Uncovering the history of the hidden leagues

This Robert Scott card was a mystery.

A couple of years ago, I felt the pull of my inner 10-year-old and bought a pack of Topps’ Allen & Ginter series baseball cards. Out of it I pulled a couple of current stars, a few rookies and a guy named Robert Scott. I’d never heard of Robert Scott. I immediately felt embarrassed.

The back of his card explained immediately that Scott had been a star in the Negro Leagues, the circuit created as a result of the exclusion of those whose skin was deemed too dark to compete in the majors. It’s the ugliest stain on the game’s history, but born out of a policy based on hatred is a rich history of some of the most entertaining baseball ever played.

There were untold talents in those leagues, players who would’ve dazzled in the national spotlight, forced instead to dazzle for fans across the country, playing side lots, school fields and the occasional Major League park for amazed crowds. That story is often told through oral histories and anecdotes, best absorbed in biographies and the occasional documentary.

But the people of Baseball-Reference.com have done a wonderful thing this week. As part of their already dizzying catalog of baseball history, they’ve unveiled their Negro Leagues statistics, a database of accomplishments official league games, pulled from more than 40 years of box scores and newspaper reports.

Finally, just a few zips from Ted Williams and Dizzy Dean live the accomplishments of the greats who never got to play in the major leagues, as well as the role players who were denied their chance in the majors.

There are holes, of course. The biggest gap is in the exclusion of exhibitions. With the loose nature of the leagues and contracts (players glided between teams as schedules allowed), the true, grinding nature of barnstorming life for these players is hidden. It doesn’t take much digging into the life of Satchel Paige to uncover stories of him starting both ends of a double header, for instance. Here, he’s credited with a record of 100 wins and 50 losses between 1927 and 1947, where modest estimates had him easily winning four, five, perhaps 10 times as many games.

But what is documented is who he played for in those years, and in which leagues. In 1930, for instance, Paige pitched for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Chicago American Giants of the National Negro League, and the Baltimore Black Sox of the Independent Negro League.

Josh Gibson, meanwhile, seemed to be the picture of stability, spending 11 of his 16 seasons with the Homestead Grays, with five years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the middle. Again, the plate appearances seem off (only 102 in 1937?), leading to only 107 career home runs. Some accounts have him hitting as many as 84 home runs in a scattershot 1936 season, but only six of them came in league games.

While those many games may be lost to time, the true beauty of the database is that for the first time, these in-league accomplishments are finally documented. In some instances, we have full rosters of teams like Chicago’s legendary American Giants, led by Cristóbal Torriente, who we now know was a .331 lifetime hitter.

Dig a little deeper and find the 1940 Kansas City Monarchs, led by 28-year-old Buck O’Neil and his .326 average to accompany an .811 OPS. It’s easily the most entertaining spider hole the web has given us since Wikipedia, a treasure trove of baseball information that will only grow stronger over time.

I went looking for Scott, that once-mysterious pitcher I pulled from a pack of cards two years ago. Unfortunately, Scott’s ventures through the game are sparsely noted. A search reveals a number of Robert or Bob Scotts, though none seem to match up with this player’s career. He’s also left uncounted on the roster for the New York Black Yankees from 1946 to 1950, a period of time documented on his Negro League Baseball Players Association page.

But, as their release on the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s site notes, the work is not done. Like the rest of the Baseball-Reference site, the work will likely never be complete.

What we have now, as fans, is a living document of perhaps the most fascinating age in baseball. While the white leadership of baseball, ultimately led by Kenisaw Mountain Landis, kept so many players out of the game, those players created another world for themselves, playing a skilled version of the game, loaded with players who would have given the establishment a run for their money and roster spots.

There’s no undoing that. For decades, they were shut out of the game. At least now, they won’t be entirely shut out of the scoresheet.

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