In this week’s Outsider Baseball Bulletin, I’m conducting a cool little experiment to see what baseball might have looked like, if segregation had been in force in the 1970s. I’m definetly not in favor of segregation, but I believe a properly conducted sim could help untangle the mystery of how good teams such as the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs may have been. Go to the web site and subscribe today, or drop me a line at outsiderbb (@) gmail.com to get a snail mail order form or list of back issues.
Tag Archives: Negro Leagues
Before we answer that, a little history for you. During the summer, Joe Lillard played outfield and pitched a little bit for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues. During the fall, he kicked, ran, threw and tackled for the Chicago Cardinals in the integrated National Football League.
In this picture, we see Joe scampering 50+ yards for a touchdown on a punt return. Giving chase is a guy you may have heard of before: The Galloping Ghost….Hall of Famer Harold “Red” Grange (#77).
After the football season, during the winter, Lillard put on the shorts and played some professional basketball with an independent team.
TRIVIA QUESTION ANSWER: Joe Lillard’s punt return occurred in Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs….and site of more official NFL games (Bears and Cardinals games) than any other arena ever!
USA Today’s *Page 3.0*, focuses on “sports coverage online and on TV,” but thus far I haven’t actually seen this particular story online (or on TV)! So, I’ve reprinted the entire piece here. Let me give some props to USA Today and Bob Kimball. Thanks.
UPDATE: USA Today appears to have it posted here.
Negro Leagues get their due online
Baseball fans who love statistics- now there’s a redundancy- are about to get a jolt of satisfaction courtesy of two historians.
The endeavor is an off-shoot of Simkus’ work on Negro Leaguers last fall with the computer and board game Strat-O-Matic.
“The game sort of reignited interest in the Negro Leagues,” Simkus says.
Using the growing amount of information already digitized, the pair hopes to have up to eight seasons available by April and 25 up this year, including the Negro League from 1916 to 1922 and the Cuban Winter League from 1904 to 1913.
Ashwill believes the project will right a wrong. “It’s about historical justice…you can’t really look up Josh Gibson the same way you can Babe Ruth and get their numbers,” he says.
Accuracy about Negro League stats has long been questioned, but Simkus says he’s confident about his project. Because he and Ashwill will match mathematical formulas, Simkus pegs batting averages at 97-98% accurate, RBI at 85% and ERA at 85-90%.
But why would two men who have jobs undertake such a large project?
“Seven days a week…thinking of baseball,” Simkus says.
“It’s an obsession.”
We’re really looking forward to working with Sean Forman on this project.
But first, I just want to apologize to my stat-widow wife and research-orphan kids right now. The next couple years are sort of booked.
Oh, I almost forgot the new weekly ezine (Outsider Baseball Bulletin), which is scheduled to be released in April. We’ll have a web site up and everything. The magazine is going to feature a nice combination of original research, analysis, essays and humor. The focus will be baseball history (duh), with a heavy emphasis on Negro League, Cuban, Semi-Pro and Major League barnstorming. It’s going to be a subscription deal, but I’m giving away free copies at the beginning. Simply email me at email@example.com. Put “baseball” in the subject line and we’ll send you a free copy when the new rag hits the digital streets.
And: If you haven’t already picked up the Strat-O-Matic Negro League set, shame on you! Go to www.strat-o-matic.com post haste!
Gary Ashwill was one of the key figures behind unraveling the mystery of Hall of Famer Pete Hill’s life story and home town. The fascinating details can be found here.
“It may not happen when you want it to, but it’ll be right on time.”
I remember watching a documentary where a grizzled blues musician sipped flat beer and coughed up those little pearls of wisdom during the course of an interview. Not sure if it’s a lyric from an old song, or a dated Mississippi Delta self-help mantra (a way to keep yourself sane when you were getting paid $4 for a seven-hour set in some smoke-filled blues bar in the middle of nowheresville); but the expression struck a chord with me then, and now, now that the new Strat-O-Matic web site and Negro league All-Star set is available.
It’s been a long time coming, buddy, but it’s right on time.
As a long-time fan of Strat-O, I’m excited about the new web site. Slick, intuitive; it’s a fantastic jumping-off point for the future of a great little company and their innovative selection of games. Like the new Yankee Stadium, Strat-O-Matic’s new online home was long overdue. A franchise such as Hal Richman’s deserves only the best and this bodes well for those of us who care about the game.
