Larry Lester, the Negro Leagues historian who has spent five decades in libraries combing clippings of newspapers from bygone days, sounded a little shocked by becoming an overnight celebrity.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook since the decision was announced,” Lester said from his home in Kansas City.
Though no active players nor current franchises were involved, the decision issued by Major League Baseball Wednesday was heavily freighted with significance: MLB was granting full recognition to seven Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. Going forward those leagues will be recognized as official major leagues, with their records and statistics counted in baseball’s record books.
“All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
Maybe others lent louder voices to this righteous cause but no one contributed more than Lester, an honoured member of the Society of American Baseball Research. In fact, his research began before the founding of SABR, those folks who do the deepest dives into the history of the game at all levels.
Lester described the announcement from the commissioner’s office as “bittersweet.”
“I never thought it would happen, but it did,” he said. “I’m extremely pleased. It’s been a long journey and if it never happened, I’d still be happy with the work and research I’ve done.”
If waiting makes the payoff more worthwhile, then none of us are likely to know the satisfaction Lester is enjoying with the decision. For many and probably most, 2020 was a year that we could do without, a year riven with tragedy. It was, however, the year when the push for recognition of Negro League Baseball, gained critical mass.
“It was a matter of timing. The Black Lives Matter movement factored in, no doubt. There’s a different social consciousness and a greater awareness around the country and more and more people were starting to look at the Negro Leagues. And they were coming away thinking, ‘Maybe Black baseball matters also.’”
Lester believes that the decision should be good news for MLB and not just a good-news story—that is, this embrace of history and diversity should have a positive effect on the game and not just generate a day’s worth of positive publicity.
“It should help Major League Baseball recruit some Black fans,” he said. “They can start the serious inclusion of a Black baseball history and some of these statistical new leaders, whoever they may be, into the mindset of fans. It should generate more excitement. The decision to give full recognition to the Negro Leagues benefits MLB as much as it benefits the history of Black baseball.”
That said, Lester said that he’s prepared for some blowback and in fact has already met some resistance. The most petty stuff he can easily dismiss and laugh about.
“People have their agendas,” he said. “I’ve got some pushback and it was not unexpected. You have people who say they’re baseball authorities who don’t want Negro Leagues to be included because then they have to study the Black leagues … or people who collect Hall of Famers’ autographs but with Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame, their collections become incomplete. I know a trivia champ [with SABR]. He hates this because he’s going to lose to me next year when they ask what were the only opening day, no hitters in baseball history. He only knows Bob Feller. Right? I know Bob Feller and Leon Day [with the Newark Eagles] in 1946.”
Other criticism, though, he acknowledges will not only be tougher to take but also be intended to discredit the Negro Leagues’ standing as a major league. Nay-sayers will claim that the records of Negro League players remain incomplete and unreliable and will look for holes and errors in statistical histories.
“Some people are scared that the Negro Leagues will take over the record book based on our research but that’s simply not true,” he said. “They’ll say that the numbers and records can’t be trusted but going back to the 20s we found 99 per cent of [the box scores of] Negro League games. It fell off a bit during the Depression with Black newspapers being in trouble, but by the late 30s, all the games were there again.
“We’re not trying to embellish the records and we’re not trying to. More importantly, we will not say Josh Gibson hit 800 home runs when he’d never played in 803 games. We don’t need that embellishment that happened. That type of hype is unnecessary to show his greatness, statistically speaking. There’s some fear among the critics that we’re going to try to make [Gibson] the all-time career home run leader when that’s not the case.”
Lester wasn’t quite taking a victory lap on Wednesday. “I can’t do cartwheels anymore,” he said. Neither was he looking at MLB’s recognition of Black baseball history as an end point for his work. In fact, he’s assuming that the spotlight on the Negro League will raise the stakes in his research.
“I need to be punctual [about delivery of research] and more accurate in providing documentation,” he said. “If I make one mistake, critics will try to discredit everything. I have to be prepared to defend everything that I put out there because naysayers are out there looking for any mistake they can find. It’s just how society works.”
At this point, however, Lester’s life’s work has taken a significant turn. He no longer has to make a case for the Negro Leagues as a major league. Rather, he’s in a position to defend MLB’s historical verdict and he sounds eager to take on the challenge.
“Bring it on,” Lester said. “I’m ready for it. I’m very competitive. I welcome to naysayers. I welcome to critics. Anyone who wants to debate me on whether the Negro Leagues are a major entity, I welcome your emails and your phone calls. This is what I’ve been wanting for the past 50 years … an equal opportunity to present my argument.”