Following up: Minor league realignment, Negro Leagues reclassification

(Photo by Warren Wimmer / Icon Sportswire)

Today marks the first of a few deadlines for the realignment of Minor League Baseball, although it isn’t the particularly fairest of cut-off dates. Minor league teams are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement and waive its right to sue Major League Baseball, after which it can review the terms of the 10-year Professional Development License.

That raises a considerable amount of concern for what’s merely the first step of a months-long process, and Baseball America followed up The Athletic’s report with additional details regarding the responses and recourses among the 120 surviving organizations.

J.J. Cooper writes that owners expect nearly all the 120 teams to sign the NDAs, which then starts a 30-day period to review and sign the PDLs. It’s during this period where things can get hairy.

He covers some of the points of contention between MLB and the minor league clubs that The Athletic’s story covered — uncertain protection of franchise valuations, onerous insurance requirements, protecting franchise valuations, onerous insurance requirements, and Major League Baseball trumping existing sponsorship deals with nationwide exclusivity, which Cooper says could hurt teams who have worked to strike five, 10 or even 15 such sponsorships.

Those were known instances of overreach, but here’s another that seems right to question:

For example, under the details outlined in the summary, minor league teams would be required to license their local digital customer data from MLB, and MLB would retain sole ownership of that customer data. That means that at the end of the 10-year PDL term, a minor league team could lose the right to market to its own ticket-buying and merchandise-purchasing fans.

Again, the question remains: What can teams do about it? Not much without collective action, which is why it might take most of the next 30 days for developments to occur, even if options remain limited even after careful consideration.

* * * * * * * * *

The recategorization of the Negro Leagues as a major league isn’t a no-brainer to me, but it’s close. In hindsight, it was weird that a guy like Benny Kauff could post an OPS 200 points higher in the two years of the Federal League’s existence than he did in the remainder of his National League days, and the record book has long considered them equal. His page shows two batting titles, even though he earned them with the long-forgotten Indianapolis Hoosiers and Brooklyn Tip-Tops. Meanwhile, Satchel Paige only surfaces in the record books as a 42-year-old rookie with the 1948 Indians, with no explanation as to why a 42-year-old ended up appearing in five other seasons after his debut.

It’s just short of a no-brainer because negotiating, contextualizing and presenting the history is going to require a lot of thinking, lest Negro Leaguers be shortchanged unwittingly.

Or cynically.

ESPN’s Howard Bryant objected to the league’s framing as “correcting an oversight,” when the Negro Leagues were actually the result of conscious decision-making. Is baseball just attempting to flatten the record and hope that future generations infer from the union that everybody found a home?

At some point, baseball, like the rest of the country, must wear what it has done to Black people. As much as it must acknowledge that the massive Black underclass the country’s two political parties fight over every four years was created by America and not the lack of drive or industry on the part of African Americans, it must also acknowledge that the tattered, unreliable statistical and historical record of the Negro Leagues was not the byproduct of Black baseball’s poor business acumen. It was born from baseball’s racism, and the effects of that racism cannot be retrofitted into the record books. Not knowing Slim Jones’ full statistics is not his stain but baseball’s. The reason the Negro Leagues are so steeped in legend is because no one knows precisely what happened.

The legend that Josh Gibson perhaps hit 800 home runs carries more power than what is left of the shredded, surviving statistical record because it gave these Black men their poetry. It gave them their dignity. The legend was more important than being anointed legitimate 100 years later by the very industry that excluded them. They became bigger than the numbers that were denied them. Legend has given them back what MLB took.

At The Undefeated, Clinton Yates said Major League Baseball never really incorporated Black baseball when the color barrier fell. They just skimmed from the top and left the rest of the model to die.

It’s well known that the reason the Negro Leagues failed is because of MLB’s meddlesome approach. Once they started stealing the talent, the draw lessened. If you want to get hardcore, you could argue that Robinson going to Major League Baseball was a death knell for Black baseball, not the other way around. Why? Because all the systems of development and expertise that came along with us being us were tossed aside to appeal to the concept of being the apple of the white league’s eye. If Major League Baseball had simply allowed a handful of teams to operate their businesses within their framework, aka joining the league, we wouldn’t be where we are today with less than 10% of players in the bigs being Black.

One of the strange experiences of touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — as always, consider a membership — is the unexpected sadness when the timeline ends as integration takes hold. They should’ve been playing on the same field as the country’s other top ballplayers the whole time, so why does it feel like we were all robbed by the ending of the Negro Leagues? Shouldn’t we be happy they withered away?