As has been repeated enough over the past year, to the point where its become nauseous (sorry about that, guys), I’ve spent the past several years working as a consultant to the Strat-O-Matic game company, focusing on their Negro League All-Star set. The opportunity is really the product of happenstance, lucky timing on my part.
The Negro League set couldn’t have been produced 30 years ago, as our knowledge of blackball then was mired in what fellow baseball researcher Gary Ashwill has called the “hazy netherworld of unverifiable myth, tall tales, gut feelings and subjective judgments.” Truth is the set couldn’t have been produced ten years ago, let alone thirty. The data, or more accurately, the access to raw data in the form of box scores, was still outside our grasp. The timing wasn’t right.
So why now? How’s the research game changed over the past ten years? What’s different? As my involvement with the project winds down, I’ve given this question a little thought. I’ve settled on what I believe there are five key elements at play here, things which have coalesced in recent years and made the set a reality. In list form, they are:
- HISTORICAL FOUNDATION. We have forty years of Negro league research upon which to build. During the research phase, I must have consulted close to 100 books about the black leagues and/or its players, teams and ballparks during the past several years, all of which have had an impact one way or another on the set. But out of this small library, there are really six author/researchers without whom I couldn’t have survived. They are Robert Peterson, John Holway, James A. Riley, Dick Clark, Larry Lester and Phil Dixon. Four books in particular; Only The Ball Was White (Peterson), The Complete Book of the Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Holway), The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (Riley), and The Negro Leagues Book (Clark and Lester), are really the walls of support in the foundation of blackball knowledge. These four volumes; with their rosters, biographical info, statistical data and oral history provide the road map which all subsequent baseball historians can follow. These authors (and the anonymous people who have helped them behind the scenes), have produced work representing what must exceed 100 combined years of indispensable research.
- BILL JAMES. Yeah, I know, I know; he has an excellent chapter on black baseball in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, but blackball (by his own admission) isn’t his strongest suit. Yet it’s the other stuff, the sabermetric gadgets: ballpark effects, MLEs and league context issues, which are invaluable for creating a realistic baseball simulation.
- WINDOWS, INTERNET and EXCEL. I don’t want to insult anybody’s intelligence by trying to explain why these things are crucial. I was a member of the last group at my high school to take a typing class (on a genuine, good old-fashioned typewriter). We spent a few weeks studying the dewey decimal system. We had to learn how to track down specific magazine articles using a gigantic Hogwart’s-like book of tiny font citations, then, if we were lucky enough to discover an abstract which may (or may not) be of value, we’d check our Library Catalog to see if they actually carried the specific magazine we needed. They never did, so we’d return to the thick book and start over. Certain aspects of the old days sucked.
- NEWSPAPER DIGITIZATION. Last night, in the span of only an hour or two, I uncovered 15 or 20 new historical box scores I’d never seen before. These are Negro league teams versus white semi-pro outfits, part of a new “mad scientist” project I’m working on. The point is, every single day literally thousands of scanned newspaper images become available on the web, through a variety of different sources. When I started the Strat project (before it was actually the Strat-O-Matic project), I needed to use the old-fashioned microfilm editions of the Pittsburgh Courier (and other papers) to get those Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords box scores, which required, um, leaving the house and going to a library. Sitting in front of a machine and paying for photocopies. Near the end of the research phase for the game, I finally got access to the Courier in digital format, which allowed me to back track and double check things with ridiculous speed. Because of the internet and digitization, we can do things in five months which previously took five or ten years. By the end of next year, we’ll be able to gather information in five days which might have taken five or ten years to compile in the past. It’s a great time to be a researcher.
- CULTURE SHIFT. The country is simply a much different place than it was back in 1970, when Peterson first released his watershed book on black baseball. If anything, it’s a much more inclusive place. The Negro league legacy (warts and all), has been embraced by the Major Leagues and dozens of veterans from the black leagues have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his Afterword to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Baseball’s Great Experiment, author Jules Tygiel writes “Ironically, Americans, black and white, seem more aware of the Negro Leagues than they did in their heyday.”
Well, it’s about time. I hope you enjoy the game.
QUICK TIP FOR PEOPLE NEW TO STRAT-O-MATIC: I suggest beginning with the board game to get a feel for the game engine before graduating up to the computer version. Remember- You’ll need to get the game parts with the Negro League card set. After putting the Negro League set in your shopping cart, you’ll have to go under the Baseball Board Game section and look under “Individual Game Parts.” Under this section, scroll down to the product called “Baseball Game Setup.” For just $16, this has all the charts, dice, etc. that you’ll need to play the game.
