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Negro Leagues vs. Major Leagues

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  • Negro Leagues vs. Major Leagues

    I’ve read in a few sources where Negro Leaguers beat Major Leaguers 60-65% of the time they played each other. Some people interpret this to mean that blacks tried harder in inter-league exhibition games, or else major leaguer teams consisted of rag-tag combinations of assorted players playing out of position. And some have interpreted this to mean that Negro League teams were better than the Major Leaguers. In my opinion, all things being equal if teams from one league are winning 60+% of the games versus teams from another league, I would argue that the former is a stronger league than the latter.

    I decided to gather as much info as I could find and interpret the data available. So I input all of the games listed in John Holway’s “Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues” into a spreadsheet. I also found several games on ProQuest that were not listed in his book and got all of the games from Bob Feller’s barnstorming from the book by John Sickels. I kept track of the dates, teams, scores, number of major leaguer position players, and number of major league pitchers. Most of the games from Holway's book are based upon games in the East and Midwest. Games from the California Winter League are not included.

    Holway states in his book that black big leaguers won 57.1% of the games against white major leaguers. He credits Cuban teams, which usually consisted of several players from the Negro Leagues, with having a 43.5% winning percentage versus white major leaguers. I know there’s been other research but I think that Holway’s information is the source of the idea that Negro League teams won most of the inter-league match-ups.

    Holway states that he considers a team to be a “big league” team if they have five or more white major leaguers - including the pitcher. Looking at the data, one of the biggest variables that relates to the won/lost records of games between Major League vs. Negro League is the number of major leaguers present on the team. Another variable is whether the major league team consists of players from the same team versus a mix of players from multiple teams.

    Here is what the data shows in games between teams from both leagues involving a major league pitcher. The number of non-pitchers is listed in parentheses after the major league team. I broke it down into 3 levels. Major league pitcher plus zero to three position players. Major league pitchers plus 4 to 6 position players and major league pitchers plus 7 or more position players. Won Lost is indicated by the record of Negro League teams. Ties counted as 0.5 wins. Games included are between 1902 – 1946. “All Star” teams consists of major leaguers from multiple teams. “Major League Team” is a team with all or most of the players from the same team.

    Negro League Teams vs. Major League “All Stars” (0-3)
    36 - 12 (.750)

    Negro League Teams vs. Major League “All Stars” (4-6)
    23 - 15 (.605)

    Negro League Teams vs. Major League “All Stars” (7+)

    41 – 49 (.456)

    Negro League Teams vs. Major League Team (4-6)
    9 - 5 (.643)

    Negro League Teams vs. Major League Team (7+)
    23 - 29 (.442)


    Negro League vs. Major Leaguers (4-6)
    32 – 20 (.615)
    Negro League vs. Major Leaguers (7+)
    64 – 78 (.451)

    My interpretation of this data is that Negro League teams were very strong in comparison to Major Leaguers teams. Negro League teams overmatched teams of a few major leaguers playing with minor leaguers winning 75% of the games. Playing against teams with 5-7 major leaguers, the Negro league teams still won over 60% of the games. Against nearly full to full major league teams, the Negro League teams won 45% of the games. I think this shows the strength of the Negro League teams. They were extremely competitive in games against Major Leaguers. At the same time, it also shows the strength of the Major League teams. When complete or nearly complete ML teams played against Negro League teams they were the stronger league by this measure.

    Another way to measure the quality of the leagues is to compare their records versus common competition. Major leaguers as well as Negro Leaguers often played against Cuban teams. Here is a record of the games by Negro League and Major League Teams against Cuban teams when they played during a similar span of time:

    Major Leaguers record versus Cuba from 1908 – 1921
    92 – 61 (.601)

    Negro League Teams versus Cuba from 1903 – 1925
    65 – 71 (.478)

    The Major League teams were clearly superior to the Negro League teams in their performance versus Cuban teams. What I take from this is that the Cuban teams are very strong. The Negro League was obviously a very powerful league. I think that several NL teams could have competed in the Major leagues. But this data shows me that the Major Leagues were clearly stronger and I think that the idea that black teams routinely beat Major League teams comes down to an interpretation of the data. If you take a loose interpretation of “big league” team, then that’s a true statement. I don’t think that there is a need to make a loose definition just to make the point that the Negro League teams were strong. The evidence shows that they were a “Major League” even while measuring them against a more reasonable definition of “big league” team.
    "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

    Rogers Hornsby, 1961

  • #2
    Superb Job !

    Wow , Bench 5 you took it out of the park with this writing ! Love it .
    I always wondered about the NL and the majors games , and all the writings around stating that NL were at best class A baseball . But at the same time reading that the NL beat the majors 2 out of 3 , looked to me that something was not clicking . Now i do understand ! As i see it , looks like some of the teams in the NL were somewhere between the AAA level and the majors ( very small span ) .
    Again , congratulations on your great job . That's what we need here !


