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Sports Chat: MLB Recognizes Negro League Stats

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I finally get to say, it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: One hundred years after the Negro Leagues were founded, those superb ballplayers finally get major league status. But is that an empty honor?

We're joined now by NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, announced that they're finally going to recognize the Negro League players as major league players. This is a century after racial segregation that never should have happened. Does this decision have any practical effect on records, 'cause it certainly doesn't on payroll?

GOLDMAN: Right. It does affect the record, Scott. MLB will study how exactly to fold into the official record book the achievements of approximately 3,400 players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948. And it's challenging because these Negro League stats are scattershot and incomplete. But MLB is determined to do this as a way to, quote, "correct a longtime oversight in the game's history."

SIMON: Oversight. And there has been some rich skepticism - hasn't it? - from reporters we know and respect?

GOLDMAN: We do. Our WESAT colleague Howard Bryant wrote a powerful piece yesterday saying what MLB really needed to do is acknowledge that existing - excluding, excuse me, Black players for so long wasn't an oversight, but a deliberate system that reinforced Black inferiority like the rest of society did. And it would be much more significant to keep Negro League stats separate and not blend them with major league stats as a way to preserve the difficult history of...

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: ...What Negro Leaguers experienced - substandard facilities and travel, inconsistent schedules and those imperfect stats.

SIMON: I feel obliged as the author of a book about Jackie Robinson to point out - Jackie Robinson, of course, was the biggest all-sports college athlete in the country - track, base, basketball, even a great golfer. He did not like the five months that he played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs. He certainly - the racism, the indignity of traveling by bus through America as a Black team in 1945. He respected his fellow athletes but also thought there was a kind of circus aspect to the league. Like the great, peerless pitcher Satchel Paige would wave three men onto the bases so he could strike out the side.

You talked to an important person in Negro League history this year.

GOLDMAN: I did. In - 96-year-old Bill Greason, one of the few living former Negro Leaguers. He played on the Birmingham Black Barons in the late 1940s with Willie Mays. He told me he did like his time in the Negro Leagues. And I asked him if he and those he played with were angry about being kept out of the majors, and here's what he said.

BILL GREASON: No, no, no. We just enjoy playing baseball. And the salaries weren't that much, so we had to enjoy it. And once Jackie broke the thing, then we felt that we had an opportunity to make it to the majors.

GOLDMAN: And, Scott, Greason, in fact, did make it for one season in 1954. But certainly, many, many Negro Leaguers playing long before Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947 - they didn't have the opportunity and likely did feel the anger from...

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: ...Being kept out.

SIMON: And let us note as we leave, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford racked up her 1,099th win on Tuesday. She's now surpassed Pat Summitt of Tennessee for most victories in Division I women's basketball.

GOLDMAN: And it's a great achievement for her. She was always a bit under the radar in the women's game because Summitt commanded most of the attention. But now is VanDerveer's moment to shine - and using that moment in a bigger and timely way by encouraging donations to food banks, which she is doing. So good on her.

SIMON: Tom Goldman, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.