By the way, if you have the coin, I’d strongly suggest getting the Hall of Fame/Negro League combo card set. For just $69.95, you’ll have all the greats, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb…and Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell.
There’s been a lot of interest in Pittsburgh’s long, gone Greenlee Field. With the impending release of the Strat-O-Matic Negro League Set, I’ve been asked whether or not this park is going to be included as part of the project. The answer, hardcore baseball simulation fans, is YES! Greenlee, along with several other venues from the defunct black leagues will be included as part of the offering.
Now on to that mysterious right field wall in Pittsburgh. Greenlee was the field constructed by Pittsburgh Crawfords’ owner Gus Greenlee back in the early 1930s. It was torn down after only 7 seasons and sold to the government. Although the home park of several legendary Hall of Famers, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, very few photographs of the venue survive. There’s also been a bit of mystery regarding the construction of the park, including the size of the right-field wall.
In Philip J. Lowry’s Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks, he writes of Greenlee “(There was an) embankment in play in front of a very low one-foot-high concrete wall in front of the bleachers in right, which were up on a hill.”
In another book (perhaps the one written by Eric Enders), it is suggested the one-foot-high wall was (and I’m paraphrasing here), the shortest fence in Major League history. (Edit: Turns out, NO, this isn’t from Enders’ book)
Now, most of this is accurate. There WAS a one-foot-high concrete wall in front of the bleachers (actually, the wall was probably closer to two or three feet high), and the stands were, indeed, built into the side of a hill. But it turns out there was a fence in play, as well, which to my knowledge has never been mentioned before. By using the zoom feature on one of the photographs at the Pittsburgh Historical Society’s online archives, we can see the outline of what is clearly a wire fence with wood frames in front of the bleachers. In fact, it appears this fence is probably 12 or 14 feet tall!
So, yes, there was a short concrete wall, but this was merely the base for a regulation height, chicken wire fence. Small detail, yes, but I think it’s important to set the record straight. Take a gander below…
According to Steve Barkan at Strat-O-Matic, the highly anticipated Negro League set (and new company web site), is getting very, very close. As in…any day now. So stay tuned.
I want to publicly thank Hal, Steve and Bob for their work on the set. The bells and whistles on this product, as well as the superior card quality, is perhaps unprecedented at Strat. It has proven to have been worth the wait.
I’m going to assume those who visit this blog on a semi-regular basis don’t require an extended introduction about Josh Gibson. Real quick: He was a catcher, played in the Negro Leagues, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame during the Nixon administration. He was the so-called “Black Babe Ruth,” in large part because of his ability to hit baseballs a long, long way; and although much of his Negro League career has been unearthed and calculated- here in August of 2009, over sixty years after he died- more than 50% of his career is still missing, yet to be pulled from the rubble.
We don’t have YouTube clips of Josh, or historic audio files of Vin Scully or whomever describing him in action, as he cut his swath across the black baseball landscape. But we do have newspaper clippings. Hundreds of them, in fact, written by those fortunate enough to have seen the man in action. These are baseball letters from the past, penned by black and white reporters from small towns and large cities, chronicaling the accomplishments of Gibson, Satchel and John Beckwith. Their reports have become gifts to us, dispatches from the great beyond.
To follow, in chronological order, is Volume One of Josh Gibson’s greatest hits, a text-based highlight reel of the legendary catcher at the plate. These are pulled from actual newspaper accounts of Pittsburgh Crawfords’ and Homestead Grays’ games, little vignettes of the man some called “The Basher.” Hope you enjoy them…
“Josh Gibson, a local lad, furnished part of the batting fireworks by pounding out a long home run with one on the paths.”
“…the Grays clouted three home runs. Gibson clouting one of the longest balls that have been hit at the park this season, straight over the center field fence.”
“Gibson, who is billed as the champion Negro long distance hitter, came though for the fans when he sunk one in the lake in deep left center. It was a terrific smash.”
“Josh Gibson’s four-base wallop into the center field stands in the last inning of Saturday’s second game, also scoring Page, spelled out a 4 to 3 defeat for the hustling Jamestown (NY) Spiderwebs.”
“Josh Gibson thrilled (the crowd) with a long home run.”
