This article was written by Todd Peterson
This article was published in Spring 2021 Baseball Research Journal
Gary Ashwill (1966 – ) is a researcher and historian of Black, Cuban, and minor league baseball. His Seamheads.com Negro Leagues Database was cited by Major League Baseball as one of the contributing factors in their belated recognition of the segregated circuits in December 2020.
The Kansas City native grew up a Royals fan: his favorite player was Amos Otis and his top baseball moment was George Brett’s three-run home run to beat the Yankees in Game Three of the 1980 ALCS. Ashwill’s other fond Royals memories include listening on the car radio in a parking lot as John Mayberry hit a long fly ball that bounced on the top of the outfield wall and bounded over for a walk-off home run, and Dane Iorg’s game-winning single in Game Six of the 1985 World Series.
As a youth, he collected baseball encyclopedias and avidly read Bill James’s baseball guides and Abstracts. His interest in the Negro Leagues began in his early teens when his mother gave him a copy of Robert Peterson’s seminal Blackball history Only the Ball Was White. He began devouring everything he could find about the subject, including works by Jim Riley, Donn Rogosin, Phil Dixon, and Larry Lester. Most intriguing for the budding scholar were the Baseball Research Journal issues that included Dick Clark and John Holway’s statistics for the 1921 and 1930 Negro National League.
Ashwill pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Kansas and Duke University. While at KU he won the Merrill Award for excellence in research and teaching English. His baseball research career started in earnest at Duke when he noticed microfilm rolls of the Chicago Defender while walking through the library stacks one day. Recalling the paper’s significance from books by Holway and others, he began to read and photocopy the Defender’s coverage of the Negro Leagues. He soon discovered other Black newspapers, learned how to use spreadsheets, and started compiling statistics on the NNL. Ashwill also had access to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s depository of twentieth century Cuban newspapers, from which he compiled Cuban League statistics as well.
After Ashwill began posting some of his results to the email forum SABR-L in the early 2000s, Blackball historian Dick Clark invited him to join the Negro Leagues Researchers and Authors Group (NLRAG), which at the time was gathering statistics for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Gary wound up doing the research for the 1928 and 1934 Negro Leagues seasons. He also continued uploading spreadsheets of statistics online, with much of his work appearing on the Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit. Ashwill remembers John Holway being very supportive of his efforts at that time.
In 2006 Ashwill started the outsider baseball blog Agate Type, where he wrote posts on obscure and unknown players, tracked down the truth behind various Blackball stories and legends, and presented the statistics he had been gradually compiling, including previously unexplored data such as Negro League park factors. Taking his cue from Bill James’s “Tracers” pieces and Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends, Ashwill started out with two premises: 1) that it was possible to dig up more objective, empirically-based knowledge of Black baseball history than was previously thought, and 2) that readers might be interested in the research process itself and not just the results.
Ashwill was among the first historians to make use of the online archival resources that were simplifying and revolutionizing research, including digitized historical newspapers and documents such as steamship passenger lists, passport applications, and draft cards. In 2010 Ashwill and fellow researcher Patrick Rock helped uncover Pete Hill’s birth name and family of origin, which in turn led to the legendary outfielder’s plaque being officially corrected by the Hall of Fame.
In 2011, with the aid of Dan Hirsch, Mike Lynch, Scott Simkus, and Kevin Johnson, Ashwill brought his statistical research to the baseball website Seamheads.com, and created the Negro Leagues Database. The following year, with the blessings of Larry Lester and Dick Clark, they started incorporating the old NLRAG/Hall of Fame study into the site. So far the database has collected 9,137 box scores for approximately 12,545 Negro League games (73%) for the period 1920 through 1948, garnering a SABR Baseball Research Award along the way.
Ashwill has also produced articles for Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game and Black Ball: A Journal of the Negro Leagues, in addition to editing and writing the introduction for Summer Game Books 2014 edition of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide.
After leaving graduate school with an MA, Ashwill worked as the Managing Editor for the investigative journalism magazine Southern Exposure. During his time there, he shepherded an award-winning series that exposed the role of big banks in subprime lending. Since 2005 Gary has worked as a freelance academic editor and currently resides in Durham with his wife and two dogs.