The following is adapted from the podcast script for Stick to Pods Episode 11, “Josh Gibson,” which originally aired on April 12, 2018
Every once in a while, sportswriters start asking each other, “If you could go back and see one player in his/her prime, who would it be?” For the younger generation, born in the 1990s (looking at you, Dustin Foote), it might be Michael Jordan. For others, it’s Jim Brown or Bill Russell. When it comes to baseball, Babe Ruth’s, Ty Cobb’s, Joe Dimaggio’s and Ted Willams’ names always get tossed around. But it’s always bothered me that the baseball greats of old — the 1927 Yankees, Lou Gehrig, Cy Young — spent much or all of their careers playing against only some of the guys. It wouldn’t be until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 that they could claim to play against all of the guys. And the one player I wish I could see play in his prime, never made it to the show. He should have.
Joshua Gibson was born Dec. 21, 1911, in rural Buena Vista, Ga. He was the oldest of three children born to Mark and Nancy Gibson, who worked the land as southern sharecroppers. Seeking a better life for their children, Mark and Nancy became part of the Great Migration, a steady stream of Black families moving to the Northeast, Midwest, and West, for the promise of better jobs between 1916 and 1970. All told, millions of black families moved out of the rural South to the industrial Northeast between 1916 and 1970.
Josh Gibson was born into the heart of the Jim Crow South. D.W. Griffith’s racist, white nationalist film “Birth of a Nation” would debut five years after Gibson’s birth. The NAACP was still years from launching their anti-lynching campaign. Brown v. Board of Education wouldn’t be argued for than 43 more years. The idea of integrating schools in America was just beginning to be whispered about among civil rights activists.
When Josh was 10 years old, his father, Mark Gibson, moved north and found a job in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. It wasn’t until Josh was 12 that the entire family followed Mark north and was reunited. They settled in Pittsburgh, in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood on the city’s north side. After joining his father in the Steel City, Josh enrolled in the Allegheny pre-vocational school — where he prepared to become an electrician, but he only stayed until the end of 9th grade. At 14, he went to work with his father for the steel company.
Somewhere along the way, Josh decided that he wanted to play baseball. He was a big, strong, kid with deep belly laugh, who was quiet and introverted most of the time. Josh was introduced to baseball after he moved to Pittsburgh. According to Robert Peterson’s book Only the Ball Was White, Josh was so captivated by baseball, he would roller-skate 6 miles just to watch a game.
By the time Josh was 16, he had broad shoulders and a big chest — and that caught the attention of the players of the Gimbels Department Store team. It played in the All-Negro Greater Pittsburgh Industrial League and recognized a power hitter’s body when it saw one. The Gimbels team recruited Josh to play for them — but the catch was he had to be a store employee to be on the team. So Josh got a second job as an elevator operator at Gimbels. Back then, the Industrial League team often drew bigger crowds than the nearby Homestead Grays.
In 1929, when he was just 18 years old, Josh married 17-year-old Helen Mason. Helen suffered from kidney disease and, when it was discovered she was pregnant, the doctor advised that she and the twins would likely not survive the pregnancy. When Helen finally went into labor in 1930, Josh rushed to the hospital, arriving at the last moment. Upon finding that Helen had gone into kidney failure, Josh demanded the doctors terminate the pregnancy and save her life. But it was too late. A very young Josh Gibson found himself with two newborn babies and no wife. Gibson was so heartbroken, he never even gave them names. The children, Josh Jr. and Helen, would be raised by their maternal grandparents. Their father rarely saw them.
That same year, Gibson was signed by the Homestead Grays. Legend tells of him sitting in the bleachers, watching the game, when the Grays’ catcher broke his arm, and Gibson being pressed into service by the Grays’ manager – but that was all created to bolster Josh’s status. In truth, he was recruited by the Grays the same way every other player was. Josh made his debut on July 31, 1930. Helen died less than two weeks later.
A heartbroken, 18-year-old Josh Gibson threw himself into year-round baseball, and according to Mark Ribowsky’s The Complete History of the Negro Leagues, determined never to get into another personal relationship that could cause him such pain. By all accounts, Helen’s death affected Josh deeply. He no longer trusted the world.
“But if the ballfield was Gibson’s chosen refuge from the betrayals of life, it was only a temporary preserve. Unable to hide from his insecurities, the more balls he smashed out of sight, the more he worried he would never hit another one. Soon, he believed he had to hit EVERY one over the fence, lest he be branded a failure.”