“Gibson hit two of the longest home runs ever witnessed in Delaware county. One of these mammoth home runs cleared the railroad tracks in left centerfield, and the other landed on the concrete base of the tower on these same tracks and bounced down to the Dewey School, or so it seemed.”
“Josh Gibson then greeted a Bennett pitch with a hidden dynamo and it sailed far, wide and handsome, over the railroad tracks…..(and then later) Gibson was the first at bat in the third, and the rugged receiver almost duplicated his smack, for the second home run in two tries.”
“…the prodigious wallop that Josh Gibson, hefty home run slugger of the Grays, lofted clear over the left field fence in the first game.”
“Josh Gibson led the parade with a mighty drive which sailed over the ticket office in deep centerfield and crashed into the railroad wall across the alley from the park.”
“In the second game, Gibson sailed one over the extreme centerfield fence, the ball passing out of the lot at a point where the big tree stands at the end of the fence and start of the garages in centerfield.”
“Gibson, regular catcher for the Homestead club, was sent to (play) right field and during the encounter cracked four home runs.”
“The big feature of the fray was a resounding home run smash by Herculean Josh Gibson, the Babe Ruth of colored baseball, who socked the old apple over the garages in deep left-center field.”
“The big sensation of the first contest was a running catch by “Chin” Green, center fielder for the Black Yankees, on Josh Gibson’s fly to center field in the first inning. The ball went about 450 feet out near the flagpole and a quick return (throw) enabled the home team to make a double play and end the inning.” (at Yankee Stadium)
“Gibson, in the sixth inning, gave the fans what they had been waiting for when he lifted one of Miller’s slants mid-way up into the center field bleachers for a home run, driving Leonard in ahead of him.”
“(Gibson) hit for a total of 12 bases, including a 440-foot, two-run home run to left field.”
“Josh Gibson opened up the second inning with a powerful homer, his seventh, far up in the left field bleachers, with none on.”
“Gibson, next up, leaned on one of his serves for a 430-foot line drive home run to win the game 6 to 5.”
“Josh Gibson hit the first ball Joe Hooker pitched to him for the circuit. The clout landed more than midway up in the centerfield bleachers and permitted “Cool Papa” Bell to score ahead of the Grays’ catcher.”
“Gibson, after taking a two-and-two count, hit the next ball 435 feet into the centerfield stands to put the Grays up 2-0.”
(Most of Gibson’s 1943 highlights were at Griffith Stadium, the Senators home park in Washington DC)
“Gibson whaled out a 408-foot triple in the 7th.”
“The final Grays’ tally arrived in the eighth when Leonard singled to right and scored on Josh Gibson’s 408-foot double that carried to the wall in deep left.”
“Josh Gibson, Grays slugger, stealing individual honors by blasting two home runs, the first into the right field stands in the third, and the second into the left field stands in the seventh.”
“Josh Gibson plastered one of Johnny Markham’s offerings for a 370-foot homer in right center with one on in the fourth and none out to put the Grays out in front, 2-0.”
“A terrific 420 foot home run blast into the left field bull pen by Josh Gibson with two on base featured the first game.” (at Yankee Stadium)
“Josh Gibson banged a 415-foot homer in the third to pace the seven-hit Grays attack.”
“Sparked by Josh Gibson’s 354-foot homer into the lower deck of the leftfield stands…the Washington Homestead Grays took both ends of the twin bill from the Chicago American Giants before 10,000 at Comiskey Park Sunday.”
JOSH GIBSON DIED AT AGE 35. JACKIE ROBINSON MADE HIS DEBUT WITH THE BROOKLYN DODGERS.
Some of you know I’ve spent the past couple years helping the Strat-O-Matic Game Company research the Negro Leagues for a computer game and card set. Finally, after a long wait (and a lot of work), the product is getting very, very close to being released. For those Strat fans wanting more information, last Fall I did an interview with one of the columnists at the Bill James web site. It contains some additional information on the process behind the research and the Negro Leagues in general.
INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT SIMKUS
By Roel Torres
You Learn Something New Every Day
In a recent essay about the greatest offensive catcher of all-time, I wrote a fair amount about Negro League legend and Hall of Famer, Josh Gibson. I said, “You can’t track down a single concrete statistic for him. You can’t.” And I wrote that with confidence. It seemed like conventional wisdom. But of course, I should have known better. This is a complex world we live in, full of buried facts and undiscovered information. Often, the key is merely knowing where to look. A question that may be seen as a dark and unfathomable mystery by one man may produce a simple, transparent, self-explanatory answer from another. And I need to remember this. I have to remind myself that just because a statistic isn’t listed on Google, or Wikipedia, or Baseball-Reference, or Retrosheet doesn’t mean that it can’t be found. The art of research runs far deeper than that. The act of discovery has many more roads to choose from. As Agent Fox Mulder was fond of saying, “The Truth is out there.” It certainly is. And this is where Scott Simkus fits in.
Scott was kind enough to get in contact with me and inform me that statistics do exist for our friend, Josh Gibson. These stats are found in the pages of historical black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, Indianapolis Freeman and Baltimore Afro-American. They are found in newspapers, and archives, and libraries. We have batting averages, home runs, and RBIs. And more. Much, much more. There are lefty and righty platoon differentials. There are fielding percentages. Then he started telling me about groundball/flyball splits and range factors and ballpark effects and league equivalencies. In the Negro Leagues. I was stunned. My jaw dropped. Did you know these numbers existed? Did you know that those stats could be produced? I didn’t. I had no idea. Fielding percentages for Cool Papa Bell and Jud Wilson and Buck O’Neill. Groundball/flyball splits for Satchel Paige and Bullet Joe Rogan and Smokey Joe Williams. Lefty/righty splits for Buck Leonard and Oscar Charleston and even, yes, Josh Gibson.
Are you intrigued? Keep reading. Scott and I made a deal. He would let me interview him for Bill James Online if I agreed to be interviewed for a new blog he wanted to launch (Author’s note: I got the far better end of that exchange.) What follows next is the result of my correspondence with Scott Simkus, Chicago Cubs fan, baseball historian, and Negro League expert. I have to say, I definitely learned a lot from our discussion. And, I suspect that you may as well. Enjoy.
In the Beginning (the Introduction)
After I posted my essay “Mike Piazza vs. Josh Gibson,” Scott sent me the following email:
I enjoyed your article on the Josh Gibson/ Mike Piazza debate. I think the dead-even results of the on-line poll (and James’ own musings about the two players, which seemingly waver back and forth), speak volumes about how far we’ve come in understanding the Negro League players. That’s right: A 50/50 split represents huge progress in the grand scheme of things. The fact we acknowledge Gibson may actually have been better than a star who just finished his career is meaningful.
If there had been an internet in the 1970s and there had been a poll about the relative offensive skills of Johnny Bench (catcher du jour of the era) versus Josh Gibson, what do you suppose the results would have been? I’d bet on a Cincinnati landslide. With how little we knew about Gibson and the Negro Leaguers at the time, I don’t believe it’s unrealistic that over 90% of the voters would have gone with Johnny. Maybe even 95%. There’s no way the baseball public of that era would have come anywhere close to 50/50.
As if we needed more evidence about how our understanding of baseball history has progressed, merely look at the most influential mainstream baseball writers of the 1970s. Were they writing extensively about the Negro Leagues? Were they giving serious consideration that any black ballers (other than Satchel Paige, perhaps) should be part of the conversation about the top baseball players of all-time? No. It wasn’t that they were bad guys (no more or less moral – or immoral – than today’s baseball big foots), its just that black baseball had not yet become part of white baseball’s historical consciousness.
Bill James, arguably the most influential baseball writer of the past 25 years, takes Negro League players seriously. He’ll admit he doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows intuitively men like Josh Gibson, John Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige need to be included in any discussion about the greatest players (black or white) of all-time.
Now, the only minor issue I have with your essay is the question about data for Josh Gibson. Prior to the special 2006 Negro League election at the Hall of Fame, Major League baseball (in conjunction with the Cooperstown boys) funded a landmark statistical study on the black leagues. Included in this process was a book called Shades of Glory, by Lawrence D. Hogan, which included an appendix with career numbers for guys like Charleston , Paige… and Josh Gibson. By their count, in 510 career games, Gibson hit .359 and averaged about 35 home runs per 154 games.