    • #3
      This is superb research, but you will always have curmudgeons like me who will just say that in exhibition games anything can happen and the results are meaningless. They simply don't matter to me.
      Buck O'Neil: The Monarch of Baseball


      • #4
        good info - appreciate your research - it is good to see solid info on a much debated topic - drawing conclusions from the data may be a harder chore


        • #5
          Originally posted by KCGHOST
          This is superb research, but you will always have curmudgeons like me who will just say that in exhibition games anything can happen and the results are meaningless. They simply don't matter to me.
          I'm glad that some of you guys find this interesting. It gave me something to do in this crummy Chicago winter weather.

          In reading some of these accounts I get the feeling that some of these contests were fiercely fought. Especially the games between teams from the same city. In other games they seem to be about as competitive as an NBA All Star game. So they definitely can't be compared in general to regular season ML game.

          But the reason why I think it's important is because it's one of the only ways to compare the quality and ability of both leagues. Growing up as a kid the Negro Leagues were always portrayed as equivalent to a minor league. In the recent past, I think that some of the research that I've read on the Negro Leagues seems to be biased towards showing how good the Negro League players were in relation to Major Leaguers. All of the tidbits mentioned about a NL player include stories about how so and so struck out fill in the blank 3 times and so and so pitched x number of shutouts against major leaguers etc. So that tends to weaken people's perceptions of the Major Leagues prior to integration. On the other hand I think it unfortunately makes people think that the stories about NL'ers are dubious.
          "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

          Rogers Hornsby, 1961


          • #6
            Excellent post, Bench5!

            I think it shows that the NL's had the talent to compete in MLB although how well one team may do is pure guesswork at best.

            The biggest thing the NL's would have had to overcome, I believe, is the depth of their pitching. Once you got past the top line pitchers I think the quality fell off quite a bit.

            Another thing I suspect is that the NL's were probably bearing down a bit more in these games in an effort to prove they were the equal, or better, than their white counterparts in playing baseball. I'm really not sure what the ML players had to prove.

            I'm currently reading 'Blackball, the Black Sox, and the Babe: Baseball's Crucial 1920 Season' by Robert C. Cottrell.
            The author goes into the Negro League, called 'Blackball, quite extensively, focusing on Rube Foster and his teams (btw, it includes a picture of Foster with, of all people, Cap Anson). Cottrell uses many quotes from various newspapers and publications of the time to describe the teams and games.
            Very interesting read and well researched.

            Yankees Fan Since 1957


            • #7
              Phillies versus Lincoln Giants - October 17, 1915

              "Cyclone" Joe Shuts Out Phillies

              I have some several articles of games between Major Leaguers and Negro Leaguers. I am going to post all of the ones that I have as soon as I can. One of the things that is apparent based upon the newspaper accounts is that many of these games were fiercely contested.

              Here are two game accounts of a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Lincoln Giants on October 17, 1915. The recap on the left is the NY Times while the recap on the right is the Chicago Tribune. Smokey Joe Williams (aka Cyclone Joe) struck out 10 and shut out the Phillies. Based upon another article I have of the game, the ending of the game was quite controversial due to the 9th inning ruling of a ground rule double.

              As background information, the Phillies won the National League in 1915. They just came off a World Series loss to the Red Sox which ended October 13.

              Although the team was listed as the Phillies, they only had six Phillies play in the game. Joe Judge from Washington played as well as Hack Eibel who played a couple years in the majors on other teams. There were a few Sullivans that played roughly in the same era but I am not sure which one is this "Sullivan". English had one at bat and must have been a minor leaguer or college player. I don't see record of an "English" in the majors at that time.

              Interesting tidbit - George Chalmers got married the night before the game.

              The game attracted 9,000 fans.
              Attached Files
              Last edited by Bench 5; 02-01-2008, 10:07 PM.
              "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

              Rogers Hornsby, 1961


              • #8
                NY Giants versus Lincoln Giants, October 15, 1915

                Tesreau Fans 17 Lincoln Giants

                Note that Smokey Joe Williams pitched in this game on October 15, 1915 which was two days before the game listed above. While Smokey Joe struck out 6, Jeff Tesreau of the last place Giants fanned 17. The major league mark at the time was 16. The NY Giants consisted of all members of the team.

                Similar to the game above, the game attracted a full house - a crowd bigger than the NY Giants usually had at their regular season games at the Polo Grounds.

                Story from Chicago Defender.
                Attached Files
                Last edited by Bench 5; 02-01-2008, 10:09 PM.
                "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

                Rogers Hornsby, 1961


                • #9
                  Nice posts Bench5 - interesting note - Joe Williams held a second job as a bartender near Olympic Field in Harlem that he would go to after games (but that may have been a little later in his career).


                  • #10
                    Good show.

                    Have you seen any evidence of a Cuba tour by major league ballplayers before 1902? There was some hoping and as soon as the last shots were fired.

                    Do you combine multiple images here or using other software?

                    Do you know the Chicago chapter of SABR?

