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Josh Gibson

Chronology, Career Statistics, Related Biography: Manager Judy Johnson, Awards And Accomplishments, Further Information


American baseball player

Josh Gibson

Josh Gibson has been called the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, better in the eyes of some than Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle. Sketchy record-keeping in the Negro leagues makes it impossible to quantify Josh Gibson's career definitively. However, historians of black baseball estimate that, in 16 years of Negro league games, post-season barnstorming and winter ball, he hit close to 900 home runs while averaging over .350. He hit .483 in nine Negro National League All-Star games. In post-season games against white all-star teams, Gibson hit .426 in 60 at bats. He clubbed some of the most monstrous home runs ever seen. The longest homers ever hit in three major league parks, New York's Yankee Stadium, Pittsburgh's Forbes Field and Washington DC's Griffith Stadium belonged to Josh Gibson. As an African American in the 1930s and early 1940s, Josh Gibson was barred from playing in the major leagues. Ironically, only three months after Gibson's tragically early death—after finishing one of the best years of his career—Jackie Robinson became the first black to play with a white team.

Born on December 21, 1911 in the rural Georgia town of Buena Vista, nothing in Joshua Gibson's origins seemed to point to the greatness that lay in store for him. He was the first of three children born to Mark and Nancy Gibson, poor black sharecroppers. In 1923, his father moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he soon found work in a steel mill; after he had saved enough money, he sent for his family and found a home for them in Pleasant Valley, one of Pittsburgh's black neighborhoods. The difference between the urban North and the rural South for a young black man in the 1920s was enormous. "The greatest gift Dad gave me," Robert Peterson, the author of Only the Ball Was White, quoted Gibson as saying, "was to get me out of the South." In Pittsburgh Gibson learned the electrician's trade at Allegheny Pre-Vocational School. He left after the ninth grade and found an apprentice's position at a local factory that manufactured air brakes. When he was seventeen he married Helen Mason.

Gibson was an athletic child who loved roller-skating and was a good enough swimmer to win several medals in local competitions. He started playing baseball as a young boy and was so captivated by the game that he would roller-skate six miles to a ball field in Bellevue, Pennsylvania to watch games. As a teen, Gibson was developing the classic hitter's physique: tall, broad shoulders, well-muscled arms, a powerful chest. At sixteen he joined his first organized team, Gimbels A.C., a black amateur club in Pittsburgh. It was there that Gibson started catching, although he occasionally played other positions as well. Around 1929, with the semipro Crawford Colored Giants, Gibson began displaying his prowess as a slugger. His rocketing line drive home runs soon won him an enthusiastic following among Pittsburgh's black citizens, and it wasn't unusual for thousands to come to see him play.

By 1930, word of Gibson's exploits reached Judy Johnson, the third baseman-manager of the Homestead Grays, at the time one of the best teams in Negro ball. Homestead's fans were urging the Grays' owner Cumberland "Cum" Posey to sign the young phenom. Unfortunately for Gibson and Grays' fans, the team already had two catchers on their roster, including Buck Ewing, one of the finest in black baseball. Circumstances conspired, however, in a fashion worthy of the movies, to bring Gibson and the Grays together. In the middle of the 1930 season, at the first night game to be played in baseball, the Grays' pitcher crossed up catcher Ewing with an unexpected fastball and split his hand open. Gibson, who was in the stands, was asked by Judy Johnson to finish the game behind the plate.

Although he didn't get any hits in the game, Gibson stayed on with the Grays, playing whatever positions were open to get his bat into the line-up. There were early moments of glory for the 18-year-old rookie, like the homer he slugged in Philadelphia's Bigler Field, the longest anyone had ever seen hit there. He came into his own in a series at Yankee Stadium for the eastern championship between the Grays and the Lincoln Giants. Gibson's tape measure homers and a .368 average for the series won him the catcher's job with the Grays. Just at the moment Gibson should have been able to savor his good fortune, however, tragedy struck. His young wife died in childbirth leaving him the father of twins, Helen and Joshua.

