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MLB has officially started incorporating Negro Leagues stats. This CEO says it's not enough

Major League Baseball last week announced it was incorporating stats and records from the Negro Leagues into the Major Leagues — including players from between 1920 and 1948. Another group, though, wants to go even farther. The Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, is recommending acknowledging the 1949 and 1950 seasons of the Negro American League as major, as well as 43 independent Black baseball teams starting as early as 1889 and running into the 1920s.

Scott Bush is the CEO of Phoenix-based SABR. The Show spoke with him earlier this week, ahead of its annual conference on the Negro Leagues, taking place this weekend in Cooperstown, New York. Given that research is a big part of what SABR does, The Show asked Bush how MLB’s announcement will impact the kind of work his group does, and how it does it.

Full conversation

SCOTT BUSH: Yeah, it definitely shines a light on both a specific area of baseball research, but also helps generate additional interest in a specific period of the game, which I think, generally, just attracts more people to the effort, right? And Negro Leagues research is, has been going on for decades, and in many ways, I think, bringing these records in with MLB is a reflection of the work of those researchers and what they've done to be able to painstakingly locate, and then database, all of these box scores from years ago that have been ... some will be forever lost history, but you know, a lot of these researchers saved them, which is fantastic. And now I think we'll we'll get a fresh group of people coming in wanting to engage in Negro League baseball research, and I think that's the benefit of everyone. 

MARK BRODIE: What is that process like? I mean, we hear a lot about, you know, looking at newer stats, things like WAR, or, you know, OPS for, you know, guys who played well before those stats were even conceived. So can you sort of walk us through the process of applying modern day stats to players who, you know, played generations earlier? 

BUSH: Yeah, I would caution people against trying to do too much of that, to be honest. We have full datasets for the white segregated leagues, for the most part, not, not certainly comprehensive, but we certainly have a fuller dataset, I should say, than we do for the Negro Leagues. You know, I think all of the players are much more than their statistics in general. And so I think it is interesting for their statistics to be displayed together, I think it contextualizes in many ways, the level of player that players were, regardless of whether they were in a, in a white or Black league. But I think if if you're looking to turn it into Negro Leagues wins above replacement or something like that, I think, I think maybe you're missing a lot of the story and missing a lot of, a lot of what that what those leagues were like, and and what the level of play was like. 

BRODIE: When you talk about adding some of that context, I wonder if that also includes the level of competition. So, you know, for example, we know what Major League Baseball players were doing, for example, in the '30s and '40s. But as you pointed out, the competition, they weren't playing against all the best players in the country that, you know, Black players were not allowed to compete against them. So I'm wondering if in your mind, having, you know, these statistics combined, and sort of the Negro League stats brought more to the fore, does that give a little more context … to the player relative to against whom they were playing?

BUSH: Yeah, it can, you know, and we, we saw, you know, you mentioned the '20s and '30s, generally speaking, the '20s and '30s, in terms of the total number of major teams out there, whether Black or white, was was very consistent. And so you do get to a place where, within the leagues themselves, you've got a little bit more to compare. But, you know, with the with the Negro Leagues, you had a lot of other factors. One of which was their, their roster sizes were typically smaller, and so that had several effects, but one of them was the players played more, you know, less, less days of rest. In addition to that, the Negro League players were frequently barnstorming and so, you know, if you were going to go and play, play an exhibition game in some town and you actually wanted to sell tickets, well, guess what, your best players had to play in that game as well. And so you do run into these these other inequities that make it very difficult to say any sort of apples-to-apples comparison across, across the two segregated leagues. 

BRODIE: Yeah, well, I would think that could kind of cut both ways, especially for the Negro League players, right? Like, if you're a batter and you get more at-bats than the average player, that could be really helpful. But if you're, for example, a pitcher who's throwing every other day, you know, you might be able to do that for a little while, but at a certain point, your arm is going to tire and your stats probably won't be as good. 

BUSH: Right, right. Or, you know, if you're a catcher, how quickly do your knees go ... if you have to catch every day and, and things like that. And so, you know, it is, it is really, really great to be able to have more context. And I, personally, I'm very shy to try to draw any instant comparisons between the two segregated leagues and the, and the players there. 

BRODIE: You've kind of alluded to this, but I want to ask you more specifically about just sort of the awareness factor here and that, you know, I'm wondering if you think that with this move by MLB, that maybe fans who didn't know much about the Negro Leagues, or the players who played in them, might be more inclined to learn about them and find out who these these players were both as baseball players and as people?

BUSH: Yeah, I think, I think that's pretty important. You know, I don't believe that big time baseball fans needed Josh Gibson to appear as the career batting average leader to know that Josh Gibson was one of the greatest players who ever lived. ... However, there's a lot of other fans out there who are at different levels of their fandom, and getting him in a position where he's more directly amongst his peer group, in terms of his career achievement, is important in that context, and it, and it provides a lot of opportunity for people to ask questions. And among those questions, you know, are things like, well, wow, why was he playing for the teams that he was playing for? Right? And that's an important story that that hopefully never gets lost. But to then, tell the story of his biography. He was a professional player in his teens, you know, and how he progressed and legendary barnstorming appearances and things like that. And, and that is, that is an incredibly positive outcome of what Major League Baseball is doing. 

BRODIE: Alright, that is Scott Bush, CEO of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR. Scott, really good to talk to you. Thank you. 

BUSH: Appreciate it. Thank you.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.