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Saturday, August 15, 2020

As It Celebrates the Centennial of the Negro Leagues, MLB May Undo a “Major” Mistake

Those efforts have helped foster an enhanced appreciation for a fundamental period of baseball’s past and an important piece of Black history. But they’ve also called attention to one way in which the Negro Leagues are still being slighted and segregated. According to Major League Baseball’s current records and classifications, the players whom this year’s major leaguers will be honoring on Sunday were not major leaguers themselves. Because of the prejudiced decision of a committee that met more than 50 years ago, the Negro Leagues are still excluded from the official list of major leagues, much as Black players before 1947—and, in many cases, long after—were excluded from the American and National Leagues. Like those players, the Negro Leagues have been denied an opportunity to prove that they were as deserving of major league status as their white contemporaries. But for the first time, MLB is considering righting that wrong.

An MLB spokesperson provided this statement to The Ringer: “We will continue to honor the Negro Leagues beyond this year’s leaguewide celebration of the centennial season. This process is well under way. We look forward to future efforts to commemorate this vital chapter in our game’s history and to teach our next generation of fans about the significance of the Negro Leagues.” One of those efforts may involve elevating the Negro Leagues to the major league level. According to sources with knowledge of MLB discussions prompted by a recent Ringer inquiry, the league has at last begun to study the case for a major league designation and what that would entail.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: August 15, 2020 at 12:20 AM | 23 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. JRVJ Posted: August 15, 2020 at 01:44 PM (#5969811)
James cites the long list of “Hall of Famers’ Hall of Famers” who began their careers in the Negro Leagues and excelled in MLB shortly after integration as evidence of the Negro Leagues’ strength. “My argument has always been that it is impossible for a league to produce that many players of that quality in that period of time, unless the quality of play in that league was not only equal to the white leagues, but probably superior to it. You just can’t reach that level of excellence while playing against minor league competition. So … designate it as major league.”


This is a really interesting statement from Bill James, but it does lead me to wonder if there's any way to test this conclusion.

It seems to me that the closest way to test this is the Japanese leagues, and perhaps Cuba during the 1980s - 1990s (where players played the local Cuban league plus some international competition, up to and including Major Leaguers).

In both cases, those leagues produced elite talent... but I don't think anybody thinks those leagues should be called "Major Leagues".


*** ***

An additional comment: I could be wrong, but I think that the majority of elite African-American athletes in the first half of the 20th century played baseball.

Phrased differently, I don't think they were (mostly) playing Football, Basketball, etc., so there was much more African-American talent in baseball in relation to the general African-American population.

(Arguably, Boxing was much more of a top-tier sport at that time, and I have no way of measuring Track & Field).
   2. Mayor Blomberg Posted: August 15, 2020 at 02:18 PM (#5969815)
Do we have the equivalent "long list" of players that began their careers in NPB and excelled in MLB "in a short period"? I don't think so.
   3. JRVJ Posted: August 15, 2020 at 03:55 PM (#5969837)
2, I agree that NPB has not produced as many HoF level players as the Negro Leagues did (Ichiro! is the only HoFer that I can think of, and he's clearly not an Inner Circle HoFer).

I do wonder about Cuba. At a minimum, Omar Linares in the 1980s-1990s could well have been a top-5 players in MLB.

In any case, I think we can all agree that the level of play in MLB in the last 20 years is the highest it's ever been, so it's probably a bit harder to have players who excel as much as they did pre-integration or right after the Negro Leagues integrated.

*** ***

One final thought: what really baffles me is not how many great players the Negro Leagues had. What baffles me is why there weren't AS MANY new, HoF-level African-American players by the late 1960s, the 1970s and certainly the 1980s.

My pet theory is that these athletes were now playing Football and in some cases, Basketball.