If Gibson’s objective was to shut out the world, he did a poor job of not attracting attention to himself. First, although he was quiet, he was affable and well-liked by everyone, especially the kids who came out to see him knock balls out of the park. He was 6-foot-1 and around 215 pounds — a wall behind the plate. He played first and third base for a while, but spent the majority of his career at catcher.
In his first two years playing for the Grays, Gibson reportedly hit 65 home runs in 1930, and 72 in 1931. In addition to a big bat, he was also a skilled defensive catcher, setting records for throwing runners out on the basepaths.
And if the spotlight made Gibson feel uncomfortable or unworthy, it was about to get a whole lot bigger.
In 1931, Gus Greenlee bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords, an independent team that had once been integrated. With the demise of the National Negro League and the Eastern Colored League that year, Greenlee saw the opportunity to start a new Negro League, with the Crawfords as founding members. Greenlee began by snapping up some of the greatest black players around, Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell in 1932. He also added a young Josh Gibson. In 1933, Greenlee founded the new National Negro League.
At 21, Gibson was already the designated hope for breaking the major league baseball color barrier. Rumors of his prowess and power at the plate continued to grow.
During his 5 years with the Crawfords, Gibson hit for an average of .362, with an OPS of 1.028. In 1936 alone, his batting average is listed at .451 and his OPS at 1.282. The following year, having returned to the Grays, Josh’s OPS was 1.329. In 1934, he reportedly hit 69 total home runs, 12 of them in 52 league games. Some sources say he hit over 900 home runs during his career. Some say over 1000. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith said Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Field’s left field bleachers than the entire American League combined. More than one Negro Leagues player claimed Gibson was the only person to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium — a distance of about 580 feet. That story was eventually sanctioned by the Sporting News in 1967.
According to the Negro Leagues Museum’s page on Josh Gibson, he hit a home run out of a park in Pittsburgh that cleared the fence and sailed out of sight. The next day, in Philadelphia, a ball came down out of the sky and landed in an outfielder’s glove, whereupon the umpire promptly yelled to Gibson, “You’re out yesterday in Pittsburgh!”
And here is where we run into a problem with Josh Gibson’s stats. Negro League seasons were short – about 50 games. The rest of the time, the teams were barnstorming around the country, taking on all comers at all different levels of competition. In the end, they played as many games as white MLB players of the same period, often more. In addition, records of all the games Gibson played in don’t exist. If you check a site like BaseballReference.com, you’ll see relatively low home run totals for Gibson – ranging from 6 to 10 per season. But that’s over the course of 50 games. What he did the rest of the time is largely anecdotal. The great Buck O’Neil once noted that home runs were only officially noted in games where reporters were present.
For example, in 1934, Gibson is listed as hitting 10 home runs in Negro League play in 201 at bats. But other sources have him hitting 69 home runs against all levels of play in 137 games.
In 1971, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn formed a commission to look into players who had been overlooked for the Baseball Hall of Fame. That commission led to Gibson, along with teammate Buck Leonard, being elected to Baseball’s HOF in 1972, just one year after Satchel Paige was inducted in 1971. The Commission, in attempting to reconstruct Gibson’s numbers from less than carefully kept records, awarded him 800 career home runs and a career batting average of .359, though some argue it should have been as high as .384. No matter who you believe, it’s accepted that Gibson homered once every 15.9 At-bats, which would land him in the top 10 in MLB history even today. Some say he hit more HRs than even Barry Bonds in far fewer at bats.
“Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I’ve ever seen,” said former Cleveland Buckeye pitcher Alonzo Boone. “Anything he touched was hit hard. He could power outside pitches to right field. Shortstops would move to left field when Josh came to the plate.”
Teammate Satchel Paige, who Gibson faced in the Negro Leagues World Series in 1942, said of the hitter, “You look for his weakness and while you’re looking for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs.” Later, Paige told United Press International, “Josh was the greatest hitter I ever pitched to, and I pitched to everybody. There’s been some great hitters – Williams, DiMaggio, [Stan] Musial, [Willie] Mays, [Mickey] Mantle. But none of them was as great as Josh.”
Gibson is also credited with 9 home runs titles, 4 batting titles, and 12 all-star appearances.