Gibson's contemporaries agree that he was a natural hitter, one of the purest who ever lived. He had to work hard to become a catcher however, overcoming problems handling the catcher's mitt and blocking errant pitches. His biggest handicap was his difficulty with foul pop-ups. He was often unable to get oriented after he had thrown off his mask and frequently got dizzy running as he searched the sky for the ball. His pitchers sometimes derided him for it, but the problem was probably an early sign of the mysterious condition that would eventually lead Gibson to an early grave. Gibson dedicated himself to learning the catcher's trade, frequently catching both batting practice and games to gain experience. Some maintained Gibson only managed to become an adequate catcher. Others disagreed. According to Peterson, Roy Campanella, a black Hall of Fame catcher in the big leagues, called Gibson "[not] only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw." Walter Johnson, who played against Gibson in off-season barnstorming games, is quoted by Patrick Butters in an Insight on the News article, said of Gibson, "he catches so easy, he might be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey's not as good a catcher."

No one doubts that Gibson could hit. He had a short, compact stroke, much like Hank Aaron's, and strong wrists that enabled him to wait on a pitch until the last possible moment. His hits, even the tape measure jobs, were line drive shots that could tear open the hand of an infielder unlucky to get in front of one. Gibson's performance was phenomenal. His homers were the stuff of legend. Many of his home runs were blows of 500 feet or more. He is supposed to have hit the longest home run ever in old Yankee Stadium, a 580 foot blast that missed going out of the park by only two feet. The most apocryphal story tells of Gibson hitting a ball out of sight one day for a home run. The next day, at a game in the next town, a ball appeared out of the clouds, was caught by the centerfielder, and the umpire pointed at Gibson, yelling "You're out! Yesterday, in Pittsburgh!" Records for the old Negro leagues are sketchy at best, and black leagues, after a shorter season than the majors, played clubs of widely varying skill, from local semi-pro teams up to major league All-Stars. At a time when Babe Ruth held the season home run record with 60, Gibson is thought to have hit 75 homers in 1931 and 72 in 1932. In all he is believed to have slugged well over 800 home runs, leading Judy Johnson to say, as quoted by Peterson, "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." He hit for average as well as power, frequently ending seasons with an average in the high .300s. In over 60 at bats against major league pitchers, Gibson hit .426.

By his second season, Gibson was an established star on the Homestead Grays. In 1932, Gus Greenlee lured Gibson and a number of other Grays players to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. On Greenlee's new team, Gibson joined Satchel Paige, the remarkable pitcher who for decades dominated the Negro leagues—and later added to his legend in the big leagues. Gibson and Paige formed what has been called the greatest battery in the history of baseball. Gibson continued his epic performance with the new team in the Negro National League (NNL), as well as with barnstorming teams that saw black and white All-Star teams squaring off against each other. In 1934 Gibson hit 69 homers, and in 1936 hit for a .457 average. In 1937 Gibson's contract with the Crawfords was up. Aware of the enormous sums Babe Ruth had earned during his heyday, Gibson held out for more money. The two were unable to come to terms and the cash-strapped Greenlee eventually traded his two biggest stars, Gibson and Judy Johnson, back to the Homestead Grays for two minor players.

Before spring training was over, however, Gibson left for the Dominican Republic, drawn by reports of the good money Satchel Paige was getting from Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Despite the country's dangerous political climate, Gibson played in the Caribbean until July. He rejoined the Grays in mid-season, hitting three home runs in his first game and leading the team to an NNL championship. He had hit .360 for the Crawfords in 1936. He led the NNL in homers in both 1938 and 1939, and won his first league batting title in 1938. By then, even white baseball began to take notice. White writers like Jimmy Powers and Shirley Povich wondered in print why a talent of Gibson's magnitude hadn't been signed to play on a team in white organized ball.

