Baseball, unlike most any other American sport, leans on its history before its future. Progression is slow, and the legends of generations past are glorified beyond their years, immortalized by fans and media over time.
What baseball also has is a hidden history, a group of players, teams, and leagues that took some of the best players the world has even seen, and stowed them away from the major leagues for various reasons. The biggest travesty was segregation, when the major leagues did not let African American players enter, a wall famously broken down by Jackie Robinson.
Those who could not break the color barrier before that played in the Negro Leagues, where a lot of the world’s greatest talent could have been found, but it was not limited to the United States, with leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Japan.
Josh Gibson, considered one of the greatest hitters never known, played in many leagues, but was featured in the Negro Leagues from 1930-1946. Though his sample size was small, with few games played per season, his statistics are startling if stretched to today’s current season. Gibson hit 159 career home runs in 626 games between the United States and a short-but-successful career in Mexico.
If he had played in a full 162-game season for his career, Gibson would have hit 592 home runs and nearly 3,500 hits, numbers that would immortalize him in the MLB.
In his own league, the Georgia native put up some numbers that would be universally impressive in a baseball perspective. He hit over .400 in four separate seasons, including .467 during his 1940 season for Veracruz in the Mexican league.
The argument against Gibson is his lack of games played, but it did not stop baseball from sending him to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame in 1972, nearly 25 years after he passed away from a stroke on January 20, 1947, three months before Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues.
The Negro League’s most famous player might have been the best pitcher the world has ever seen, but a player whose best moments were not featured in major league baseball. Satchel Paige logged year after year playing baseball in numerous leagues, but he left his mark in astonishing fashion.
It’s hard to state specific years because of the amount of leagues he played for, but his career started in 1927 in the Negro Leagues for Birmingham. Twenty years later, Paige had assembled a 103-61 record with 110 complete games and a 2.02 ERA in 263 games played.
However, his career was much different than one of current players, or even past players of the major leagues. In 1935, Paige played for a North Dakota league, where he went 29-2 with 321 strikeouts to only 16 walks. Earned-run average was recorded as a run average only, and that was 1.96 over 35 games.
Paige also played in the Mexican League for Agrario de Mexico (1938), the Dominican League for Ciudad Trujillo (1937), the Cuban Winter League for Santa Clara (1929-30), and the Puerto Rican League for two teams over the course of 10 seasons.
What could have been his most dominant league was the California Winter League, where Paige went 56-7 with 569 innings pitched and 769 strikeouts.
Paige pitched nearly 40 years, ending in 1965 after Chuck Finley paid him to pitch for one game for the Kansas City Athletics.
These two players are maybe the greatest hitter and pitcher that were shielded from the majors for many years, with skills that could have changed the course of baseball history. It’s a small sample size of what we missed in history, but it should not be forgotten.