(please note that I wrote AS MANY in caps for a reason - I don't want somebody to mention Bob Gibson or Joe Morgan to me).
   4. The Yankee Clapper Posted: August 15, 2020 at 04:09 PM (#5969841)
Is it a ‘quality’ issue, or a governance issue? I was under the impression that MLB doesn’t consider any of the leagues not under its auspices - such as the old American Association or the Federal League - to be ‘Major League’.
   5. Mayor Blomberg Posted: August 15, 2020 at 04:12 PM (#5969843)
My pet theory for the 60s has to do with the resistance to integration and certain positions for which black players were thought (with a few exceptions) to lack the necessities. Obviously, it varies by club
And, yes, in time other sports became possible and profitable. The NBA only started in 46.
   6. Kiko Sakata Posted: August 15, 2020 at 04:14 PM (#5969844)
One final thought: what really baffles me is not how many great players the Negro Leagues had. What baffles me is why there weren't AS MANY new, HoF-level African-American players by the late 1960s, the 1970s and certainly the 1980s.


At a SABR convention panel discussion about Cuba and MLB, one of the panelists raised the hypothesis - that I don't think was originally his - that the collapse of the Negro Leagues really cut back opportunities for African-American baseball players. Between the Negro Leagues, lesser black leagues, barnstorming, semi-pro ball, etc., the opportunities for African-Americans to make money playing baseball were vastly more plentiful in the 1920s and 1930s than by the 1960s and 1970s where the only opportunities were within organized, integrated baseball. Certainly, the opportunities to make much more money at the very top end were vastly superior in the latter period (to say nothing of in the free agent era), but with fewer opportunities available to play baseball - and with the opportunities that were available much more regimented and tightly structured (e.g., the MLB draft), the long-run impact of integration was arguably negative for African-American baseball players and playing in general. [The context of this in the panel I recall was the risk that MLB would do the same thing by skimming the cream out of Cuba, thereby gutting Cuba's own leagues with similar long-run negative consequences for professional baseball opportunities for Cubans.] (I've seen similar comments regarding the impact of making Puerto Ricans subject to the MLB draft on Puerto Rican baseball.)
   7. Kiko Sakata Posted: August 15, 2020 at 04:18 PM (#5969846)
Is it a ‘quality’ issue, or a governance issue? I was under the impression that MLB doesn’t consider any of the leagues not under its auspices - such as the old American Association or the Federal League - to be ‘Major League’.


From the article:

We can trace that snub back to MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee, which was convened by commissioner William Eckart in 1968 as part of an arrangement with publisher Macmillan to produce The Baseball Encyclopedia. The “Big Mac,” as it eventually came to be called, was to be the official, definitive statistical compendium of the major leagues. Which meant that someone had to answer a pesky question: Which were the major leagues? That was the task of the SBRC, an all-white, five-man body that consisted of officials from the American and National Leagues, the commissioner’s office, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, all of whom are now deceased.

The SBRC announced its decisions on the league designations, along with its solutions to various other record-keeping conundrums, in the 1969 first edition of the Big Mac. The six leagues listed above [from earlier in the article "National League since 1876 and American League since 1901) that currently constitute the major leagues. Previous major leagues included the American Association (1882-1891), Union Association (1884), Players’ League (1890), and Federal League (1914-1915)"] were anointed as major, while the National Association, which preceded the National League, was recognized as the first professional league but not considered a major league “due to its erratic schedule and procedures.” The ruling said nothing about the Negro Leagues. Which was, in a sense, unsurprising, because the committee itself had said nothing about the Negro Leagues when it met.
   8. Ziggy: social distancing since 1980 Posted: August 15, 2020 at 04:53 PM (#5969868)
It's hard to imagine that the negro leagues had higher levels of competition than did the segregated NL and AL, if only because they had a smaller pool of people from which to draw. To think otherwise requires thinking either that African Americans are better at baseball than are white people, or that the negro leagues were more efficient at finding the players at the right-end of the talent curve than was the NL/AL.

Which isn't to say that the negro leagues shouldn't be counted as major leagues. If the ******* Union Association counts, you might as well let in various slow pitch softball leagues.
   9. Rally Posted: August 15, 2020 at 05:14 PM (#5969880)
I looked at position player WAR from 1950-1969. 33 players are above 40, I think 20 would have been allowed to play before 1947. Aparicio and Cepeda close enough to white, Minoso and Clemente not.

So 13 players would have had to play in leagues other than MLB. That’s more than you’d expect from population totals. Suggests MLB was stronger, but not by much.

On the pitching side though, the whites have a strong advantage. Of the top 25 in WAR for that time period, just 2 would not have been allowed to play before 1947, Gibson and (probably) Marichal.
   10. Mayor Blomberg Posted: August 15, 2020 at 05:23 PM (#5969885)
On the pitching side though, the whites have a strong advantage. Of the top 25 in WAR for that time period, just 2 would not have been allowed to play before 1947, Gibson and (probably) Marichal.


