While Satchel Paige was the perpetual showman, Josh Gibson stuck to the basics of playing baseball. He was the most powerful slugger in the Negro Leagues, the “Black Babe Ruth.” His homers were soaring rockets that broke the sound barrier. He hit for average too and was an excellent catcher, a 12-time All-Star in Negro League East-West Games.
According to undocumented sources, Gibson could have hit a total of 800 homers (including 89 in one season and 75 in another) against Negro League, exhibition, and semi-pro competition spread over a 17-year career. In the late-1930’s, Washington Senator pitching great, Walter Johnson, said about the 6-foot-one, 215-pound Gibson: “There is a catcher that any big-league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey isn’t as good a catcher. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”
Not jumping contracts anywhere close to the way and amount of times that Paige did, Gibson played professionally for the Homestead Grays in 1930-1931, the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1932-1936, back to the Grays in 1937, along with his trip with Satchel Paige to the Dominican Republic to help dictator Trujillo out, the Mexican League in 1940-41, back to the Homestead Grays (also called the Washington Grays or the Washington-Homestead Grays because they played their home games at Washington’s Griffith Stadium) from 1942-1946. In between, he played a dozen years of winter ball in the Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico.
Gibson’s homers were legendary. He once hit a speaker on the right-center field roof at Comiskey Park…a 460-foot shot to left-center field in Yankee Stadium…a 458-footer to center field at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh...another one at Yankee Stadium to the rear wall of the left-field bullpen, about 500 feet away...an upper deck rocket to center field at the Polo Grounds, New York…a 500-footer at Sportsman’s Park, St Louis…an over-the-roof blast at Shibe Park, Philadelphia…a 485-foot homer to the top of the left-centerfield bleachers at Griffith Stadium…and a 512-foot blast in an exhibition game in Monessen, Pennsylvania that was measured upon orders by the town’s mayor. There’s more. He hit dozens of homers at Griffith Stadium, Washington, over the distant left-field wall which was 407 feet down the line. In 1943, Gibson hit 11 homers to that side of the stadium in one season--more than the entire American League combined, which included the hometown Washington Senators.
In a 1967 Sporting News article, Gibson supposedly crushed a ball to the back wall of the Yankee Stadium center-field bleachers, about 580 feet from home plate, two feet from being the first fair ball hit out of the legendary park. Then, the cream of the crop, although some people debate it: Author Robert Peterson in Only the Ball Was White relates a story told by Jack Marshall of the Chicago American Giants, who claimed that in 1934, Gibson cleared the third deck of the Yankee Stadium left-field facade, a towering drive that went over and out! But did it really happen? No one else can document it. So, we can leave that one, but there were plenty of others.
Josh Gibson was born December 21, 1911, outside Atlanta, Georgia, in a village called Buena Vista. In 1923, his father, Mark, left for the steel town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his family had relatives and better job opportunities. Securing a labor job with US Steel, Mark sent for his wife, Josh, and two siblings. They settled down in Pleasant Valley, a black neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side. It was the best thing that happened to the Gibson family, and they never looked back.
As a teenager, Gibson took to swimming, where he won a number of medals: and baseball, where he was usually chosen first in sandlot games. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade to work as an electrician’s apprentice in a manufacturing plant. But baseball was his first love and soon to be his vocation.
At 18, Gibson became a regular with the Homestead Grays in 1930 when he was called from the stands in the middle of a game against the Kansas City Monarchs to replace an injured catcher who had split his finger when he missed a pitch. Gibson worked hard at catching over the years, and he played some outfield. Was he a great catcher? Some Negro League players felt he wasn’t, that he was in the lineup for his hitting. He had an above-average arm, but had trouble lining up high pop-ups around home plate. However, Walter Johnson and later National League All-Star catcher Roy Campanella, who played 10 years in the Negro Leagues before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, touted Gibson’s catching skills. “He was not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw,” Campanella said.
Gibson was a hero in three countries: the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. It was in league play and the barnstorming trail with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords that he secured his legend before heading south. He earned $6,000 a season with Vera Cruz in the Mexican League, after jumping from the Homestead Grays, where he was paid $2,000 less. In 1941, he won the batting title and was voted the MVP in the integrated Puerto Rican League. Next to Satchel Paige, Gibson was the highest paid player in Negro League ball. During the early 1940’s, where he peaked at $6,000 a season, he brought in another $3,000 or so from winter ball. Both players were making a better salary than the MLB average, but nothing close to stars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
There is a story at that same time--1943--that both Gibson and his Homestead Grays slugging teammate, first baseman Buck Leonard, were asked to meet with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith in his office at Griffith Stadium. Griffith, on many occasions, would look out his window and see Leonard and Gibson smashing the ball a country mile, while his weak-hitting Senators floundered year after year. All three talked, but nothing came of it. Leonard said later: “He talked to us about Negro baseball and about the trouble there would be if he took us into the big leagues. But he never did make us an offer.” The same type of meeting occurred on another occasion at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, in the office of the Pirates’ owner Bill Benswanger with the same two players. Nothing came of that, either. No owner wanted to hire blacks for fear of a backlash from the rest of the league. But it must have been tempting for these two lowly clubs badly in need of wins and higher attendance.
In his later years, after catching for decades, Gibson’s knees bothered him to the point where his running speed dropped significantly. He put on too much weight, and also hit the liquor hard and had, allegedly, found his way into marijuana, then hard drugs, including heroin. Over the winter of 1946-1947, he experienced headaches and blackouts. On January 20, 1947, following Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Montreal Royals of the International League and months before his breaking the MLB color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson died of a stroke brought on by his apparent substance abuse. But many friends and family felt Gibson had died of a broken heart as a result of not making the majors.
How great was Josh Gibson? He could certainly hit, but his catching, as stated earlier, may be in question, according to some. In the majors, Gibson probably would’ve hit at least 500 homers, maybe 600, with a close to .300 batting average. In the same 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players that saw Paige taking the 19th slot, Gibson came in one better at 18.
Gibson and Buck Leonard, who lived in the shadow of Gibson for many years with the Grays (somewhat the way Lou Gehrig did as Babe Ruth’s teammate with the New York Yankees), both made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame of Fame in 1972, the year after Satchel Paige. Leonard came in at Number 47 on the above 1999 Sporting News list. In his 1995 autobiography written by James A. Riley, Leonard said about his friend and teammate, Josh Gibson: “Nobody hit the ball as far as he did and as often as he did. They used to say our baseballs were more lively than major league balls but they weren’t. It was just that Josh hit the ball farther.” Leonard also said: “He had more power than Jimmy Foxx.”
Summing it up, Monte Irvin, former Negro League and Major League star stated: “It’s too bad baseball couldn’t have integrated 15 years sooner because the fans really would have seen the cream of the crop…many of them were awesome.”