Earlier in the week, Major League Baseball made an announcement that the Negro Leagues would be promoted to the status of “major league.” While this announcement was met with approval by many, some expressed dismay. These reasonings were vast, and some were founded upon reasonable concerns while many were simply borne seemingly of some buried racial contempt. Either way, there was a lingering thought which I myself couldn’t shake, and which I plan to outline here.
Firstly, make no mistake: Some of those who played in the Negro Leagues were top-tier baseball players who were among the greatest of all-time; many could’ve surely held their own — and some even dominate — the all-white enterprise that was Major League Baseball. Further, it’s no mistake for Major League Baseball to “elevate” the status of the Negro Leagues. It was professional baseball, after all, and, as I stated, consisted of some of the greatest players to play our revered, yet problematic, game.
On Wednesday, when MLB declared that it was “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history,” I was at first excited; shortly thereafter, however, I shuttered. An oversight? While the choice of wording may have simply been a public relations oversight, it nonetheless tapped into other concerns that I had, which I saw a few others raise objections over, as well.
Major League Baseball’s historic racism and obvious and concerted segregation should hardly be labeled as an oversight. While MLB wasn’t the only entity which was presided over by racists who wished to keep white people away from, well, everyone else, it’s the most obvious boogeyman in our story; what has become the behemoth that is Major League Baseball and all its subsidiaries therein was at the time the zenith of American sports — and so, all too glaringly does its racist past stare us in the face; a game which prides itself on historical records is full of woeful oversights.
While much of the debate surrounding this decision will revolve around statistical records — is Josh Gibson the actual home run king? Or, is Gibson the new batting champion, having hit .441 in 78 games? — there’s a greater concern for me. Of course, those in charge of Major League Baseball presently have no way to truly correct the game’s history, but the fact that MLB now gets to claim all the great Negro Leagues players as its own is troubling.
A game which banned anybody who wasn’t white from playing in its highest ranks is now receiving congratulations for raising the value of their contributions to the game by slapping the “major league” moniker next to their name on Baseball-Reference. On Twitter, I’ve seen some erroneously argue that this move is an attempt to rewrite MLB’s history; this isn’t an attempt to rewrite MLB’s history — it’s a move which serves to inadvertently undermine what the Negro Leagues were: A testament to resiliency in the face of unrelenting mistreatment and racism; a monument to those who knew that they had something to offer but were never given the chance, so they took matters into their own hands.
Joe Posnanski of The Athletic quoted Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Museum, as saying, “The players don’t need MLB’s validation; they knew they were major leaguers.” While MLB’s move to “elevate” the status of the Negro Leagues was the correct move, it shouldn’t come without a showering of critiques of the obvious issues that were perpetuated in our game for so many years.
And so, this announcement doesn’t sit well with me in some ways — not because it was wrong, not because the Negro Leagues players don’t deserve it, and not for any silly concerns about how the stat books will be altered — but because Major League Baseball turned away these talented ballplayers for years and now they get to call them their own, an honor the league doesn’t deserve.