Hoornstra: Finding MLB’s real 20,000th player, with apologies to Jose Godoy

A fun little Twitter thread went viral over the weekend. It spawned another fun little Twitter thread, which copied a bit from a television broadcast of a Major League Baseball game. That dialogue was ostensibly fueled by a national story citing the original Twitter thread; the Associated Press, NPR and ESPN all ran with it. Once Jeopardy! icon Ken Jennings repeated the story in a pre-recorded spot on the Seattle Mariners’ social media channels, it had jumped the shark.

The story goes like this: When Jose Godoy caught the sixth inning of the Mariners’ loss to the San Diego Padres on Friday, he became the 20,000th player in major league history. Kudos to Godoy, a veteran of nine years in the minor leagues, on making The Show.

Just one problem. The story isn’t true.

So how did it become a meme? How was the truth of this trivial pursuit so broadly overlooked? The answer lies at the awkward intersection of baseball record-keeping (which has always been awkward) and the social web (which was never meant for record-keeping). It also requires the exclusion, once again, of some 3,000 Black and Caribbean players who were “officially” deemed major leaguers in December.

To arrive at the 20,000 milestone we must begin our count on May 4, 1871, the first day of the first season of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Everyone who made their National Association debut that day is listed as the No. 1 player in history by BaseballReference.com.

Technically, we know the actual first player in NA history: Deacon White.

“He was the leadoff batter in the top of the first inning of the very first NA game between Cleveland and Fort Wayne,” Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research said via email. “That is a well-established fact.”

BaseballReference.com counts the NA as a major league. SABR includes the NA in its database. So does Retrosheet, the source material for much of what we know about baseball games played in the pre-digital age.

Major League Baseball, however, does not consider the National Association a major league. A Special Baseball Records Committee ruling in 1969 established this as canon. The committee’s decision effectively demoted the NA to minor league status.

“When MLB marked its 100,000th game in 1963, it counted NA games; when it came to count its 200,000th, NA games were not included,” said John Thorn, MLB’s official historian. “Note that the only reason given for demoting the NA was this: ‘The National Association, 1871–1875, shall not be considered as a ‘major league’ due to its erratic schedule and procedures, but it will continue to be recognized as the first professional baseball league.’ ”

The NA’s other ills – pervasive gambling, poor management, lack of competition – have been chronicled in greater detail by historians since the 1969 decision. For all of the NA’s problems, many of its players went on to appear in the inaugural National League season of 1876. Another 326 did not.

By MLB’s math, then, Godoy is not #20,000. He’s #19,674.

Or rather, he was.

Last December, MLB made the belated decision to bestow major league status on the Negro Leagues of 1920-48. This decision corrected a terrible omission by the Special Records Committee of 1969, the same committee that demoted the National Association to the minors.

The statistical records of Negro League players aren’t listed publicly on BaseballReference.com, but preparations to do so are well underway. In months, perhaps weeks, Godoy will have a new number. In theory, it will be 20,000 plus the number of Negro Leaguers who appeared in a game against another Negro League team from 1920-48 but didn’t ultimately play for an American or National League club. Pomrenke believes this number lies somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000.

We haven’t heard much from MLB about these players since its historic December announcement. Their stats still aren’t displayed on the league’s official website, either. I asked Thorn why.

“I think MLB’s stance is largely the same as (Baseball Reference’s): that this is indeed a painstaking task that we wish to get right,” Thorn wrote via email. “MLB’s commitment to including Negro Leagues data is ongoing and we have had fruitful discussions with interested parties, from a surviving player and descendants to officials and journalists.”

The original Twitter thread popularizing the Godoy-20,000 connection was meant in good fun. It began last season, when every rookie made his debut in an empty ballpark. Each new post in the thread celebrated a player who deserved more of a celebration than the pandemic-era environment allowed.

Bally Sports West had fun with it, too. Broadcasters Jose Mota and Mark Gubciza talked about their numbers during the Angels-A’s broadcast on Saturday. BaseballReference.com lists Mota as 13,550. Gubicza is listed as 12,485.

Jeff Frye had fun with it. The unofficial 13,775th player of all-time got another 23 players to humbly chime in with their numbers on Twitter.

Like baseball itself, it’s all in good fun.

Correcting the record on the actual 20,000th player is stodgy. It might require multiple revisions as we learn more about who played in the Negro Leagues and when. It will require more care and caution than our original quest to elevate Jose Godoy.

The real #20,000? He probably debuted in the late 2000s. Or the early 2010s. It depends on who you ask.