What were the ratios of black to white starting pitchers and black to white starting position players in the period? Anyone happen to know?
   11. Rally Posted: August 15, 2020 at 05:25 PM (#5969886)
Comparing to NPB has problems. When Robinson broke the color barrier the Negro Leagues were on the way out. Just about anyone who was good enough to play moved to MLB or minor leagues. Monte Irvin was a star in his prime, he was willing to play in the minors before getting his chance for the Giants. That would not happen for NPB, Ichiro and Matsui signed directly with major league contracts. The black players who did not move into MLB or the minors were guys like Buck Leonard who were just too old, or Josh Gibson who died before he could get a chance.

NPB is/was not a league in decline, on the way out. Their players were not kept out of MLB by the color of their skin. I don’t think MLB got all the best talent from that league, Ichiro, Matsui, Darvish, and Tanaka come over, but there are certainly others who had the talent to play MLB but never crossed over.
   12. Rally Posted: August 15, 2020 at 05:26 PM (#5969887)
In my opinion the top Negro Leagues, and NPB deserve designation as major leagues, to be clear on the record.
   13. ramifications of an exciting 57i66135 Posted: August 15, 2020 at 05:40 PM (#5969888)
I looked at position player WAR from 1950-1969. 33 players are above 40, I think 20 would have been allowed to play before 1947. Aparicio and Cepeda close enough to white, Minoso and Clemente not.

So 13 players would have had to play in leagues other than MLB. That’s more than you’d expect from population totals. Suggests MLB was stronger, but not by much.

On the pitching side though, the whites have a strong advantage. Of the top 25 in WAR for that time period, just 2 would not have been allowed to play before 1947, Gibson and (probably) Marichal.
those stats may be an accurate depiction of the landscape, but they don't account for the artificial quotas on the number of african americans that each MLB team could have on their roster (4, iirc). and that remained in place into the 1960s.
At a SABR convention panel discussion about Cuba and MLB, one of the panelists raised the hypothesis - that I don't think was originally his - that the collapse of the Negro Leagues really cut back opportunities for African-American baseball players. Between the Negro Leagues, lesser black leagues, barnstorming, semi-pro ball, etc., the opportunities for African-Americans to make money playing baseball were vastly more plentiful in the 1920s and 1930s than by the 1960s and 1970s where the only opportunities were within organized, integrated baseball. Certainly, the opportunities to make much more money at the very top end were vastly superior in the latter period (to say nothing of in the free agent era), but with fewer opportunities available to play baseball - and with the opportunities that were available much more regimented and tightly structured (e.g., the MLB draft), the long-run impact of integration was arguably negative for African-American baseball players and playing in general. [The context of this in the panel I recall was the risk that MLB would do the same thing by skimming the cream out of Cuba, thereby gutting Cuba's own leagues with similar long-run negative consequences for professional baseball opportunities for Cubans.] (I've seen similar comments regarding the impact of making Puerto Ricans subject to the MLB draft on Puerto Rican baseball.)
that also tracks with the (still ongoing) financial decimation of HBCUs after major southern colleges and universities were forced to integrate in the 1960s.
   14. michaelplank has knowledgeable eyes Posted: August 15, 2020 at 07:06 PM (#5969894)
I don’t think MLB got all the best talent from that league, Ichiro, Matsui, Darvish, and Tanaka come over, but there are certainly others who had the talent to play MLB but never crossed over.


I don't know a lot about Japanese baseball but I do recall the hype for every guy who came from there to MLB beginning in the 1990s. Nomo, Irabu, Ichiro, Matsui, Fukudome were all advertised as best of the best, world caliber players who would fit right in among the current MLB stars, maybe even dominate. They all had some success but nothing like what Robinson, Mays, Campanella, Aaron, Banks, etc. did in the 1950s (except Ichiro, maybe). Pretty much the same story with the Cubans -- Arocha, Destrade, Ordonez... Not saying there weren't a few Japanese (and Cuban) players who didn't come, but I always had the impression that they were sending their best.
   15. Walt Davis Posted: August 15, 2020 at 07:39 PM (#5969896)
James' argument is a challenging one to make. The Negro League players who came to MLB and excelled were mostly young guys. Of course excellent young players come out of inferior leagues all the time. For the other guys, obviously they weren't allowed to play MLB in their primes and we mostly only get a glimpse of what might have been in some aged MLB seasons. Then there's the complication that the war had just finished interrupting everything so even for older new MLB entrants, it's not necessarily clear how much they'd been playing. There are only a few players who will have substantial pre-integration NeL performance and post-integration MLB performance (or opportunity) and those players will be 30ish when they got their shot.

