Today we will visit with Joshua “Josh” Gibson, star catcher in the Negro Leagues of Professional Baseball.
In black baseball, only Satchel Paige was a better-known personality than Josh Gibson. A natural hitter, the right-handed slugger hit for both distance and average, and was the standard against whom other hitters were measured.
Gibson was aptly titled “the black Babe Ruth,” and his indomitable presence in the batter’s box personified power and electrified a crowd. The slugger’s rolled up left sleeve revealed the latent strength in his massive arm muscles, and his eyes riveted the pitcher from beneath a turned up cap bill as he awaited the pitch with a casual confidence. Hitting from a semi-crouched, flat- footed stance and without striding, he generated a compact swing that produced tape measure home runs with such regularity that they came to be expected as the norm.
Gibson was idolized by black youngsters, and in every ballpark they would point to a spot in the remotest part of the field and say, “Josh hit one over there.” He is even credited with hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, and his prodigious homers have taken their place in baseball lore.
An amusing, apocryphal anecdote alluding to Gibson’s legendary power is told about a home run he hit in Pittsburgh. The ball jumped out of the park like it was shot out of a cannon, clearing the fence and sailing 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 declared to Josh, “You’re out yesterday in Pittsburgh!”
Gibson was credited with 962 home runs in his seventeen-year career, although many of these were against non-league teams. Many of the individual season marks that are accredited to him also are against all levels of opposition, including 75 home runs in 1931, 69 homers in 1934, and 84 homers in 1936 in 170 games. Regardless of the uneven competition, his Power numbers are impressive. In Mexico he hit 44 homers in 450 at-bats with an .802 slugging percentage and, in one winter season in Puerto Rico, he hit 13 home runs in 123 at-bats, smashing a home run every 9.5 at-bats and an extra base hit per 4.2 at-bats.
He also hit for average, compiling a .354 lifetime batting average in the Negro Leagues, a .373 average for two seasons in Mexico, a .353 average for two winter seasons in Cuba, a .412 average in exhibition games against major leaguers, and a .479 average while earning the Most Valuable Player Award in the Puerto Rican winter league.
In addition to his slugging prowess, Gibson possessed a rifle arm and, by hard work behind the plate, made himself into one of the best receivers in the league. His only shortcoming defensively was a weakness on pop ups behind the plate. For a big man he was quick, both behind the plate and on the bases, and was a good base runner. Two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Walter Johnson and Carl Hubbell, placed him among the all-time great catchers, and Johnson assessed his major-league value at $200,000, twice the value he placed on Bill Dickey.
Always affable and easygoing, 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. He missed two other All Star appearances when he spent a pair of prime seasons in Mexico, and on another occasion he was withheld by his ballclub after being selected for the 1938 game; the East squad lost the game without his services.
Born in Georgia, the eldest of three children, Josh completed five years of elementary school before moving North to Pittsburgh, where his father had secured employment as a laborer with Carnegie-Illinois Steel. After arriving in Pittsburgh, he enrolled at Allegheny Pre-vocational School to study to be an electrician. After the ninth grade he dropped out to become an apprentice in an air-brake factory. In 1927 he also began playing baseball with the Pleasant Valley Red Sox, a Pittsburgh sandlot team, before joining the Pittsburgh Crawfords (at that time a semi-pro boys’ team) later in the season.
He was starring for the Crawfords when he first attracted the attention of the Homestead Grays. One account has him playing an isolated game with the Grays in July 1929, but the husky teenager was not signed for regular duty as a professional player with the Grays until after he was pressed into service behind the plate late in the 1930 season, when Buck Ewing split a finger. Immediately the big catcher transformed a good team into a great team, and the Grays defeated the New York Lincoln Giants in the playoffs for the eastern championship. He is credited with a .441 batting average for his first season with the Grays and .367 the following year when, playing amid one of the greatest aggregations of talent ever assembled, he was credited with 75 home runs to spearhead the Grays’ drive to another championship.
Leaving the Grays to join Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932, Gibson combined 34 home runs with a .380 batting average in his initial season with the club. Thereafter he recorded batting averages of .464, .384, .440, and .457, and he slugged 69 home runs in 1934 to become a star among stars on the great Crawfords teams of the 1930s. Although their existence as a team was brief, the Pittsburgh Crawfords are considered the greatest team in the history of black baseball.
Shortly after rejoining the Grays in 1937, he jumped to Santo Domingo (along with Satchel Paige and several other black Americans) to play for the Trujillo All Stars. In a short season fraught with political tension, Gibson led the league in batting with a .453 average (more than 100 points ahead of the runner-up) and in RBIs to lead his team to the championship.
Back in the United States for the remainder of the season, he teamed with Buck Leonard to form a power tandem that was the nucleus of a “murderers’ row” that restored the Grays to a position of dominance in black baseball. 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, he is credited with batting averages of .433 and .440 and incredible slugging percentages of 1.389 and 1.190.
After these sensational seasons, Gibson succumbed to the lure of South America and the rustle of pesos and spent two summers in Latin American leagues. He split the first year between Venezuela and Mexico, leaving Venezuela when the league folded and joining Veracruz, where he promptly pounded the ball at a .467 clip and, although playing only a quarter of the season, finished only one short of the home-run title. The following year, with the luxury of playing the entire season, he hit .374 and led the league in home runs with 33 (almost double the total of the runner-up), and in RBIs to lead his team to the Mexican League pennant.
His salary in Mexico was $6,000, but when Cum Posey filed a $10,000 suit against him and made plans to take his house, a settlement was reached and he agreed to return to the Grays. After arriving back in the United States in 1942, he lead the Grays to four more Negro National League flags, with batting averages of .344, .474, .345, and .398 for the seasons 1942-1945.
Gibson’s return coincided with the resumption of the Negro World Series after a fifteen-year hiatus, and in the first four Series played, the Grays broke even. Sandwiched between a pair of losses (Kansas City Monarchs in 1942 and Cleveland Buckeyes in 1945), the Grays earned back-to-back championships (1943-1944) over the Birmingham Black Barons. In the latter Series victory, Gibson hit a cool .400, including one round-tripper.
In 1945, the premier slugger repeated as the league’s homerun champion as the Grays won their ninth consecutive Negro National League title.
The exceptional success achieved by every team on which Josh played stands as further tribute to his extraordinary talent. While Gibson was enjoying continued success on the playing field, off the diamond, a dark side of his personal life had begun to manifest itself. Earlier in his career, he had avoided a lifestyle that would lead to dissipation. But by the end of the 1942 season, a decline in his physical and psychological well being was in evidence, and in January 1943 he was committed to the hospital after having suffered a nervous breakdown. For the remainder of his life he was plagued with personal problems resulting from excessive drinking and possible substance abuse.
Players returning from the service after World War II noticed the marked deterioration in both his playing skills and his health. Although he could still hit, his power had diminished and his defensive skills had eroded. Once a superb physical specimen, Gibson could no longer get down in a catcher’s squat and resorted to trying to catch by standing up and just stooping down. By the end of the 1946 season he was only a shadow of his former self but still demonstrated awesome power, smashing a 550-foot home run in St. Louis against the Buckeyes in a 12-2 victory in front of 20,000 fans. He finished the season with a batting average of .361, with a slugging percentage of .958. Even in the last year of his career, he maintained his graceful, fluid swing and was a marvel to watch swinging a bat.
When Gibson was in his prime, Washington Senators’ owner Clark Griffith had once sent for Gibson and Buck Leonard to come to his office to discuss the possibility of the pair of sluggers playing for the Senators. Years had passed but, as the beginning of 1947 approached, Jackie Robinson was slated for duty with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the spring and, despite his limitations, the fading star still clung to visions of playing major league baseball.
When Gibson suffered a fatal stroke only a month after his thirty-fifth birthday and just a few months prior to Robinson’s becoming the first black major-leaguer in more than half a century, romantics attributed his untimely death to a broken heart from disappointment at not getting the same opportunity. Regardless of the cause, the greater loss was suffered by the American sports world, who never were afforded the opportunity to witness Josh Gibson’s greatness in the major leagues.
In 1972, preceded only by Satchel Paige, Gibson became the second player from the Negro League to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Thanks for your attention.