college teams, and even Major League teams or ad hoc teams with pro or ex-pro players on the roster. Of the 436 games they played against Major League teams or teams with Major Leaguers between 1920 and 1950, Negro League squads won the majority, 268 to 168.
- There were seven primary black baseball leagues. The Negro National League started in 1920, shuttered in 1931, returned in 1933, then closed up again in 1948. The Negro Southern League existed in between incarnations of the NNL. The Eastern Colored League lasted from 1923 to 1928. The American Negro League, made of some former ECL teams, formed in 1929 and lasted for only one season. The East-West League made it halfway through the 1932 season. The Negro American League was the last existing league, playing from 1937 to 1960.
- Because the league had very little money, records and statistics from that era are wildly inaccurate. It’s been widely reported, for example, that Negro League star Josh Gibson hit more than 800 home runs over his career, more than anyone has ever hit in the Majors. But historians estimate that because of the shorter season, Gibson probably hit somewhere between 200 and 300. (He is, however, the only player—in any league—ever to have hit a ball entirely out of Yankee Stadium.)
- Baseball historians have begun to piece together statistics from old newspaper box scores and first-person accounts. That’s led to the increased status of Joe Williams as possibly the best pitcher in Negro League history, ahead of his more famous counterpart Satchel Paige. Some of Williams’s stats: In 1914 he went 41–3 in all games (and 12–2 in league play…with 100 strikeouts). In 1917 he struck out 20 batters in a no-hitter. And in 1930, at age 45, he struck out 27 batters in a 12-inning game, allowing just one hit. Williams retired in 1932 and died in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson would suit up for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
- In 1971 the Baseball Hall of Fame’s directors voted to admit Negro Leaguers into the Hall of Fame, ignoring a proposal to have a separate wing for those players. A special committee was formed to induct the first round of players. Enshrined that year were Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo, John Henry Lloyd, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin, and Judy Johnson. (Only Irvin and Paige played in the Major Leagues.)
- Hall of Famer Dave Winfield has been especially vocal about recognition for the Negro Leagues. In 2008 Major League Baseball accepted his idea of holding a special honorary draft, in which each of the 30 MLB teams would “select” one player from the Negro League era. The New York Yankees picked Emilio Navarro, who was still alive at 102 years old. Technically, that makes him the oldest pro baseball player in history.
For more sports trivia, check out Uncle John’s Sports Spectacular.