Jackie Robinson had one season in NeL.** Aaron was in the NeL for a half-season. Mays played parts of three seasons from ages 17 to 19. Per the NeL musuem, Banks played in 1950 (age 19), went into the army for two years, played in 53 (grabbed by the Cubs and in the majors in 53). Campanella was only 15 when he began playing in the NeL and was an AS by 19 -- that's either an amazingly talented player or an indicator of a weak league (or both). That could be kinds said for most of these guys -- if they were starting at 18-19, how strong could the league have been? Of course when we're talking Aaron, Mays, Campy ... or Mike Trout ... the answer could be major league.

Anyway, there's no real issue with claiming that Aaron, Mays, Banks, etc. were the equivalent of Trout, Griffey, ARod but that equivalence isn't evidence the NeL were "ML-quality" any more than it means A, AA or ARod's high school were. Those were great young talents playing in the professional context that was available to them. One thing we'd like to be able to do from an analytical perspective is to track the less amazing players. There you get into issues of what players were MLB teams willing to sign in those early years.

Jim Gilliam was in the NeL Southern League (a lesser league as I understand it) and in the NeL National League at 19. He was an AS for 1948-50. Signed by the Dodgers, he spent all of 51-52 in Montreal, making the majors in 1953 at age 24. From today's perspective that looks like a fairly standard progression through the minor leagues. He did win RoY and made a couple of AS teams.

Elston Howard played parts of 48-50 in the NeL then went into the military for two years then two more years in the minors before debuting in the majors at 26.

Monte Irvin is the sort of player we might be looking for such a comparison. At 19 and 21, he hit 400 in the NeL. A star, he was hitting over 500 when he jumped to the Mexican League in a salary dispute (he dominated and won MVP despite playing just 2/3 of the season). Then he was drafted. In 45 he returned to the NeL and played through 48. He was in AAA for the first bit of 49 but that might have easily have been due to some combination of stupidity, legit uncertainty about his talent or racism but he didn't really hit in the majors until 1950. It's an impressive performance for a guy in his 30s (125 OPS+, 21 WAR for ages 30-37) so we can be quite confident that he would have been a good to very good player in his 20s. He hit over 300 for 30-34 so while he (almost certainly) wouldn't have hit over 400 in MLB, he would have had a high BA.

Sam Jethroe was a guy who probably didn't get his fair shot in the majors. He was apparently blazing fast and made several NeL AS teams but he doesn't seem to have been a huge star. Signed by the Dodgers in 48 he was already 31. He played very well for two years in Montreal, probably ML-quality but Rickey had Snider so he eventually sold him to the Braves. At 33, he won RoY and put up 8 WAR at 33-34 (very impressive) but dropped to 1 WAR the next year then mostly played in the minors for several years with one brief appearance with the Pirates at 37. Again, if you were putting up 8 WAR at 33-34, you were probably capable of at least 8 WAR at 27-28.

None of that has really told us anything we didn't already know -- the NeL elite would have been MLB elite. That dosen't tell us much about whether James' assumption that only an elite(-ish) league can produce that talent. We could make analogies to those times when the majors and "minors" were still working things out. Lefty Grove was considered a top pitcher before he made MLB at 25 and his early MLB numbers are no worse than his numbers with Baltimore in the IL. Does that mean the IL was ML-quality? (I have no idea if they were) Plenty of top players stuck around the PCL for several seasons before/after ML stints.

With the NeL we have the added complication that thw war disrupted everything just before integration -- who knows what the talent level of the NeL 1942-45 really was? If there was a NeL star from, say, 1937-41, then either goes to war or plays in a depleted league, then is he signed in 48 or not but even if he is, he's 30 or older. If that player struggled, maybe never made the majors, would that be because of insufficient talent, the disruption of the war, age, racism/quotas or NeL inferiority? That was nearly Sam Jethroe even though it seems likey he was good enough for the majors in 1948 (and obviously before).

