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'They truly deserve it:' Families of Negro Leaguers rejoice in MLB's decision to recognize league


Bob Nightengale   | USA TODAY
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The families didn’t need to hear the news to legitimize their late fathers and grandfathers.

They never thought it was necessary to authenticate the Negro Leagues.

Everything was already validated in the memories and the stories left behind by their great ancestors.

Still, when Major League Baseball announced that the nearly 3,400 players who played in the Negro League from 1920-1948 would have their statistics finally recognized by MLB, the families of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard loudly rejoiced, substantiating that their ancestors truly will be remembered as the greatest to ever play the game.

“We can’t erase time and undo what has been done,’’ Linda Paige, the daughter of Satchel Paige, told USA TODAY Sports from her Kansas City home. “You can’t right a wrong. It’s nice they’re doing this, but these guys didn’t look for legitimacy. Stats didn’t make them legitimate. They were legitimate.

“These individuals came from nothing and took their God-given ability to better themselves. Can you imagine what they went through to overcome all of that? I’d like to move forward and not forget the past.

“It’s a tragedy that these players are not alive to celebrate this, but the real tragedy would have been to let their legacy die. At least the families can celebrate this.’’

Sean Gibson, the great grandson of Josh Gibson, believes the incorporation of Negro League stats should enhance his hopes of having the MVP award named in Josh Gibson’s honor. The Baseball Writers' Association of America stripped Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis off the MVP plaque this year for preventing MLB from being integrated during his tenure, and it would be only fitting for the award to be named after Gibson.

Certainly, with Gibson’s stats now being included among all Major League records, his statue in the record books should help the campaign.

Gibson won’t be credited with becoming baseball’s all-time home run king, with legend having that he hit about 800 homers including exhibitions and barnstorming tours, but only 194 will be counted in Negro League games, but his inclusion re-writes the record books.

Gibson, who hit .466 in 69 games for the 1943 Homestead Grays, would have the highest batting average in baseball history, and eclipse Ted Williams as the last man to hit .400. He also would rank second behind Ty Cobb in history with a .361 career batting average.

“It’s exciting for all of us, perfect timing really,’’ Sean Gibson said. “People can see where Josh ranks with the greatest white players, and players of all time. He’ll be second in batting average, fifth in all-time on-base percentage, and in the top 10 in a lot of records.

“He won’t be in the home-run category since they’re not counting semi-pro and barnstorming games, but my argument is that Josh Gibson didn’t make that choice. He would have played in all of those games in the major leagues if Landis had let him.’’

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The sweet revenge would be for Gibson to now be the man to replace Landis on the MVP plaque.

“I hope this really helps Josh’s case because there was always speculation how Josh ranked with some of the great players in Major Leagues,’’ Sean Gibson said. “Well, now we know. He definitely would have won the MVP award plenty of times based on his numbers.’’

Perhaps no one’s statistics will be more illuminated than Paige, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. He made his major-league debut at the age of 42 with Cleveland, going 28-31 with a 3.29 ERA in 179 career games.

Yet, he spent the previous 21 seasons pitching during his prime in the Negro Leagues, making his debut in 1927 for Birmingham, so his official stats now will read: 140-91 with a 2.58 ERA.

“What people should remember is that maybe they didn’t keep all of the stats,’’ Linda Paige said, “but that didn’t keep them from playing. Maybe all of the games didn’t count, but they still loved playing. They loved what they did.

“I think anything to protect the legacy of my father and the other players are phenomenal. They truly deserve it.’’

It’s unknown whether MLB’s inclusion of the Negro League players will lead to pensions or licensing fees, but certainly, the families say, it will provide further recognition for their foundations such as the Buck Leonard Association for Sports and Human Enrichment in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Rose Hunter, Leonard’s daughter, hopes the renewed recognition will increase fundraising for their library, the Negro Leagues Education Center, and the Buck Leonard RBI Baseball League.

“It’s been a long time coming,’’ Hunter said. “We hope that justice will fall like rain one day, like what Martin Luther King said, to make American the beautiful. We are delighted.

“We don’t have a great connection with MLB, and we feel sometimes out of the loop, but hopefully this improves things. Kids can grow up learning about the Negro Leagues and the issues they faced growing up.

“I just think it’s so appropriate that in the 11th hour of his particular year, with the centennial celebration of the Negro Leagues, that this happened.

“This is definitely a gift for us all.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale