It's the bottom of the ninth in the Bronx. The Yankees are tied 5-5 with the Dodgers, and Babe Ruth is coming to the plate with two men on and two out. Future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston is on first base. Tony Lazzeri is on third. And on the mound for Brooklyn is Martin Dihigo, the greatest Cuban pitcher of all time.
This showdown never took place in real life. It couldn't have. Charleston, an African-American, and Dihigo, a black Cuban, were never allowed to play in the major leagues.
Instead, this historic game was happening in Strat-O-Matic on the kitchen table of Scott Simkus, an amateur baseball historian from the suburbs of Chicago. Simkus has been playing the dice-and-cards baseball simulation since he was a boy. Strat-O-Matic has always been a great vehicle for answering what-ifs like How would Ty Cobb have hit against Sandy Koufax? or Would the 1962 New York Mets have lost to the 2003 Detroit Tigers?
Until this month, though, it was impossible to answer the question What if baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis hadn't been such a stubborn bigot? The great Negro League ballplayers—Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe—were missing from Strat-O-Matic's card sets, just as they'd been missing from the major league rosters of Landis' day. The black America of the early 20th century was invisible to white America, so there was no equivalent of the Elias Sports Bureau to keep Negro League statistics. The Negro Leagues also held a short 70- or 80-game season, supplemented by barnstorming against minor leaguers and semi-pro teams, so it was difficult to figure out where and when the teams had played—and how good their competition was.
Hal Richman, who created Strat-O-Matic in 1961, had wanted to produce a Negro League set for years, but he didn't have the stats. "There was very little listed," Richman says. "Doubles and triples weren't even listed. Negro League statistics never had the accuracy of major league statistics. It was very light. It was almost nothing."
Simkus helped solve that. His passion for Strat-O-Matic led him to the baseball shelves of the public library, where he discovered Only the Ball Was White, the pioneering history of Negro League baseball. Fascinated, he began reading old copies of the Chicago Defender, where he found box scores for the Chicago American Giants, the city's Negro League franchise.
Simkus contacted Richman, offering to do the grunt work of compiling box scores from the Defender, the Amsterdam News, and other black papers. By typing the numbers onto Excel spreadsheets, Simkus was able to determine fielding averages, platoon splits, strikeouts. Baseball Almanac readers take those stats for granted, but they'd been unknown for Negro Leaguers. Strat-O-Matic statisticians then came up with a "major league equivalency" formula to adjust the numbers to major league levels by studying how Negro Leaguers had performed against minor-league teams, Cuban winter league teams, and barnstorming big leaguers. They determined that the quality of play in the Negro Leagues was somewhere between AAA and the majors. So Oscar Charleston, who batted in the .390s against Negro League pitching, won't hit that well when pitted against a cardboard Dizzy Dean or Lefty Grove.
The cards, which depict 103 Negro Leaguers in their primes, were released this month. Like Simkus, I was a Strat-O-Matic fanatic in my youth. I relished the opportunity to play a game with the creator of the Negro League cards—and to correct retroactively the greatest injustice in sports history. And so that's how we came to integrate the 1927 Dodgers and the 1927 Yankees.
I play the Dodgers. Simkus plays the Yankees. We draft five Negro Leaguers each. For historical accuracy, we choose only players who were active in 1927. I take Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Dihigo, Judy Johnson, and George Henry "Tank" Carr.
Adding five great black players means I have to drop five white mediocrities. So in this alternate universe of equal opportunity, I send Doug McWeeny, Jesse Barnes, Chuck Corgan, Overton Tremper, and Irish Meusel to the minors.
Simkus's picks make the Yankees' Murderers' Row lineup even more murderous. Now it consists of Tony Lazzeri, Charleston, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, John Beckwith, Biz Mackey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig. But they have to bat against Satchel Paige.
It's a close game. In the fourth inning, the Dodgers tag Negro Leaguer Smokey Joe Williams for five runs. But the Yankees battle back on an unearned run, a homer by Ruth (off the great Paige), and doubles by Gehrig and Beckwith. Paige leaves the game after the seventh inning, having struck out nine Yankees. He's pinch hit for, then relieved by, Dihigo, a star batter and pitcher—not an uncommon feat on 15-man Negro League rosters.
In the bottom of the ninth the Dodgers still lead, 5-4, but Dihigo walks Koenig and Lazzeri. Then Charleston singles to tie the game, bringing up Ruth with the winning run on third.
"You couldn't have written this any better," Simkus says. "We've seen Oscar Charleston, the best all-around Negro League player; Martin Dihigo, the best Cuban; and Babe Ruth, the best Caucasian player, all have an impact."
Simkus rolls his dice.
"Single!" he shouts. "Game over! Ruth beats Dihigo!"
What a game. And what a demonstration of how baseball would have been different without a color line. The Yankees were still the best team, and Babe Ruth was still the best player, but the Dodgers (who went 65-88 in 1927 with an all-white roster) were a lot better. The Negro Leaguers raised the level of play. Cool Papa Bell even stole a base—which was common in the Negro Leagues, but rare in the majors between the introduction of the live ball and the ascendance of black players in the 1960s.
"It doesn't take anything away from the legends we grew up with," Simkus says. "But it gives you a new appreciation for Satchel Paige, striking out nine guys in seven innings. You did see the overall quality of the major leagues improve, but it didn't take anything away from Ruth."
The greats would still have been great, no matter who they played against. But now, we finally get to find out what might have happened if Satchel Paige had faced down Babe Ruth in Yankee Stadium. Would there have been a greater sight in baseball than that?
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