Josh Gibson - The Black Babe Ruth

I t was the waning days of the 1998 baseball season and Mark McGwire had just hit his 64th home run to pull ahead of Sammy Sosa. The following morning a letter to the editor appeared in the Baltimore Sun from a writer that stated simply:

"Josh Gibson of the Negro Baseball Leagues hit 84 home runs in one season. Why is he forgotten in all the hoopla over Mark McGwire?"

Forgotten? How could Josh Gibson be forgotten when very few knew who he was to begin with.

That is sad - very sad!

Every fan that loves and cares about the game of baseball should know the name Josh Gibson who died in 1947, the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first black player in the major leagues since blacks were banned in 1888. Gibson was just one month beyond his thirty-sixth birthday when he died. He had been diagnosed as having a brain tumor for which he had refused treatment. It was that brain tumor that triggered a stroke that killed him. At least that's what was recorded as the official cause of death on his death certificate?

Gibson

Some, however, believe that the stroke was the secondary cause of death and that Gibson really died of a broken heart - a broken heart caused by Branch Rickey who chose Robinson, a young, unproven player over Gibson, who at the time was the greatest player in the Negro Leagues.

The life of Josh Gibson began on Dec. 21, 1911, when he was born to Mark and Nancy Gibson in Buena Vista, Georgia. Beyond the fact that he attended public school, little is known about his early days in the south but it has been reported that he was about ten-years-old when his family left Georgia for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

By the time Josh was in his early teens, he had begun to show promise on the sandlots that surrounded the steel mills and coal mines of western Pennsylvania and by his late teens, he was playing semipro ball. During that time, while studying to become an electrician at the Allegheny Pre-Vocational School, the seventeen-year-old Josh met and married eighteen-year-old Helen Mason. The following year, Helen died in childbirth while delivering their twins, Josh, Jr. and Helen.

Gibson's legendary professional baseball career began in 1930 under rather unusual circumstances. The story goes that the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs were playing a night game under a portable lighting system in Pittsburgh. When the Grays catcher suffered an injury to his hand, Homestead manager Judy Johnson, who knew of Gibson's reputation as a terrific semipro player, and also knew he was in attendance, went into the stands looking for Josh.

"I asked him if he wanted to catch and he said 'yes, sir,'" Johnson has said. "So we had to hold up the game while he went and put on Buck Ewing's uniform. We signed him the next day."

Gibson
Image Courtesy of Arthur Miller

From the night he was plucked from the stands and thrown into a professional uniform, he continued to play with the Grays for the remainder of the 1930 season and the entire 1931 season. In 1932, a flash of cash from owner Gus Greenlee lured Josh away from the Grays to play for the team's cross-town rivals, the Crawfords. He won home run titles in 1932, '34 and '36, while wearing Crawford red and then rejoined the Grays in 1937.

What many baseball fans don't know is that the Negro Leagues attracted as many as 30,000 or 40,000 fans to their games. These teams also barnstormed around the country and it has been reported that Gibson never hit fewer than 60 home runs in the seasons he barnstormed with the Crawfords.

According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues, the records for the Negro League show that, in 1936, Gibson hit 84 home runs in 170 games. Over a half a century later, during the McGwire/Sosa slugfest, Lonnie White, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, noted that McGwire hit a home run every 7.3 at-bats. He compared that to Gibson's career average of whacking one out every 6.8 times at bat.

The 1937 Grays team split their home games between Washington DC and Pittsburgh but before the season ended Gibson, along with several Negro League stars, ran off to play for the Santo Domingo dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Held under armed guard, they won the championship for Santo Domingo and Trujillo won re-election.

Gibson then returned to the Homestead Grays and picked up where he left off. He won home run crowns in 1938 and 1939, and his first batting title in 1938 by chalking up and incredible .440. During his professional career, Gibson also played briefly in Mexico and Puerto Rico. He won the Puerto Rican batting title in 1941 with an incredible .480 average and was also named their Most Valuable Player. In 1942, Josh became ill and returned to the United States and his old team - the Grays. Despite intermittent health problems, Gibson won home runs crowns in 1942, '43 and '46, plus a batting title in 1943, when he hit .521.

Gibson
Photo Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.

Gibson didn't just destroy Negro League pitchers, he also showed white major leaguers what he was capable of doing with the lumber. In a recorded 61 at bats against the likes of Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Johnny Vander Meer and others, Josh hit .426, including five home runs.

Monte Irvin, one of the greatest African-American players of the era, once recalled an opening day game in 1941 when his team, the Newark Eagles, were leading the Grays 2-0 in the ninth inning with two outs. "Jimmy Hill walked (Sam) Bankhead and (Buck) Leonard with Josh Gibson coming up," said Irvin. "Leon Day was in the bullpen. He got two quick strikes on Josh and tried to slip the third one by him. Josh hit it in the center field bleachers to beat us 3-2, before 22,000 disappointed fans. After the game, Mrs. Effa Manley (owner of the Newark Eagles) said to Josh, 'You should be ashamed of yourself for spoiling our opener.' Josh replied, 'Mrs. Manley I break hearts all over the country every summer. If you don't believe me, just ask any pitcher.'"

Breaking hearts was Gibson's business. In 1943, he hit ten home runs out of spacious Griffith Stadium, a feat never duplicated by any major leaguer. In fact, his ten homers were more than any other American League player hit in 77 games that year. And Josh didn't just hit home runs, he assaulted the ball, sending them twice to the back wall of Griffith's left field bleachers, a feat that has only been accomplished three times. Mickey Mantle did it with a blast that measured 565- feet and Josh did - twice.

Baseball historian John Coates has credited Gibson with 823 home runs in 22 years, including the pro winter leagues. Considering Gibson played the majority of his career in Forbes Field with a center field measured at 457-feet and Griffith Stadium, whose center rests at the 421-foot mark, his home run totals could have been higher had he played in some of the less challenging stadiums of the league. Belting home runs of more than 500-feet was not unusual for Gibson. One homer in Monessen, Pa., reportedly was measured at 575-feet.

One of Gibson's most legendary homers is said to have taken place at the home of the Bronx Boomers. He is credited with a home run in a Negro League game at Yankee Stadium that struck two-feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, which is about 580-feet from home plate.

Another Gibson homer that has gone on to become a part of baseball legend is one that has never been conclusively proven. Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall once relayed a story that, in 1934, Gibson slugged a pitch over the third deck next to the left field bullpen for what would be the only fair ball hit out of the House That Ruth Built. When asked about that, Josh's teammate Buck Leonard once said that nobody could hit a ball as far as Gibson. "I didn't see the one he is supposed to have hit out of Yankee Stadium. But I saw him hit a ball one night in the Polo Grounds that went between the upper deck and lower deck and out of the stadium. Later, the night watchman came in and said, 'Who hit the damned ball out there?' He said it landed on the El. It must have gone 600-feet."

Gibson
Photo Courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.

Max Manning, an ace pitcher for the Newark Eagles once told a reporter that he had never seen Josh take a leaving-the-ground swing. "It was always a smooth, quick stroke," said Manning. "A lot of guys would swing, the ground would shake, the air would move, and their hats would fly off. But Josh would just take that short, quick stroke, and that ball would leave any ballpark."

Gibson was the ultimate slugger. He hit with incredible power, for a high average and seldom struck out. But he was a blue-collar slugger who played without the glitz and glamour of his major league counterparts. He was simply known as Josh - no nicknames, no monikers, no labels. He was just a tradesmen who by virtue of his mighty swing showed no mercy to the pitchers he faced.

By the latter part of 1942, Gibson begun to suffer from recurring headaches and dizzy spells. On New Year's Day of 1943, he was hospitalized for ten days, after his doctor discovered a brain tumor. Recommending immediate surgery, Josh refused to allow the doctor to operate fearing that he would suffer permanent brain damage. He returned home and to baseball, where the headaches and blackouts continued, eventually eroding his coordination skills.