To put this into some type of context, his batting average and HR ratio are the BEST of all-time in the Negro Leagues. Numero Uno. Plus he walked a lot…his OBP would be top 2 or 3. OPS #1. Think about that for a minute. This is a league that included Charleston , Lloyd, Cool Papa Bell, John Beckwith, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Turkey Stearnes, Willard Brown, Judy Johnson, Willie Wells, Martin Dihigo and Larry Doby. Yet there he is – Josh Gibson – at the top of the heap. A catcher – playing in Forbes Field and Griffith Stadium (two abysmal places to hit for righties), dominating his league.
I’m working as a consultant to the Strat-O-Matic Game Company in New York on a Negro League set which they plan to release after the holidays. Over the past four years, I’ve been able to go a step further than the Hall of Fame study, calculating lefty/righty splits and defensive numbers for 103 different Negro League All-Stars, including Josh Gibson. Let me know if you need any additional information.
Keep up the thought-provoking work,
Okay. That was the letter I received. There was a lot to take in. But those sentences at the end caught my attention. Scott had spent four years calculating lefty/righty splits and defensive numbers for over a hundred Negro League All-Stars. I was curious. I wanted to know more.
We traded a couple of emails and, as I mentioned earlier, Scott let me know that he had been going through box scores, calculating groundball/flyball ratios, fielding percentages, range factors, ballpark effects, and League Equivalency data for the Negro Leagues. He had home/road splits for Cool Papa Bell. He had spray charts for Josh Gibson. This was groundbreaking. This was state of the art. I was slightly staggered. I couldn’t think straight.
I asked if he would be willing to do an interview for Bill James Online, and here are the results.
Roel Torres: How did you end up studying the Negro Leagues in such depth?
Scott Simkus: I consider myself an all-around baseball nut, more than just a Negro League historian. I’ve got over 1500 House of David box scores, hundreds of stories and boxes from when the Japanese teams visited the USA, pre-WWII. Major League exhibition games. Hundreds of boxes from the famous Chicago semi-pro league pre 1912. I’m extremely interested in “outsider baseball” pre-integration, of which the Negro Leaguers were a huge part.
And you were able to find an abundance of Negro League data? How many box scores do you have?
Official Negro League games: over 3000.
That’s seems ridiculous. Doesn’t that get overwhelming? When Strat-O-Matic asked you to organize the stats, how did you approach working with a data set of that size?
I wound up zeroing in on the top 5-7 years for the 103 players included in our set and focused on the teams they played for.
I have to know: how do you acquire three thousand Negro League box scores?
I’ve spent the last four years going through microfilm and digitized historical newspapers. I’m a member of several libraries here in Chicago (as well as a couple out of state) which have helped me get access to the most important historical black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, Indianapolis Freeman and Baltimore Afro-American.
So the historical black newspapers were able to provide the backbone for your work?
There’s also a lot of information in historical white newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Indianapolis Star, and Kansas City Star. Plus there were hundreds of neutral site games in little podunk towns covered in podunk papers.
Sounds to me like you basically turned over every stone.
I’ve never counted the different newspaper archives used for the Strat-O-Matic set, but it must exceed 100 different titles.
Well, when you find all this stuff in a library, what do you do with it? How do you keep track of everything?
Actually, thanks to companies like ProQuest and NewspaperArchive, who digitize historical papers, a lot of this can be done from home. There are costs associated with using online services, but nothing in life is free. I print hard copies, catalogue them by year, then file them in chronological order. I have several four-drawer file cabinets in my closet where these are stored. I don’t just collect boxes, I also print interesting biographical stories and photographs from the old newspapers and categorize them as well.
Did you do all this through trial and error? Did you figure everything out, work out your system as you went along?
One of the people who has had an immense influence on my work is a guy named Gary Ashwill. He is – hands down – one of the most talented, generous people researching Negro League baseball today. He was a member of the Negro League Research group who worked on the Hall of Fame data. Early on, Ashwill helped point me in the right direction in terms of research and getting access to historical newspapers.
That’s a good guy to have on your side… Okay, give me an idea on some of the statistical breakdowns you can discover by working with the box scores?
Depends on how much of your life you’re willing to sacrifice. The box scores themselves pose so many challenges (missing columns, such as AT BATS, and incorrect totals in the bottom portion of the boxes) that it takes an immense effort sometimes, just to decipher one game.
And were you starting from scratch with all these box scores, or was some of this already collected?