I’d chalked it up to Buck O’Neil and Bob Kendrick being incredible storytellers of that vital Negro Leagues mystique that Bryant described. Yates suggests that I’m feeling more than sentiment. The Negro Leagues were an engine for exciting, progressive, inclusive ideas that changed the game, but those decision-makers didn’t get to make a similar leap:

Black folks taught Japanese people how to like baseball. Black folks started playing night games because it was the only time white folks would let us use their stadiums. Black folks let women actually play on the field, not just stuck them in skirts and made a movie years later about it to much fanfare. Those contributions to baseball have nothing to do with numbers in a book and never will. But they won’t be understood or recognized as vital because so-called seamheads are too busy worrying about how Black ballplayers match up against their childhood heroes.

Baseball treasures its statistics, so it’s an easy place to get caught up. Is Josh Gibson now the most recent .400 hitter in baseball history? He hit .441 over 78 games in 1943, two years after Ted Williams hit .406 over 143 games for the Red Sox. Maybe you think he shouldn’t be there because the leagues weren’t the same. Maybe nobody pretended the leagues were equal then, and nobody should try being so polite now. Maybe Gibson should be there despite the difficulties in evening the environments, and the complaints should be directed to the graves of Cap Anson and Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

I keep coming back to Minnie Miñoso, and how he’s not in the Hall of Fame in large part because of those several years missing from the start of his MLB career. When the Negro Leagues experience are placed on the same page as his run in the American League, you can see that he wasn’t a late bloomer who just happened to figure it out at 25. He was first excluded, then held back, because of his skin color, and complications stemming from racism didn’t end after 1951. Here’s a headline I found in the New York Times from April 9, 1954.

In April 1954, Miñoso was a three-time All-Star with two top-five MVP finishes. The novelty of his race should have worn off by then, but he and others still had all sorts of fresh battles to persevere.

The inclusion of Miñoso’s New York Cubans stats pushes him over 2,000 major-league hits, which is a milestone his career deserves. The reclassification also bolsters his case in numerous other ways, and that should please every White Sox fan. But the way I see it, putting his Negro League stats on the same page as his MLB stats is less about what gets added to his record, and more about clearly displaying what he’d been denied, and what he had to endure.

(Photo by Warren Wimmer / Icon Sportswire)

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Pittsburgh baseball historian Rob Ruck followed up his excellent book Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh (which, because of the dominance of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, is an essential part of the history of the Negro Leagues) with an hour-long documentary, Kings of the Hill, in 1994. In it, he interviewed the playwright August Wilson, who said

Baseball gave you a sense of belonging…. The umpire ain’t white. It’s a black umpire. The owner ain’t white. Nobody’s white. This is our thing … and we have our everything – until integration, and then we don’t have our nothing.

“Nobody’s white” included ownership. Cumberland Posey built the Homestead Grays into a powerhouse, Gus Greenlee did the same with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, serving as president of the Negro National League and building Greenlee Field in the Hill District. The Negro Leagues had many, many disadvantages (and the history of Greenlee Field is one that ties into the systemic racism of redlining and land-use practices that continue to shape this country’s geography), but they were just some of the Black-owned businesses that grew and endured in segregated cities between World War One and mid-century.
The South Side of Chicago was often called the capital of Black business in America, and a great book that touches on baseball briefly is the 1945 study Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton. It is an essential primary source in understanding the city’s history, showing the institutions and businesses Black Chicagoans built as the geography of white supremacy ghettoized them. (It is also worth reading in conjunction with WBEZ reporter Natalie Y. Moore’s recent The South Side to see patterns of change and continuity.) Thinking about how the Chicago American Giants relate to the rise and decline of Johnson Publishing, the Defender, and scores of Black-owned businesses along corridors like 63rd Street is worthwhile in understanding why this week’s news has received criticism.


Two different topics covered very well here by Jim. I appreciate all of the additional sources linked in the article and in the comments and will have some reading to do over the next few weeks.

One thing that I noticed is that both of these topics in this post, while very different from one another, are things influenced by the MLB’s effective monopoly status, which it has enjoyed since 1922.

Baseball is incredibly conservative, in several senses of the word, and its legal privilege is an important part of trying to understand it’s history.

Last edited 3 years ago by MrStealYoBase