If we didn't have the war, if we had more crossover examples of players established in both leagues, maybe we could estimate NeL quality. As it stands, I don't think the data is sufficient -- but am happy to cede the floor to people who've analysed it properly. I'd find it hard to believe its talent wasn't at least around the level of the Fed League and the pre-1900 leagues and I suspect it was similar to NPB, at least in NPB's earlier days. I'm happy for the Negro Leagues to be recognized as a "Major League." But I don't really buy James' argument.

** Luke Easter was already 32 when he joined the NeL and played just two years.

   16. Dr. Chaleeko Posted: August 15, 2020 at 09:18 PM (#5969908)
I’ve dealt with Negro a leagues stats a lot, and something I read a long time ago seems apt. On days when the better teams played one another and threw their better pitchers, Negro League play was very likely major league caliber. But the dreck of the league was really drecky so in the same game one team might be an MLB or AAA level team and another AA or lower. Standard deviations of runs based offensive stats and runs based pitching stats are significantly wider than the majors and the high minors.

I think it was James who said that the Negro Leagues were somewhat like the majors of the 1880s and 1890s. The difference between the best and worst teams was much wider than modern baseball, SD in hitting and pitching were much wider than modern baseball, stadiums and playing fields were smaller and more utilitarian and the condition of the field was probably not very high, there were a lot of quirky stadiums with extreme dimensions, talent procurement was fairly localized or happenstance, stuff like that. It makes sense to me.

I’ve looked a bit at NPB players too. More than a few guys in Japan’s HOF wouldn’t have been even average MLB players, and many of its highly reputed players would IMO have been replacement players. As Jim Albright will tell you, it’s the homers. The parks there are smaller, and NPBs lose nearly 50% of their home run power when they come over. That means that power hitters probably also lose some walks because in Japan they were much greater threats than in the US. They don’t have a very deep player development apparatus either. They draft from HS and college and the really good prospects go right into NPB while others go to the one minor league level they have, which is almost like a taxi squad. I think there are some semipro industrial leagues that turn out the occasional star as well. I’m not sure where exactly the quality of play level is, but it has ramped up considerably over time. I don’t think it’s on par with MLB because a) NPB draws from a much smaller pool of potential players (though it seems like only golf, sumo, and soccer MIGHT draw potential athletes away b) AAA or AAAA type players are often All-Stars there C) NPB is not fully integrated (only a handful of gaijin are allowed on a team at a given moment).
   17. ramifications of an exciting 57i66135 Posted: August 15, 2020 at 09:43 PM (#5969910)
over/under:
10.5 world series titles between 1920 and 1950, if a NL all-star team had been able to play a full schedule in MLB.



or, look at some league mergers in american professional sports history. the AFL wasn't competitively matched with the NFL when those leagues merged; the ABA was even further away from the NBA. the negro leagues were much closer in talent level to MLB than the ABA was to the NBA.


or, flip the argument in the other direction. assume the negro leagues had been viewed as a major league for the last 80 years. but now, in 2020, someone comes along trying to tell everyone that was wrong (#isplutoaplanet). what does their argument look like? is it persuasive?
   18. Dr. Chaleeko Posted: August 15, 2020 at 10:12 PM (#5969913)
TL;DR the article, but my guess is that MLB is thinking about this in terms of players rather than leagues. If they add the Negro Leaguers to the MLB players list, that commemorates the place of these men in baseball history as every bit as deserving of recognition as their white counterparts. I am just guessing here, but I don’t think they are thinking that much about the leagues as a whole. What I mean is that we wouldn’t suddenly see Josh Gibson’s name pop up in MLB leaderboards. (As to whether Gibson should then appear on MLB leaderboards, well, I’m not touching that one.)

Couple things....
Most Negro Leaguers are long dead, but this may also provide the remaining living members some avenue for a major league pension. (Not an expert on MLB pensions, but it’s not like the league couldn’t afford it and couldn’t benefit from the good will this small investment might generate. Then again ownership isn’t exactly known for their generosity with players.)