The last thing in the world I wanted to do was build my own database. Negro League historians such as John Holway and James A. Riley have been collecting boxes since the 1970s. A SABR guy named Larry Lester and the Hall of Fame research group have the largest collection of Negro League boxes in the world, but for reasons not worthy of my uninformed speculation, they’ve never been made available to the public. I was pretty naïve a couple years ago. I thought I’d make a couple phone calls, send some emails, and – presto! – people would help give me access to big chunks of box scores. Turns out that’s not how things work in the real world.
What makes everything so difficult? Why is access so limited?
For whatever reason, Negro League research and development is a competitive business. It’s like R&D in the pharmaceutical industry, but without the big money. So I started slowly a few years ago- 15 to 20 hours per week – then worked myself into a frenzy this year. Between my real job (and the baseball project), I worked over 80 hours per week for four straight months this summer to get this thing done.
Uh, call me crazy, but I don’t believe human beings are meant to work on any project over 80 hours a week for four straight months. Holy mackerel. Was it worth it? Do you feel like all the Strat-O-Matic research paid off?
My wife and kids are happy this is almost over. It starts out as fun, but by the end it’s hell to sit there with a magnifying glass, photocopied box scores and an excel spread sheet pulled up on the computer for 8 to 10 straight hours. But is it worth it? No doubt. What makes my work for the Strat-O-Matic game so unique is the lefty/righty splits and fielding data for guys like Josh Gibson and Willard Brown. Nobody has ever done that before. It’s just a game, but I think it makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Negro League players.
Right. So you have platoon differentials for your hitters. But you also have breakdowns on pitching stats?
Yeah, we’ve got L/R splits for pitchers, stolen bases against per 9 innings pitched (to calculate their “hold” ratings), and groundball/flyball ratios for pitchers. Leroy Matlock, for instance, who was a star lefty for the mid-1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords, was an extreme flyball pitcher. 27% of his non-K putouts were recorded by outfielders, which is high compared to his contemporaries in the set. In The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers Rob and Bill write “Matlock was famously tough on lefties.” I’m happy to report he was, indeed, tough on lefties, but he didn’t overwhelm them to the same extent as somebody like John Donaldson. Donaldson was a deadball era southpaw who was filthy on lefties, holding them to an anemic .167 batting average in our study.
I’m pretty sure that’s the most information I’ve ever seen about Leroy Matlock’s flyball tendencies and John Donaldson’s lefty numbers. I mean, that stuff is fascinating. It’s pure gold. It really is. After you’ve finished up the Strat-O-Matic project, have you ever thought about writing a book about all this material?
I’ve got a half-written baseball book, fully outlined and ready to be shopped, collecting dust on my bookshelf. The Strat-O-Matic project really evolved from the research I was conducting for this book, and ironically – in a very real sense, the game became my life in 2008. I’ve had to eat, sleep and drink Strat-O-Matic and Negro League ball this year to get this work done and the book itself has had to take a back seat.
So you already have something in the works. You’ve already laid the groundwork on it.
I haven’t had time to pursue a literary agent or publishing house, but the working title is Zulu Cannibals, Canadian Clowns, Satchel Paige and a Bearded Troupe of Religious Zealots: AN UNCENSORED TRIP INSIDE AMERICA’S INTERNATIONAL BASEBALL FREAK SHOW
Just rolls off the tongue, huh?
The title suggests that the scope of the book is more than just statistical analysis.
The book is really a wry, irreverent look at the world of outsider baseball- pre-1947, and the cast of fascinating characters (black, white, Latin, and Asian) who were forced to perform on its periphery. You’re not going to see the same tired old stories re-hashed here. I’ve got home run spray charts for Josh Gibson. Home/Road data for Cool Papa Bell. Statistics for the House of David and Bloomer Girls.
Spray charts for Gibson. Home/Road data for Cool Papa Bell. Every time you bring up something new, my head feels like it’s going to explode.
Every chapter promises to be something unprecedented and often bizarre. I’ve got the Japanese teams challenging the white Pacific Coast League ballclubs in the 1930s. What the book tries to do, in a funny, entertaining way, is look at the talent pyramid in baseball pre-integration to see if we can learn what the real shape and size of it was.
What kind of timetable are we talking here?
I was hoping to offer the book to the baseball masses in 2009, but due the Strat-O-Matic project, a 2010 release is probably more realistic. Just need to find the right publishing house now.
So the book is on the horizon. And it sounds like the Strat-O-Matic set is a little closer around the corner?
