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Few players’ names have held more reverence among opponents than that of Josh Gibson. Gibson has since earned the moniker “The Black Babe Ruth” and rightfully so. While accounts vary on the exact number, Gibson is credited with over 800 professional home runs. A number that greatly exceeds the totals of Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth. The ballad of Josh Gibson, as epic as it can be at times, ends in utter tragedy. Gibson was a man who was incredibly talented, quite possibly the most talented during his time yet, his talents were never appreciated at the highest level.
The tale of Josh Gibson began in Buena Vista Georgia on December 21st, 1911. The son of a Steelworker, Gibson attended public school before entering vocational school in Pittsburg for electrician training. Married at age 17, tragedy first struck Josh when his wife died in 1930 amidst labor giving birth to twins Josh Jr. and Helen. The twins were raised most of their life by Helen’s parents, with Josh traveling with various teams to provide.
As fate would have it, Gibson was attending a Homestead Grays game in 1930 when Grays catcher Buck Ewing split his thumb, leaving the team in need of a catcher. Some of the players had seen Gibson played, and while he was not trained as a catcher, Josh suited up behind the plate, where he stayed for a long time. Josh is credited with batting .441 during his first season on the Grays. During his second year, a source has Gibson pegged for 75 Home Runs, an astronomical number. In the following year, Gibson joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he batted .380 with 34 Home runs. Though their existence was brief, the Crawfords are often credited with having the greatest collection of talent black baseball has ever seen, with a team that included Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and the great Satchel Paige.
In 1937, under the direction of Satchel Paige, Gibson, Bell, and others left the US to play for Dominican Dictator Rafael Trujillo. Despite intense political tension, Gibson led the league with a .453 batting average. With such a collection of talent, the team won the championship. When he returned to the United States, Gibson teamed with Buck Leonard and helped restore the Grays to their dominant state. They went on to win nine consecutive Negro League pennants beginning in 1938.
At one point during his career, Gibson did a stint in the Mexican League looking for a bigger payout. His presence was missed so much by the Grays, that a settlement was reached to arrange his return to the states. While back with the Grays beginning in 1942, Gibson boasted averages of .344, .474, .345, and .398 the next 4 seasons. It was during this span that tragedy once again reared its’ ugly head in Gibson’s life. At the dawn of 1943, Gibson’s struggles with headaches and blackouts resulted in a 10-day hospital stay and tumor diagnosis. Refusing an operation, Gibson self-medicated with Alcohol resulting in a sad turn of events. As his condition continued to deteriorate, it became clear that Gibson was no longer the best player in Negro League baseball, nor was he the clear choice to break the color barrier. In 1947 Jackie Robinson had his contract purchased by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was going to be the one to receive the honor Gibson lusted for all his life. One month after his 35th birthday and a few weeks before Robinson’s MLB debut, Gibson passed away from a fatal stroke. Larry Doby, fellow Negro League star catcher and the first black player to play in the American League, was quoted saying that part of the reason Gibson died so early was the heartbreak from not being given the same opportunity as Jackie Robinson.
Man, Myth, and Legend
The mythos of Josh Gibson runs deep, with an endless amount of tales telling of his power and unparalleled ability to hit a baseball. Fellow Hall of Famer and former teammate Buck Leonard was quoted saying “I saw him hit a ball one night out of the polo grounds that went between the upper deck and the lower deck and out of the stadium. Later the night watchman came in and said ‘Who hit the damned ball out there? It must have gone 600 feet.’” Like Leonard, part of the tragedy of Gibson lies in the fact that the mainstream audience never got to see him, and the rumors stay at just that, never receiving verification from the masses.
Adding to his mythos, Hall of Fame outfielder Monte Irvin, who played in the Majors with the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, and against Gibson in the Negro Leagues, was quoted saying that “They were great players,” Referring to Aaron and Mays “But they were not Josh Gibson.”
Part of the Journey is the End
The ballad of Josh Gibson is indeed a tragedy, with an epilogue coming in 1949 when his 18-year old son Josh Jr. made his Homestead Grays debut. Josh Jr. played only 4 total seasons of professional baseball, forced into early retirement at age 21 after he continued to play on a broken ankle, managing the pain with Novocain to finish out the season. After baseball, Jr. got a job with the Pittsburgh sanitation department and lived a life of modesty despite the accomplishments of his father.
If he played in today’s game, or even 20 years later, Josh Gibson would have been an absolute superstar. In the age before multi-million-dollar payouts and superstar lifestyles, Gibson lived a life apart from his family having to travel almost all months of the year to provide. Gibson was unable to afford the steep medical costs and fell victim to his lifestyle of hard living.
Despite the less than story-book ending, some restitution did come for Gibson in 1972, when he became the second Negro League player ever to be elected to the Baseball Hall of fame, only behind former teammate and fellow great, Satchel Paige. The story of Josh Gibson is not just one of tragedy, but one of greatness, perseverance, and a testament to the human spirit.
Capture a piece of Josh Gibson's legacy with this vintage baseball cap from VintageSports.com
Jacob Hales is a contributing content writer for Vintage Sports, and specializes in baseball.