In December 2020, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that it was finally going to include Negro League statistics in its major league record book. Before Jackie Robinson was recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, baseball was segregated for 60 years. Blacks played in the Negro Leagues, which never fully compiled players’ statistics. The performances of greats like Willie James Wells, a shortstop in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and “Cool Papa” Bell, a centerfielder and one of the fastest to play the game, were recounted in anecdotes, not hard numbers.
Enter Kevin Johnson, BSBA ’84. In the 1990s, Johnson, a huge baseball fan, met Gary Ashwill, who said he’d compiled statistics for the 1921 Negro League season.
“It blew my mind,” Johnson recalls. “I thought we didn’t even have statistics for the Negro Leagues.” Serendipitously, Johnson had, with Mike Lynch, started a website, Seamheads.com, devoted to baseball history. Why not compile the Negro League stats there?
How does one compile such stats? Game by game. Researchers track down newspaper articles for games, read box scores, and try to figure out if this J. Johnson is the same guy who was on another team last season. And to complicate matters even more, the Negro Leagues played different types of games. Major League Baseball teams play only against each other, but Negro League teams played against almost anyone, including semi-pro white teams and other all-Black teams that weren’t in their leagues.
Seamheads.com organizes all the statistics from professional games, and Johnson ensures that the numbers add up. So far, Seamheads.com has collected data for every Negro League season in the United States from 1886 through 1948.
His Seamheads.com work has earned Johnson many recognitions. In December 2020, when the MLB announced that it was going to incorporate the Negro League statistics into the major league record book, it thanked the work of Seamheads.com, even mentioning Johnson by name.
Seamheads.com is now in talks about licensing its database to the MLB. Johnson is glad that the MLB is finally recognizing the Negro Leagues, but he’s cautious: “We worry about Major League Baseball patting itself on the back for recognizing the Negro Leagues but not really saying, ‘By the way, we’re sorry,’” Johnson says. “Overall, it’s a good thing, but it doesn’t change the history.”