Seems that pretty much every time there’s a discussion about the Greatest Baseball Players of All Time, someone mentions that you can’t really judge the players from before the integration of Major League Baseball because they never got to face any of the players in the Negro Leagues.
To me, rather than making a useful observation on racism, the bias in the statistics, or to promote the skills of the Negro League players, it’s used instead to dismiss the talents of the white players.
But just how much of an effect could it have had? How often would Lefty Grove faced Josh Gibson, or Jimmie Foxx have come to bat against “Smokey” Joe Williams? No team or player would be facing the Negro League All-Stars every day, right?
There’s an easy way to test this.
Assemble a draft pool of all the great Negro League players who never got a whiff of the “Major” Leagues. Doesn’t matter when they played, as long as it was pre-Integration. Those whose careers straddled the line (e.g. Satchel Paige) are ineligible. That should be plenty of players (I count over two dozen who meet that criteria in the Hall of Fame). When it comes to their stats, go with their best season (as far as the people at Seamheads have been able to determine). This is a fantasy, after all.
Now, pick a year when the Negro Leagues were at their peak. For an example, let’s go with 1937 – it doesn’t really matter that much.
Now, let’s suppose that using our reality-distorting superpowers, we call for MLB to draft players from our pool at the start of that season. It will be a fairly normal draft, with the worst team (by won-lost percentage in 1936) getting first pick; second-worst gets second pick, etc. For overall fairness, it will have to be a “snake” draft, where after all teams in the worst-to-best order make their picks, the second round goes best-to-worst, the third round is worst-to-best, and so on. The catch is that for every player you draft, you have to drop someone from your roster to stay under the 25-player limit. And don’t expect to stock up on players at one position. Sure, the Reds might love to have Josh Gibson behind the plate, but what do they do with All Star (and future Hall of Famer) Ernie Lombardi?
Clearly, at some point, you’re going to run out of players who are better than those you already have on your roster.
When no team wants to draft anyone, the draft is over.
Now, use whatever baseball simulation game you have to take the final rosters and run through a full season.
How different will the stats be for the “white” players?
Even with this fantasy system where we’re giving the Negro League players a serious advantage (picking personal best seasons over all of the decades the Negro Leagues existed), I’ll bet you there won’t be much of a difference. Oscar Charleston can’t play every position for every team….
If you do run this draft, let me know how it turns out.