Negro League Legends Remembered: Josh Gibson
Every decade there comes an athlete that performs at a spectacular level and post up incredible statistics. In today's modern society, when an athlete goes way beyond expectations, people are ready to speculate performance enhancing drugs. But in the 1930's there was a baseball player that performed at a magnificent level throughout his entire career. This was way before the steroid era, so why isn't this ballplayer remembered? It could be the fact that he never played in the Major Leagues. Another question arises, Why didn't he play in the major leagues? His name was Josh Gibson and he was African-American in the era when people of his race could not play in the major leagues.
Josh Gibson was a catcher in baseball's Negro Leagues from 1930 to 1946. He played for the Homestead Grays from 1930 to 1931. He moved on and played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords for four years. After his stint with the Crawfords, he returned to the Grays and played most of the rest his career with them. The end of the regular season never marked the end of playing baseball for Josh Gibson. He would travel to the Dominican Republic and Mexico to continue playing baseball in the winter.
Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia and got his baseball career to a very early start. Reportedly during one of the Grays night games the catcher suffered an injury was was unable to play. The Grays manager heard all the buzz about the young Josh Gibson's talent and went looking for him as a replacement. In the middle of the game Gibson was given a uniform and took the field. The beginning of an incredible career was just beginning.
Gibson was called the black Babe Ruth by fans that were able to see him play. At the same time, Babe Ruth was being called the white Josh Gibson. Gibson resembled the Sultan of Swat, with the fact that he was able to hit tape measured homeruns and hold a high batting average. The only difference between the two was the fact that Ruth was in the Major Leagues and Gibson was not.
Compared to the records set by Josh Gibson in the Negro Leagues, Babe Ruth's records might seem a bit less impressive. Many reports and recorded statistics say that the Grays' catcher hit as many as 84 homeruns in one season. His lifetime batting average is just as impressive, in many publications his average is over .350 and in one book it states his average was .384. He was definitely what Babe Ruth was to the majors and possibly even better.
In his seventeen year career, Gibson reportedly was able to win nine homerun titles and 4 batting crowns, while with the Crawfords and Grays. Late in the 1930's some reports state that Gibson was able to hit over .400 and have a slugging percentage over 1.000. The only word to describe a feature like that is...Incredible!
The question that always present itself is "What if Josh Gibson had played in the majors would he have been able to...?" The answer to most of those questions should be yes. If Josh Gibson was given the chance to play in the majors he would have performed at a great level. His statistics might not have been as great as they were in the Negro Leagues, but he would have made an incredible baseball player.
Hall of Famer Walter Johnson once said that Josh Gibson could hit the ball as far as a mile. Satchel Paige was a former Negro League legend before playing in the major leagues and had the opportunity to face Gibson several times and have Gibson as his catcher. Just think of the match-up as big as what Hank Aaron vs. Cy Young would be like. Paige said "He was the greatest hitter who ever lived." Coming from the most dominant pitcher from the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson must have some tough hitter to face.
Some pitchers from the Negro Leagues have said that Gibson was lethal with a bat in his hand. He was not unfamiliar with hitting towering homeruns. It is reported that Gibson might have hit several 500 foot homeruns in his career. The most notable report is the one that states that Gibson hit a 580 foot homerun at Yankee Stadium or possibly one out of the park. It is very hard to prove the validity of the reports, but if in fact they are true Gibson's homeruns could top the list among the longest homeruns ever hit at Yankee Stadium.
When he didn't have a bat in his hand, Gibson could be found behind the plate working on his defensive skills. Gibson was not the best defensive player in the Negro Leagues, but every year his skills improved. He had a good arm and was able to communicate with pitchers well, but had a difficulty with pop-ups.
Word eventually got out about Josh Gibson's talent to several major league clubs, especially to the Washington Senators and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The two teams had interest in the catcher, but would not give him the opportunity to tryout because of the color of his skin.
In 1943, the Grays' Catcher suffered from a cancerous brain tumor that put him in a coma. When Gibson awoke the doctors suggested surgery to remove the tumor. He refused the surgery fearing he would become a vegetable if an operation was done.
Gibson played through his disease and was able to win two batting crowns and three homerun titles in the last four years of his career. While playing with cancer, Gibson suffered from recurring headaches.
On January 20th 1947, Josh Gibson passed away at the young age of 35. Stories say that on that night Gibson asked if all of his baseball trophies and awards could be moved by his death bed. Other stories say that he acknowledged and told his mother that he was going to die on that night. He laughed the entire night and had one last good time, until he suffered the stroke that killed him.
Josh Gibson died three years before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in baseball, by playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. If Gibson was alive when the color barrier was broken, eventually he would have had his chance in the major leagues.
In 1972, Josh Gibson was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He never had the opportunity to showcase his skills at the official professional level, but the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues got it right, when they voted Josh Gibson into the Hall of Fame.
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