As MLB changes its records, Josh Gibson, not Ty Cobb, is the all-time batting leader

It’s been an article of faith for nearly a century, as if recorded on a tablet by Abner Doubleday himself: The greatest hitter in the history of the Major Leagues is, and always will be, Tyrus Raymond Cobb.

But the story evolves. We know that Doubleday did not, in fact, invent baseball. And starting Wednesday, Josh Gibson will replace Cobb as the leading hitter in the game’s official records. At .372, Gibson’s batting average eclipses Cobb’s by six points.

Major League Baseball on Wednesday will announce the results of a newly integrated statistical database covering the records of the Negro Leagues that operated from 1920 to 1948. The formal acceptance of the data comes three and a half years after MLB officially recognized to the Negro Leagues as Major Leagues in December 2020.

“People will feel, I don’t know if it bothers them, but they may feel uncomfortable with some Negro Leagues stars now on the career and season leaderboards,” said Larry Lester, a longtime Negro Leagues researcher and author. time and who served on the Committee.

“The die-hards may not accept the statistics, but that’s okay. I welcome conversations at the bar, barbershop or pool hall. That’s why we do what we do.”

Leaders in career batting average

Player batting average

jose gibson

.372

Ty Cobb

.367

Oscar Charleston

.363

Rogers Hornsby

.358

John Wilson

.350

Turkey Stearnes

.348

Ed Delahanty

.346

Buck Leonard

.3. 4. 5

Tris speaker

.3. 4. 5

Ted Williams

.344

John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, said that with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants playing a game at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, next month, the time was right to release the committee’s findings. Thorn estimated that about 75 percent of all Negro Leagues scores have been documented and that MLB would update the records as more are discovered.

To some extent, the Negro League’s numbers will always be a work in progress. Impact games, essential as a financial lifeline for Negro League teams, are not included in the statistics.

“For example, the Kansas City Monarchs travel to Chicago and once they get to the city, they play as many games as possible,” Lester said. “So instead of a three-game series, they play five, and along the way, they might stop in Moline and play the home team to get some change.

“According to the players I interviewed, they say they played almost every day, sometimes two or three games a day and not in the same place. So they played probably between 150 and 175 games a year, but only between 60 and 80 games counted in the league standings.”

Those shorter official seasons, MLB noted in a statement announcing the change, naturally lead to some “extremes in the standings.” But the league verified a 60-game season during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with that as recent precedent, Thorn said, it made sense to verify the Negro League’s seasons as well.

“The irregularity of their league schedules, established in the spring but improvised in the summer, were not their doing but were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices,” MLB said in the statement.

The committee used the same statistical minimums for Negro League leaders as for the National and American Leagues: 3.1 plate appearances or 1 inning pitched per scheduled team game. Scheduled games range from 26 (Negro American League, 1942) to 91 (Negro National League I, 1927).

The new accounting gives Gibson not only the record for career batting average, but also the single-season mark of .466 in 1943, followed by Chino Smith’s .451 in 1929. The previous record, the mark of Hugh Duffy’s .440 for Boston in 1894, falls. to third.

Single-season batting average

Name AVG (season)

jose gibson

.466 (1943)

Chino Smith

.451 (1929)

Hugo Duffy

.440 (1894)

Oscar Charleston

.434 (1921)

charlie blackwell

.432 (1921)

Ross Barnes

.429 (1876)

Oscar Charleston

.427 (1925)

mule suttles

.425 (1926)

Willie Keeler

.424 (1897)

Rogers Hornsby

.424 (1924)

However, in baseball benchmark, Gibson’s .466 isn’t even boldfaced in the ledger of his career. That’s because another Gibson League hitter, Tetelo Vargas of the New York Cubans, hit .471, which the website considers his career high.

Vargas is credited with 136 plate appearances that season. But MLB considers that league’s schedule to be 47 games, so Vargas does not reach the minimum of 146 plate appearances required by MLB to be recognized as a league leader.

On baseball’s benchmark single-season batting average leaderboard, Vargas and Gibson are followed by another .466 hitter: Lyman Bostock Sr., the father of the Twins and Angels star outfielder who was murdered after a game in Chicago in 1978.