If MLB takes this step, I wonder...
A) How Negro Leaguers will be incorporated into MLB.com and other MLB properties with historical player info
B) Whether MLB will choose to fund ongoing research into the statistical record of the Negro Leagues (that is, become Gary Ashwill’s sponsor)
C) Whether Negro Leaguers would have a more clearly defined path via the VC because they would now be classified as major league players
D) How MLB will define the Negro Leagues: There’s much more than just the US summer leagues (ECL, NNL, NSL,
EWL, ANL, and NAL) to think about
E) If this might catalyze a partnership between The Negro Leagues Database and BBREF to provide more complete and higher quality Negro Leagues data at BBREF.
   19. JRVJ Posted: August 15, 2020 at 10:54 PM (#5969916)
16, really good article.

Thank you for the explanations.

One tidbit: Rugby Union is growing fast in Japan, so it's probably also taking athletes away from baseball.
   20. Ziggy: social distancing since 1980 Posted: August 16, 2020 at 01:47 PM (#5969954)
I think there are some semipro industrial leagues that turn out the occasional star as well. I’m not sure where exactly the quality of play level is, but it has ramped up considerably over time.


The industrial leagues seem to be something like the Japanese equivalent of indy ball. Undrafted players often sign with industrial league teams. The top of the industrial leagues might be better than the top of the indy leagues because the NPB draft has fewer rounds though.

The quality of play in Japan has improved considerably over time. I think it's fair to say that in the early days it was VERY low. One piece of evidence in this direction is that in the early days of Japanese pro ball there were a bunch of two way players, including players who were really good on both sides of the ball. Off the top of my head: Fumio Fujimura, Michio Nishizawa, Junzo Sekine. Sure, sometimes you're going to have someone who can do both, but if your league has a bunch of these players, it probably means that these are really athletic individuals, who can be both productive hitters and pitchers against weak competition on the basis of their extraordinary athleticism.

As for the leader boards: what would it mean to "recognize" the negro leagues as major leagues if you don't count negro league stats as major league stats? Or, if you aren't talking about leagues, what would it mean to recognize someone as a major league player if you don't include their accomplishments on the list of major league accomplishments? (Everyone already recognizes these guys as major-league-quality talents. So it's got to mean something more than that.)
   21. gef, talking mongoose & suburban housewife Posted: August 16, 2020 at 06:43 PM (#5969985)
the ABA was even further away from the NBA. the negro leagues were much closer in talent level to MLB than the ABA was to the NBA.


Not sure that's true (though admittedly I'm a longtime ABA loyalist), especially considering that the ABA was down to 7 teams when the final season ended. Denver won its division (43 years later, oddly, they're the only ABA alumnus never to make the NBA finals) & San Antonio was a pretty solid 44-38. The defending ABA champion Nets, of course, were crippled by the sale of Erving, & the Pacers -- once the ABA's strongest team -- continued what had become a pattern of decline, going 39-45 just before the merger & a very comparable 36-46 after it.

One of the teams that didn't survive the merger, St. Louis, had a roster that included Moses Malone, Ron Boone, Caldwell Jones & talented head case Marvin Barnes. Another, Kentucky, had Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lucas.

Looking at the first post-merger season, I'm surprised to see that only the depleted Nets won fewer than 30 games. I can't imagine that's happened too often.
   22. Starring Bradley Scotchman as RMc Posted: August 17, 2020 at 06:19 AM (#5970013)
Re 16: Bingo. The very best NeL players/teams were undoubtedly MLB quality, but, top-to-bottom, the Negro Leagues were not the major leagues, not even close.

One of the teams that didn't survive the merger, St. Louis, had a roster that included Moses Malone, Ron Boone, Caldwell Jones & talented head case Marvin Barnes.

Had the Spirits of St. Louis (yes, really) actually played with that roster in the NBA, they might have been competitive. More likely, the franchise would've failed and been moved out of town by the 1980s. (Instead, the Spirits owners signed a deal with the NBA in which they would fold the team in exchange for a fraction of the league's TV money, in perpetuity. Over the years, it's added up to hundreds of millions of dollars!)
   23. Howie Menckel Posted: August 17, 2020 at 08:34 AM (#5970014)
the Kentucky Colonels (yes, really) owner, John Y. Brown, got the same option.

he chose poorly.

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