He hung on for another three years in poor health and on the morning of January 20, 1947, Gibson told his mother that he was going to die that night. She laughed, but told him to go to bed and that she would call the doctor. That evening, with his family gathered around him, Gibson asked for his baseball trophies to be brought to his bedside. He was laughing and talking when he suddenly sat straight up, had a stroke and died. He was buried in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery.

In Negro League baseball, only Satchel Paige was a better-known personality than Josh Gibson. The 6'1" 205-pound Gibson was the standard against which other hitters were measured. A natural hitter, the right-handed slugger hit for both distance and average. With a confident countenance beneath a turned-up cap bill and a rolled-up left sleeve, displaying his powerful arm muscles, Gibson's presence in the batters box personified power. He awaited the pitch in a semi-crouched, flat-footed stance, and without striding, generated a compact swing that produced home runs with such regularity that it came to be expected as the norm.

Gibson had dominated the Negro Leagues with power like no one had ever seen. His former Crawford manager Judy Johnson once boasted that if Josh Gibson had been in the big leagues in his prime, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron would still be chasing him for the home run record. Satchel Paige, who was Gibson's teammate on the Pittsburgh Crawfords and later pitched for the Cleveland Indians, once said: "He was the greatest hitter who ever lived."

It is documented in various publications that Gibson did in deed hit as many as 84 homers in one season and 962 career home runs against all levels of competition throughout his seventeen-year career. He also compiled a .391 lifetime batting average - the best ever recorded by a player in the Negro Leagues. In addition to his slugging prowess, Gibson possessed a rifle arm and from behind the plate he made himself into one of the best receivers in the league. For a man as tall and heavy as Gibson, he was surprisingly quick behind the plate and fast on the bases.

Ruth and Foxx
Josh Gibson would have competed with the likes of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx as the premier slugger in baseball - but he wasn't allowed to.

Always affable and easy going, Gibson was well liked and respected by his peers, His popularity extended to the fans, and he was voted to start in nine East-West All-Star games, in which he compiled a sensational .483 batting average.

It has been reported that he won nine home-run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. In two seasons in the late 1930s, it was written that not only did he hit higher than .400, but his slugging percentage was above 1.000.

In the 1970s, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York set up a special committee to recommend candidates from the Negro Leagues for induction. In 1971, Satchel Paige was inducted. The following year, former Negro League players Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson were inducted, but Gibson's records did not go with him.

It is often difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, especially regarding statistics when it comes to players of the Negro Leagues. But there is no disputing the accomplishments of Josh Gibson, whose batting feats are legendary - so legendary he was often referred to as "the black Babe Ruth". And yet, despite the fact that he is one of the greatest players to ever don a uniform and cap, there are few vintage collectibles that feature this great slugger. If you go on a search for Gibson's rookie card your search will not just be Quixotic, it will be fruitless - no such card exists.

Sports Market Report editor Joe Orlando once opined on the missed opportunities of what he called the greatest sports cards never produced - the non-existent Josh Gibson cards were at the top of his list. "Just imagine if Josh had the chance to play in the big leagues and what his 1933 Goudey card might have looked like?" Orlando said. "Would he be catching? Would he be showing off his powerful swing? It's a real shame there are no mainstream cards of Josh, but a collector can dream."

It is a shame that collectors will never have the chance to own a mainstream Gibson card, but the real shame was documented by columnist Shirley Povich, who in 1941 wrote a column for the Washington Post that read:

There's a couple of million dollars worth of baseball talent on the loose, ready for the big leagues, yet unsigned by any major league. There are pitchers who would win twenty games a season, outfielders who could hit .350, infielders who could win recognition as stars, and there's at least one catcher who at this writing is probably superior to Bill Dickey - Josh Gibson. Only one thing is keeping them out of the big leagues, the pigmentation of their skin.

A real shame indeed.