Bostock Sr.’s .466 mark is recognized by baseball references as the highest average in 1941 (which is why Ted Williams’ legendary .406 for the Red Sox in 1941 is not italicized on the site). But MLB doesn’t recognize Bostock Sr.’s average in the new single-season leaderboard, because he did it in just 84 plate appearances.

“Here’s the difference,” said Sean Forman, president of Sports Reference LLC. “Throughout the Negro League statistics, there are games missing; maybe we have the score of the game that was played, but we don’t have the corresponding score.

“So I’m looking at Bostock in 1941. We have 23 game records for him, and we have the Birmingham Black Barons (Bostock’s team) with 45 games that season. So Bostock, with 84 plate appearances, would be below the threshold of 45 times 3.1. The thing is, he has more than 3.1 per game in the games where we have scores. We use that number to set the minimum.

“We have certain reasons for making the decisions we made, and the MLB has certain reasons for making the decisions they made.”


Ty Cobb’s career average has long been the highest mark in MLB. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Baseball-reference uses Negro League statistics from the Seamheads database, a project that Lester said began with an MLB grant in 2000. Researchers Gary Ashwill and Kevin Johnson exhaustively searched for verified scores, and while both are in the committee, it took them years. for MLB and Seamheads to agree on data implementation.

“There were tough negotiations,” Thorn acknowledged. “And part of the difficulty was not financial – that was almost set aside and agreed – it was how the statistics would be used and what level of participation Seamheads could have on an ongoing basis. It took us a long time to reach an agreement, but once we reached an agreement, we brought Retrosheet on board as an additional statistical partner. And, of course, we already had Elías on board as our official statistician, the one responsible for auditing the data.”

career OPS

Name OPS

jose gibson

1,177

Babe Ruth

1,164

Ted Williams

1,116

Lou Gehrig

1,079

Oscar Charleston

1,063

Barry Bonds

1,051

Buck Leonard

1,042

Jimmie Foxx

1,037

Turkey Stearnes

1,033

mule suttles

1,031

It took more than two years for these entities to come together. But once they did, the pace apparently quickened. Thorn said the committee was careful to rely solely on box scores, not simply game tallies. Gibson was reported to have hit four home runs in one game in 1938, for example, but without a score, there’s no way to make all the numbers work.

“If a guy hits a home run, he hits it off someone,” Thorn said. “Therefore, in the absence of the double-entry accounting required to balance the entire historical record of Major League Baseball, we cannot make exceptions for anecdotal evidence.”

professional era

Name WAS

Ed Walsh

1.82

Addie Joss

1.89

Mordecai Brown

2.06

John Ward

2.1

Christy Mathewson

2.13

Ruben Waddell

2.16

Walter Johnson

2.17

David Brown

2.24

tommy bond

2.25

it will be white

2.28

Likewise, Thorn said, a game report from 1948 says Willie Mays hit a home run for Birmingham. But without a score to verify it, Mays’ home run total remains at 660, all with the Giants and Mets.

The records are not complete, but they are accurate in what they cover, as far as the MLB is concerned. The meticulous investigation demands it.

“It takes me about 30 minutes to enter a box score, line by line, number by number, and then I perform data integrity checks at the end of the season,” Lester said. “I have approximately 16,000 scores in my database, so it took me years to complete the task.

“But it’s fun. We welcome the critics, the doubters. But we know the numbers are solid.”

Decades ago, Lester said, people told him that the numbers simply didn’t exist: “that African Americans were apathetic about recording baseball history,” he said. He’s proud to have helped change that trope, to unearth the numbers that validate the achievements of Oscar Charleston, Bullet Rogan, Turkey Stearnes and others.

Reviewed records, even certified as official, will not convince everyone. Lester understands. And despite all the meticulous record-keeping, the questions of segregation can never be resolved.

“Critics will say, ‘Well, (Gibson) only played against other black teams,’” Lester said. “Well, Babe Ruth never hit a home run against a black pitcher, and Josh Gibson never hit a home run against a white pitcher. So I guess what I’m saying is that the amount of melanin or lack thereof does not indicate greatness in a baseball player.”

(Top photo of Gibson statue in Washington, DC: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)