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CT man in the middle of Negro League investigation; Conard grad takes the title, endgame for Angel Hernandez and more

Every day, as long as his energy lasts, Alan Cohen pours over box scores as he did as a kid in New York after his Giants moved 3,000 miles away in 1958.

And for four decades in the insurance industry, mostly in Hartford, facts and figures and evaluating data were his livelihood. When Cohen retired, he plunged head first into the grainy microfilm world of forgotten baseball history. In 2010, he joined the Society for Baseball Research (SABR) and has contributed to websites and databases such as retrosheet.org, seaheads.com and baseball-reference.com.

“I’ve discovered that there’s nothing in life that can’t be solved with an Excel spreadsheet,” says Cohen, 77, a longtime West Hartford resident.

He has devoted much of his time and skills to finding and recording the history of long-lost Negro Leagues. Cohen’s work, as part of a small, persistent army of researchers, received confirmation this week when the MLB announced that the committee it formed to review the statistics of the Negro Leagues had approved figures from 1920-48 for inclusion in the official documents.

Josh Gibson approaches the plate after hitting a home run in a Negro League game.  In 1972 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library // Getty Images

Josh Gibson approaches the plate after hitting a home run in a Negro League game. In 1972 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Some people object to the Negro Leagues being considered major leagues, the seasons were short, the scheduling, all of that,” Cohen said, “except for one little thing: the Negro Leagues were the only league, they had no league . an option, that’s where the best players were and we have to recognize them.

“The average fan needs to understand that this was all these players had and the conditions they played in were not great.”

Much of what we know about the Negro Leagues and their players comes from oral histories. Going beyond that and connecting real numbers to the stories is what Cohen’s work is all about.
Over lunch at WeHa this week, Cohen opened his laptop and saw a spreadsheet of information he had just gathered from a Missouri newspaper from 1937, a game played by the Kansas City Monarchs in May of that year. One game, one number at a time, he and his fellow researchers have been mapping and piecing together puzzles the history of the seven leagues in which black players played during baseball’s long era of segregation.

“For games in a given year, we get a game assignment,” Cohen said. “For these games, I get a newspaper article and a box score and I go to the spreadsheet and enter the data.”

On many summer evenings, Cohen does the opposite, as a game day supervisor for the Yard Goats, inputting the data from the games so that an article and box score can be generated. Working backwards is like an archaeological dig; the clues are fascinating and only fuel the desire for more.

Cohen has made a study of Josh Gibson, the Hall of Fame catcher and slugger who has been at the forefront of this week’s news as he is now listed as having the highest lifetime batting average (.373) in baseball history. Cohen, who has written about Gibson for SABR publications and given presentations about his work in Cooperstown, has found 393 home runs from 1930-46, of which 166 have now been officially counted. When Gibson, who died in 1947 at age 35, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, his plaque noted that he had reached nearly 800, one of many legends associated with him.

“What about all these things?” said Cohen. “I had read about him hitting home runs in all these big league ballparks, read about the 800 home runs, the ball hitting out of Yankee Stadium, all that, so I started doing the research and the truth was much better, because I found out. His productivity at Griffith Stadium (in Washington, DC) meant he had one home run about every five games. … Every time Josh Gibson hit a home run, it was written about.

On Friday, Cohen said Seamheads plans to add six home runs to Gibson’s total. SABR suggests that some home runs Gibson hit while his team, the Homestead Grays, was disconnected should count.

The Negro Leagues of the twenties, thirties and forties were not as organized as the American or National Leagues; ‘official’ statistics do not exist, some were lost and the schemes were informal.

Generally, regular season league matches were played on weekends, and these are the matches whose statistics are counted where a box score can be found. The teams stormed, playing exhibition games during the week or after the season. Cohen has discovered that newspapers of the era did report Negro League games, but in some cases the box scores listed hits and runs but not at-bats. In the days of typesetting, the small agate type was always full of errors, which could confuse players with similar names.

It’s complicated and still evolving. Satchel Paige, Cohen explained, pitched more seriously for the Birmingham, Cleveland and Pittsburgh franchises of the Negro National League between 1927 and 1936, but after that appeared mostly in exhibitions where he could make more money and perhaps only made a cameo appearance. After the racial barrier was broken in 1947, Paige was an All-Star with the AL’s St. Louis Browns at ages 45 and 46.