We’re currently working on the finishing touches, MLEs, league quality issues, etc. to convert it into a playable, realistic game that is compatible with what they’ve been producing since 1961. There have been other Negro League sims marketed, but nothing based on statistical research as detailed as this stuff. We’ve even calculated flyball/ groundball outs for guys like Satchel Paige. Fielding percentages and range factors for everybody. It’s going to blow people away.
And let me just confirm this for the record: you mentioned finding a couple of Filipinos who played in the Negro Leagues?
There have been at least two Filipinos who played with Negro League teams during the 1920s- interestingly, both were pitchers. A couple years back I stumbled across a reference to the “Filipino” pitcher Claudio Manela of the Cuban Stars. This was in a box score against a white semi-pro team featuring George Halas in the outfield. After the season, Halas was going to work on his other business, a little something we now call the “National Football League.”
I think I’ve heard of them. They might have a future. Who was the second Filipino?
Just recently, Gary Ashwill found a box score and reference to Jose Tombo, a Filipino who got a trial with the Chicago American Giants in the early 20s, then later played semi-pro ball with a Hawaiian all-star team in the Chicago area. Neither one of these guys will be in the SOM set, of course.
Awesome. Benny Agbayani now has competition as the Greatest Filipino baseball player of all time…
Scott, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been tremendously educational and a real pleasure. This is amazing stuff, and you’re doing a real service to baseball by doing this research.
Before I let you go, weigh in on the question – Who do you think is the better offensive catcher? Mike Piazza or Josh Gibson?
Mike Piazza was the top offensive catcher of his generation, and arguably the top hitting white backstop of all-time. For several seasons, he was among the top right-handed hitters in the game, period, regardless of what position they played.
Josh Gibson, on the other hand, was not just the top offensive catcher in black baseball during his era – he is the Greatest Hitter in the History of the Negro Leagues. He is – statistically speaking now – a combination of Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth.
A combo of Hornsby and Ruth. That’s a pretty good player.
I can tell you who I believe is overrated in the Negro Leagues (and there are plenty, some of them with plaques in the HOF), but when it comes to Gibson – as much respect as he gets in the SABR community already, he may yet be slightly underrated. The numbers that have emerged portray a ballplayer who may be larger than his legend.
I like Mike Piazza, and enjoyed following his career. But Josh Gibson’s numbers – his place in the context of the league in which he played – puts him at a different level. And if we tossed in the defensive skills issue, this wouldn’t even be a contest. Gibson, by a landslide.
I had a feeling you’d say that.
Once again, I’d like to thank Scott Simkus for generously donating his time and discussing his research on the Negro Leagues with me. It truly is exciting to think that we live in an age when we can get home/road splits, spray charts, range factor, fielding percentages, groundball/flyball ratios, stolen bases allowed per 9 innings, lefty/righty splits, park effects, and league equivalencies for all these wonderful Negro League legends who played the game so well. It’s simply astonishing. Once again, never underestimate the power of libraries, newspapers, and box scores. They’ll surprise you every time.
Don’t forget to check out Scott’s work over at http://scottsimkus.wordpress.com/. You can get his thoughts on baseball, and updates on his work on the upcoming Strat-O-Matic Negro Leagues set. And, if I remember to reciprocate, he should also have another interview posted on his site in the near future, but this time he asks the questions and I provide the answers. Of course, I can’t imagine how that could possibly compare to all the cool stuff he shared in his responses. Maybe I’ll make up stats for the Mexican League or something… –RT
Last night, White Sox DH Jim Thome hit career home runs number 546 and 547. I figured this was as good an opportunity as any to share a box score I’ve been sitting on for some time. Turns out, Thome comes from a famous baseball-playing family in Peoria, IL. His father was a legendary softball star in the city, and his grandfather, Chuck Thome, played some minor league baseball in the 1930s. Not to be outdone, his mother played some top-notch fast-pitch softball back in the day, and rumor has it, the family dog led the Peoria Little League in OPS twice. In short, the Thomes could handle themselves on the diamond.
On June 19, 1936, Grandpa Chuck Thome (okay, 31-years-old and NOT yet a grandfather) hit a first inning shot against the famous Kansas City Monarchs. In the line-up for the top independent Negro League team were future Hall of Famer Willard “Home Run” Brown and HOF candidate Newt Allen. Despite Thome’s homer, the Monarchs defeated the Peoria All-Stars 15-7. Box score (courtesy of the Chicago Defender, National Edition, June 20, 1936), is posted below.