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Black History Month, day 19

Pitchers and catchers are reporting. Looks like it’s time for a visit to the Negro Leagues.

Professional baseball was not really officially segregated; it didn’t have to be. After 1900, teams maintained their no-blacks status through a “gentlemen’s agreement,” to use one of the more bizarre misnomers in our language. Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, deserves a lot of the blame, as various managers tried to add black players to their teams (sometimes even passing them off as Indians or white) but were prevented from doing so by Landis. In the 19th century, baseball teams had frequently been made up of a mix of races.

If baseball had been integrated during his lifetime, Josh Gibson would very likely be remembered as the best player in major league history (as it is, he’s widely considered the game’s greatest catcher). In a short career–he died at age 35, a few months before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers–he posted incredible stats, even allowing for the purported inaccuracy of Negro League and Caribbean records. He is sometimes referred to as “the black Babe Ruth,” but given Gibson’s approximately 800 career home runs (Ruth hit 714; the MLB record holder, Barry Bonds, hit 762) and his career batting average of .359 (Ruth’s was a mere .342), the Babe ought to be called “the white Josh Gibson.”

A particularly nasty strain of racism in baseball implies that black players don’t make good pitchers or catchers–not coincidentally, the brains of the team. Apparently the advocates of this point of view never heard of Gibson, or pitcher Satchel Paige either.

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