                    Paul Wendt


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Paul Wendt View Post
                      Have you seen any evidence of a Cuba tour by major league ballplayers before 1902?
                      Philadelphia players toured in November 1886
                      Lew Simmons and 19 others

                      Al Lawson and John McGraw went to Cuba in early 1891

                      Charlie Duffee accompanied a ballclub to Cuba in November 1892, still there in January

                      A group of ballplayers left New Orleans for Cuba on 12/28/1899 including Harry Steinfeldt

                      Major leaguers went to Cuba in 11/1900

                      **note: not all players are major leaguers
                      Last edited by Brian McKenna; 02-02-2008, 01:00 PM.


                      • #12

                        Here's a link to a site that I referenced when I did the original research a couple years ago. I have a sheet with a list of the inter-league matchups. I will track it down and post it here.

                        I found a site with some great info on Smokey Joe Williams. I asked the person who gathered the info if he wanted to join this site and share his information. Hopefully he joins us.

                        I cut and paste a picture of the article and put it into Paint. Then I add pictures and save it as JPEG or GIF.

                        I am a member of SABR but never went to a Chicago meeting. I would like to do so at some point. I met Gary L from this site at a viewing of the Don Larsen game. I've talked with him about attending a SABR meeting. Do you enjoy them?
                        "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

                        Rogers Hornsby, 1961


                        • #13

                          Originally posted by SHOELESSJOE3 View Post
                          While there were some great hitters in black baseball I find batting averages of .563-.498-484, hard to swallow, not against competent pitching. Add to that no one has yet to display daily box scores that even verify those batting averages.

                          Black star Buck O'Neil himself stated while black hitters compared to white MLB hitters, black pitching, day to day was not on the same level as white MLB. Teams would "borrow" pitchers from another team. On any given day a second baseman or outfielder could be used as a starting pitcher, lean pitching staffs in black baseball.

                          Here are just a small number of stats, blacks playing in Negro leagues compared to how they performed in MLB.

                          This first stat may be skewed because of the far greater number of at bats in MLB. These totals are for the same 19 hitters in the Negro Leagues and MLB.

                          -------------------At bats--------Home run average-------Batting average
                          Negro Leagues-----7,592---------------13-------------------.332

                          Two of the hitters that had a comparable number of at bats in black and MLB.

                          Sam Jethroe Black ball-----AB. 1331-----HRs 20-----BA. .340
                          Sam Jethroe MLB----------AB. 1763-----HRs 49-----Ba. .261

                          Bob Boyd Black ball-------AB. 1129------HRs 11----BA. .362
                          Bob Boyd MLB------------AB. 1936------HRs 19----BA. .293

                          Again, only a small sample and other factors, difference in age while in the Negro leagues and MLB. These stats do not tell the whole story. I welcome others opinions that may find some faults with the above. Looking for answers myself.

                          In some other stats most of the black hitters had a higher batting average in the Negro leagues than they did in minor league baseball.

                          My point, not saying that the the lower level of day to day pitching in the Negro leagues " made" some black hitters great but the fact is they hit for lower averages in MLB and many hit for lower averages in the minor leagues


                          • #14
                            Phillies versus Lincoln Giants, October 10, 1913

                            Smokey Joe Defeats Alex the Great

                            Here is an account of the game from the Chicago Defender. As you see more and more game accounts, you will note that the teams are reported as the Phillies or Giants etc but they often consist of major leaguers that might be on another team, plus they sometimes include minor leaguers. According to John Holway's great book, there were five major league position players playing for the "Phillies" plus Alexander. I believe the catcher for the "Phillies' was Bill Reynolds who played a couple years for the Yankees.

                            Again, note the relatively large crowd that came to see this game - 11,000.
                            Attached Files
                            "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

                            Rogers Hornsby, 1961


                            • #15
                              Personally, I'm willing to concede that the Negro League wasn't as strong as the majors top to bottom or "on average". However, I do believe it is clear that the best of the Negro Leagues were the equals of the best in the majors. I realize that there are huge problems with Negro Leauge stats. But, Josh Gibson's ability to consistently win home run crowns in the Negro Leagues, Mexico, the Caribbean (and IIRC the California Winter League as well) for championship clubs and despite often playing in a horrible HR park in the form of Griffith Park demonstrates prodigious power, for one example. The averages are inflated not only because of the level of competition, but because of the limited number of games. Negro Leaguers rarely had more than 80 games in a season, as barnstorming games were very much part of their bread and butter. In fact, they tended to be more lucrative, at least for good teams. Look at the averages for the leaders in late June in almost every season--they're usually significantly higher than they will end up for the leaders at the end of the year. If you want a better idea of the degree to which the stats were inflated simply by the shorter seasons beyond this example, look instead at career rates for the Negro Leaguers.

                              They're a lot more in line with what one would expect, and close to the Bill McNeil data I believe you're quoting. Unfortunately, the O'Neill data has one huge problem of its own in that it didn't control for player quality. Mays has his whole career on the major league side against the few hundred (or less, I can't remember off the cuff) AB he had in the Negro Leagues as a teenager. Things like that can definitely affect one's conclusions. That said, averages were lower in the majors, but power tended to stay the same or increase (due to keeping fresh balls in play, perhaps?)
                              Seen on a bumper sticker: If only closed minds came with closed mouths.
                              Some minds are like concrete--thoroughly mixed up and permanently set.
                              A Lincoln: I don't think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.


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