McKinley: The color of baseball statistics

From Eric Garcia McKinley at Baseball Prospectus on February 3, 2016:

Race and the color line have played a central role in baseball history. One of the most well-known stories of the game’s past is Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in 1947. Every year, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, leading observers to recall that prior to 1947, baseball was segregated. That sin touched every aspect of the game. Namely, the history of baseball statistics is enmeshed in the history of race in baseball.

Baseball statistics receive an enormous amount of attention. Likewise, the history of baseball gets its fair share of treatment in the form of popular histories, academic works, and SABR biographies. The history of baseball statistics, however, garners far less consideration. Indeed, it’s seldom acknowledged that statistics even have a history outside of themselves. Not only that, but when the history of baseball statistics is afforded scrutiny, the results suggest the markings of a still emerging site of study. The story tends to travel from Alexander Cartwright in the 19th century to Bill James near the turn of the millennium. While those figures are important, there is more to the history of baseball statistics than a series of individual actors.

The objects of study in this article are two of the most significant publications regarding baseball statistics: the Official Encyclopedia of Baseball (BE), first published in 1951, and the 1969 Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (MEB). Specifically, it examines them with regard to the nature of encyclopedias and in the specific context in which they emerged. They were products of a moment in baseball history when the color line was a fresh memory and full integration was just getting underway. Because of that, the manner in which they addressed black baseball was specific and revealing.

The intersection of these elements—the nature of encyclopedias, the moment they emerged, and the way they handled black baseball—is significant because it had a cascading effect. In particular, these ingredients combined to present a neutral and linear narrative of baseball history based on statistics. The problem with such a narrative of baseball history is that it removes the color line from baseball history, which is another way of saying that it is removed from baseball history altogether. In order to integrate the history of baseball statistics into baseball history in general, statistics have to be seen through the lens of race.

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Originally published: February 3, 2016. Last Updated: February 3, 2016.