To date, Hartford’s legendary Johnny Taylor has compiled a 17-17 record in 51 games from 1935-44.

Willie Mays, who made his debut with the Giants in 1951, will add a few more hits to his total from his days as a teenager playing in the Negro Leagues. Cohen, as part of the post-1948 SABR subcommittee, searched for games Mays played in 1949. Hank Aaron played briefly for Indianapolis in 1952, but he is not expected to hit enough home runs to regain his record, surpassed by Barry Bonds. 762 vs 755.

The painstaking process of developing all this information will take years. Certainly Cohen, official scorer Jim Keener and I will continue to chew on this as long as we spend summer evenings in the press box at Dunkin’ Park, where Cohen has been known to arrive to announce his latest finds. Believe me, these researchers are obsessed with details and the numbers they unearth are not guesses.

“The information that will be counted is is correct,” said Cohen. “But it is incomplete.”

This is where I’ll quibble. If it is not complete, how can it be accurate? No matter how many wins are achieved for Satchel Paige or home runs for Josh Gibson, it probably won’t come close to the numbers they achieved. And how can a lifetime batting average be determined if a certain number of at-bats is not taken into account?

But if the stats aren’t perfect, and never will be, I applaud the intention and effort to give these players the recognition they were denied during their lifetimes. Researchers who care so much, like Alan Cohen, are merely adding to our understanding of baseball history, not trying to rewrite it.

More for your Sunday Read:

Dom Amore: How Ian Cooke recommitted and rediscovered his mojo for NCAA-bound UConn baseball

Title for Conard grad

West Hartford’s Casey D’Annolfo, who captained football, basketball and lacrosse at Conard High (Class of 2001) and all three letters at Tufts (2006), last week coached the Tufts men’s lacrosse team to the Division III national championship in Philadelphia, defeating RIT 18-14 in the final.

D’Annolfo’s eight-year record at Tufts is 122-18, with four straight trips to the D-III Final Four.

Short recordings on Sunday

*The WNBA this week informed local TV stations that they will no longer be allowed to record video during games, a move aimed at protecting broadcast rights holders but seemingly counterintuitive given the momentum The W has gained in popularity.

After a few days of emailing, a common sense compromise was reached and local media can film from a different location. Local coverage, especially in major markets that have largely ignored their WNBA franchises, can only add value to TV and streaming rights by encouraging casual fans to figure out where and how to watch. Am I wrong?

Dom Amore: CT Sun remains undefeated and they warn their best is yet to come

*It’s been more than two centuries since British soldiers burned the White House, but we’re about to get revenge. … We’re sending the Mets to London.

*Jason Pinnock of Windsor, who starts at safety for the Giants, leads his second youth football camp and autograph signing in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Hartford. Autograph signing at Bears BBQ on Front Street in Hartford, June 14 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The camp, June 15, at Day Hill Dome, is sold out.

*Also sold out, with an expected crowd of over 1,000, is the Franciscan Sports Banquet and Silent Auction on Tuesday evening at Aqua Turf in Southington. Dan Hurley receives the Saint Francis Award.

*Rough break for the Yard Goats and Rockies as top pitcher Carson Palmquist (4-1, 2.76 ERA, 66 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings) went on the seven-day injured list this week.

*Always fun to see UConn compete against powerful baseball programs with out-of-state kids providing much of the representation, such as Ian Cooke (New Milford), Ryan Hyde (Berlin), Braden Quin (New Fairfield) and Korey Morton (Norwalk) among the major contributors to the victory over Duke.

Umpire Angel Hernandez (5) is seen in the first inning during a game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres on September 3, 2018 in Phoenix.

Rick Scuteri / AP

Angel Hernandez, who has long been an easy target on social media for his refereeing duties, abruptly retired this week after 33 years in the major leagues. Those in power should have gotten over this saga years ago.

Last word

I’m not going to pick on Angel Hernandez, a decent man by all accounts who just wasn’t a very good Major League umpire after his abrupt midseason retirement. I blame the MLB and the umpires union for allowing this to fester for decades. Just like players and coaches, referees should be held accountable for their performance, especially given the soft ejections I’ve seen. But there are better, more professional ways to do this than waiting for social media to fuel the frenzy to do the dirty work and ultimately drive out a referee. Yes, Hernandez had to go, but it just didn’t feel right the way it came.