By the early 1940s, Gibson had reached the peak of his abilities as a baseball player. After hitting 17 homers in 1939—more than half of his hits in league play—Gibson skipped out on his Homestead Grays contract again in 1940. Accepting an offer of $6000 from Vera Cruz—$2000 more than Homestead was paying him—Gibson played the season in Mexico. Homestead's Cum Posey had had enough. He went to court and got a $10,000 judgment against Gibson, who by 1941 was playing in Puerto Rico, where he won the batting title and was named the most valuable player, a dual honor he would later call the greatest thrill of his career. He returned to Pittsburgh for the 1942 season just as his house was about to be repossessed by the court. Once he donned the Grays flannels again, however, Posey dropped all charges against his star.

Gibson was one of the highest paid players in Negro ball, his $1000 a month salary second only to Satchel Paige. Gibson, however, was not the showman Paige was on the field, he was just a terrific ballplayer. He was a friendly, outgoing, gregarious man, quick with a smile, who would banter with opposing batters to rattle them. His friendly nature extended to young players as well, whom he frequently encouraged. He so loved playing baseball that he would often join in games with kids on his walk home from the ballpark.

In the early 1940s Gibson began a variety of problems. He had begun to drink heavily. According to some rumors, he had begun using marijuana while playing in Mexico, and estranged from his second wife, he became involved with a woman who was said to be using harder drugs. More seriously, he was experiencing recurring headaches—that may have been related to his attacks of dizziness chasing foul pop-ups. His personality under-went a change during the 1942 season. "He wouldn't have nothing to do with you. He'd just sit. He wouldn't talk much, wouldn't joke around, he's just lost that spark," Frazier "Slow" Robinson later wrote in Catching Dreams: My Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues. "Josh was jolly all the time, but starting in 1942 he didn't say nothing to nobody, and he was never quite the same after playing winter ball south of the border." That season the headaches grew worse. On New Years Day 1943, Gibson collapsed and was taken to the hospital where he lay in a coma for an entire day. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor, but Gibson refused to allow doctors to operate, feeling it would render him a vegetable.

Gibson did not reveal his condition to the Homestead Grays and continued to play for the team for four more seasons. They were among the most productive of his career. He won Negro league home run titles in 1942 and 1943, won the batting title in 1943 with an astounding average of .517. Playing part of the 1943 season in Washington D.C.'s Griffith Stadium, Gibson hit ten home runs in the spacious park—more than the entire American League hit there that year. His fine batting in 1943 led the Grays to a pennant and victory over the Birmingham Barons in the Negro World Series, and Pittsburgh celebrated a "Josh Gibson Night" that year. Despite his sterling performance on the field, his behavior was becoming more bizarre and unpredictable. He would abruptly take off all his clothes at ball games or friends' houses; he sometimes arrived at games too drunk to play. The team frequently had him put in a hospital, sometimes for more than a week at a time. Nonetheless, in 1946, his last season, Gibson batted.379 and led the league with 16 home runs. Once the season ended, his health declined rapidly. He suffered from bronchitis, a diseased liver, and nervous exhaustion, and continued to drink heavily. On January 20, 1947, at the age of 35, Josh Gibson died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Some observers have speculated that Gibson's final decline was due in part to his disappointment at not being selected to break the big league color barrier. He had had come close at times to the majors at his peak. In 1939, according to the Pittsburgh Courier, there was an agreement between Bill Benswanger, the president of the white Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Homestead Grays to buy the contracts of Gibson and Buck Leonard. It fell through, Benswanger later said, because Cum Posey asked him not to sign the two players—it would have meant the death of the Negro leagues. A couple years later, Clark Griffith, the owner of the white Washington Senators, met with Gibson and Leonard and discussed the possibility of signing them. That too ultimately came to naught.

Despite the gross injustice that for so long kept black stars from competing in the major leagues, for anyone who saw him play, Gibson was a living refutation of the canard that African Americans were inherently less capable on the diamond than whites. Organized baseball belatedly recognized this fact itself in 1972 when it inducted Josh Gibson into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. He was the second player so honored.

Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan

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Famous Sports StarsBaseball