In 1937, Gibson joined Satchel Paige and other Negro Leagues players in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where they led the Trujillo All-Stars to the league championship. Once back stateside for the regular season, Gibson and Buck Leonard restored the Grays to the top of the Negro Leagues. The pennant that season was the first of nine consecutive Negro National League flags the Grays would win. During the next two seasons, 1938-1939, Gibson posted batting averages of .433 and .440 and incredible slugging percentages of 1.389 and 1.190.
In 1939, Senators owner Clark Griffith summoned Gibson and teammate Buck Leonard to his office and asked them how they thought they could hit in the major leagues. Both men answered that they were like anyone else, they could handle some pitchers with ease and would probably struggle against some of the better ones. Griffith told the players as soon as another team signed a black player, he would sign them both to play with the Senators.
Gibson was approaching the end of his career as baseball began to talk about integration in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but he still would have been one of the best hitters in MLB had someone been brave enough to take the first step to break the color barrier before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in ’47.
In the last 3-4 years of his career, Gibson began drinking heavily and rumors of drug use followed him. To be fair, there has never been any evidence Josh used drugs — the rumors stemmed from his relationship with a woman named Grace Fournier, who was married to a man with alleged ties to the drug trade and organized crime.
What most people didn’t know was that Gibson had been suffering from debilitating headaches for years and drank as a form of self-medication to stop the pain.
In 1943, Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumor — which doctors told him needed to be surgically removed immediately. Fearing an operation on his brain would leave him paralyzed, Gibson refused, and went right back to playing baseball, batting .365 the following year.
While Gibson is often described by historians as a raging drunk who behaved erratically, it’s likely a combination of the tumor and alcohol use had a significant effect on his behavior. By 1944, Gibson was drinking heavily and was plagued with memory loss and slurred speech. He was involuntarily committed for a time and placed in a straight jacket.
James A. Riley was the main researcher for Mark Ribowsky’s biography of Gibson, The Power and The Darkness. Riley said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun in 1999 that he believed the negative aspects of Gibson’s life had been over-emphasized by historians.
Gibson kept on playing as his once mighty body began to fall apart. By the end of 1946, he was emaciated and hollow-eyed. Gibson suffered from liver and kidney disease and bronchitis. He finished the season having hit .361.
By this time, it was evident that it would be Jackie Robinson, not Josh Gibson, who would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Even as his body continued to fail, Gibson wondered, what about me?
On Jan. 19, 1947, Josh Gibson went to a movie alone, hoping the darkness of the theater would help ease yet another debilitating headache. When the movie ended, he was found slumped in his seat, unconscious.
The ushers called his doctor, who rushed to the theater and gave Gibson a sedative before he was taken home to rest. During the night, Gibson awoke and asked his relatives to bring all his trophies into his room — almost as if he needed reassurance that he had, in fact, accomplished something during his life.
In the early hours of the morning on Jan. 21, Gibson sat up, tried to speak, laughed, and then laid down — never to rise again. The greatest hitter in Negro Leagues history was dead. He was only 35.
Three months later, Jackie Robinson would set foot onto Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in front of 26,000 fans, officially breaking the color barrier.
Larry Doby, who followed Robinson to the majors just two months later said, “One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the Black players at the time was that Jack was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that’s one of the reasons why Josh died so early — he was heartbroken.”
Throughout his career, Josh Gibson was known as “The Black Babe Ruth,” but, in a turn of the phrase we’ve all probably heard by now, it’s just as likely that Babe Ruth was the white Josh Gibson.
Thanks to pop culture and the incredible efforts of the Negro Leagues Museum, Josh Gibson has finally broken through to baseball’s collective consciousness, though he may never get the respect he deserves. After he hit his 756th home run, Barry Bonds referenced Josh Gibson’s 800 home runs in post-game comments. In 1996, Gibson was played by actor Mykelti Williams in the movie “Soul of the Game,” starring Delroy Lindo as Satchel Paige and Blair Underwood as Jackie Robinson.
The movie The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is much loved by baseball fans, and Leon Carter, the character played by James Earl Jones, is based on Josh Gibson.
And perhaps my single favorite episode of television ever, an X-Files episode called “The Unnatural,” written and directed by David Duchovny, features actor Jesse L. Martin as an alien who falls in love with baseball, and hides out in the Negro Leagues so he doesn’t have to go back to his home planet. The character’s name is Josh Exeley – you can probably guess who he’s based on. It sounds corny, but it’s a beautiful love letter to baseball and the Negro Leagues.
All of this has been a long way of saying that the player I most wish I could have seen play in his prime is my favorite ballplayer, Josh Gibson.