Simply Baseball Notebook's Legends

Josh Gibson

Josh Gibson
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Homestead Grays 1930-31, 37-39, 42-46
Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932-36

"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 . . . and 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." - Shirley Povich, Washington Post 1941

Josh Gibson, 'The Black Babe Ruth', was one of the greatest baseball players of his generation. Gibson, believed to have hit more home runs than any other player ever (some accounts say as many as 972), tragically died at the age of 35 - months before Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier. Here is his story:

Josh Gibson was born on December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, GA; his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA in the 1920s. As a 17 year old he married 18 year old Helen Mason, but tragedy struck when Helen died in labor delivering their twins, Josh Jr and Helen. His baseball career began when he organized a semi-pro Negro team called the Crawford Colored Giants in 1929. The Colored Giants attracted about 5,000 fans per game & made about $50 a game through donations from the fans because they charged no admission. The slugging catcher, of course, was the main attraction.

The beginning of Gibson's full-time professional career is the stuff of legend. He was in the stands for a Homestead Grays - Kansas City Monarchs game under a portable lighting system in 1930 (the Negro Leagues began playing night games over 5 years before the Major Leagues). Gibson was enjoying himself in the crowd when the Grays catcher Buck Ewing injured his finger & had to be removed from the game. Grays' manager, Hall of Famer Judy Johnson, had heard about Gibson's exploits for the semi-pro team & had noticed he was in attendance.

He approached the 19 year old Gibson with a proposition, "I asked him if he wanted to catch and he said 'yes, sir,' so we had to hold up the game while he went and put on Buck Ewing's uniform," said Johnson. "We signed him the next day."

Gibson finished that season with the Grays & spent the 1931 season with them as well hitting a reported 75 home runs. Following the '31 season Gibson joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords where he would play the next five seasons. During his time with the Crawfords, Gibson won three home run titles - hitting 69 in '34 - & teamed up with the legendary Satchell Paige for what may have been the best battery combination in baseball history.

The secret to Gibson's home run prowess was hit short, compact swing that produced incredible power. Max Manning, a former pitcher with the Newark Eagles describes it, "I never saw Josh take a leaving-the-ground swing. It was always a smooth, quick stroke. A lot of guys would swing, the ground would shake, the air would move, and their hats would fly off. But, he'd just take that short, quick stroke, and that ball would leave any ballpark."

Gibson's success wasn't limited to just the Negro Leagues. In various All Star games he hit .426 in 60 at bats against the likes of Dizzy & Daffy Dean, Johnny Vander Meer, and other white big league players.

Gibson spent the beginning of the 1937 season playing with Satchell Paige in the Dominican Republic, essentially holding out. The frustrated Crawfords dealt him back to the Grays, with whom he joined in July. He went on to win the home run & batting titles in '38 as well as another home run title in '39. There are reports that the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators considered giving the catcher a tryout in the late 30s, but decided not to break the "gentleman's" agreement the owners had made against allowing blacks into the major leagues.

Gibson spent the 1940 & '41 seasons playing in Mexico & Puerto Rico picking up an MVP and batting title along the way. In 1942 he returned to the Grays when their owner, Cum Posey, filed a lawsuit against him. He refused to let the off-the-field distractions affect him, leading the league in home runs and batting average again that season.

Off the field, however, things kept getting worse. Before the 1943 season Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumor that put him in a coma. Once he awoke doctors wanted to perform surgery to remove the tumor, but Gibson refused, saying he did not want to end up a 'vegetable.' Although he was plagued with severe headaches Gibson kept playing, and playing quite well: over the next four seasons he won three home run titles and two batting championships.

Following the 1946 season Gibson's health took a dramatic turn for the worse. He missed winter ball for the first time and on January 20, 1947 Josh Gibson died of a stroke. He was just 35 years old.

Josh Gibson was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 - 26 years after his playing career had ended - it was long overdue. His Hall of Fame plaque says the slugging catcher hit 'almost 800' home runs in his 17 year career. Unfortunately, Josh Gibson's exact career statistics are not known, but numbers only begin to describe the career of this all-time great. Gibson helped give credibility to an entire race. Next time you are sitting around with friends and a discussion arises about the greatest home run hitters - the names Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mark McGwire will surely come up - make sure you include Josh Gibson - tell his tale - it deserves to be told.

-David Zingler, Fall 2001

Simply Baseball Notebook

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