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On the Importance of Maintaining—and Sometimes Changing—Official Historical Records

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

I hope Major League Baseball’s recent decision to recognize the records of the Negro Leagues excited you as much as it did me. This move is long overdue. It’s about time that the home runs of Josh Gibson stand beside those of Babe Ruth.

This is a very big change for baseball, and some long-term fans may worry about all of the records that will change. Continuity sometimes has to give way to better statistics, however, when new information becomes available or old but overlooked information emerges. We know about changes like this at BLS. We have been around for 137 years, and we have some statistics that go back almost that far. Just as important, we don’t make changes lightly. Any update to our programs must be balanced against the need for historical comparability. Even so, we change when new or overlooked data must be recognized. Just see what we are doing today with contingent or gig economy workers; we’re finding ways to incorporate these workers that have been around for a long time into our official statistics.

But, back to baseball… Such concern for historical continuity is also a hallmark of baseball statistics, but even baseball has changed. Abner Doubleday might not recognize the designated hitter or a runner starting on second base in extra innings. The same is true for baseball statistics. Hits, runs, and the like are largely reported the same today as 100 years ago, but just look at the explosion of other statistics. Would Doubleday have the foggiest idea what WHIP means? (It measures the number of walks plus hits a pitcher allows per inning pitched.)

Beyond my keen interest in statistics, the updating of MLB data is important to me because I’m a big baseball fan. And that means all baseball. As both a numbers person and a baseball fan, it’s nice to see the statistics and records of these approximately 3,400 Major League-caliber ballplayers from the Negro Leagues counted within the official historical record.

Satchel Paige of the Kansas City MonarchsSatchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs (photo from the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

One of the game’s best players ever was Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs, who I had the pleasure of meeting at one of my first jobs as an archivist at the Black Archives of Mid-America. He was donating his baseball memorabilia to the museum at the time. Documenting cultural history at the Archives provided me with a first-hand experience learning about the African American community—its history, heritage, and incomparable stories. That work also heightened my love for baseball, and I count meeting Satchel Paige among my baseball highlights.

As we remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and observe African American history, it’s important to step back, to reflect, and to pay tribute to the generations of African Americans who, like Satchel Paige, struggled with adversity and became catalysts for change.

And we continue to see change. By recognizing the records of the Negro Leagues, Major League Baseball provides an example of how to embrace and celebrate our diversity. I look forward to studying these expanded baseball records and learning more about the great players of the Negro Leagues.