Baseball is the best game in the world, but for years, not everyone could play in MLB. In honor of Black History Month, Diamond Digest writers will be releasing eight articles profiling Negro League greats.
The need for the Negro League is not something to be proud of. Discriminating against players based on their skin color not only is a sad example of the racism that was present not too long ago, but prevented crowds from witnessing all of the best players in the best league. One of the greats that never had a shot in the majors was catcher Josh Gibson.
The legend of Josh Gibson is one of the most underappreciated in the game. People have heard of him, but completely disregard him when talking about the greats of baseball, all because he never got his fair chance in the MLB. One man that knows more about Gibson than just about anyone is Negro League Baseball Museum President, Bob Kendrick, who was kind enough to provide me with some of the information for this piece.
Gibson, born in western Georgia, moved to Pittsburgh, PA when he was 12 years old. With the goal of becoming an electrician, Gibson attended a pre-vocational school starting in sixth grade, but he would soon realize that that was not the occupation he was meant for. He began playing on an amatuer baseball team in Pittsburgh, which is where William “Judy” Johnson recruited him to play for the Homestead Grays.
It was in 1930, when Gibson was just 19, that he debuted with the Grays. From that point forward, his dominance was undeniable. Kendrick, one of the experts on this topic, said that, “Gibson is the greatest combination of power and average not in Negro Leagues history but in baseball history.”
Now, to the few of you thinking that’s an outrageous statement, prepare to be debunked. The Negro Leagues did not keep official stats very well, so the exact number of home runs Gibson hit varies on who you ask, but, according to Kendrick, “historians have Gibson hitting nearly 1,000 home runs, against all levels of competition including Major Leaguers.”
1,000 home runs. To be fair to great power bats like Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron, this number includes not only Gibson’s Negro League numbers, but his winter ball and Hispanic leagues experiences. However, Gibson only played 50-60 games per year in the Negro League, so it most likely evens out. I asked Kendrick how he thinks Gibson’s power compares to that of Aaron and Bonds; he told me that he believes it was “unmatched.”
Gibson wasn’t just an amazing power hitter. In addition to his spectacular glove, Gibson’s bat on ball ability was unbelievable. While Baseball Reference is still limited in their total stats for Negro Leaguers, they have Gibson hitting over .400 twice, including an uncanny .486 in just under 200 at-bats in 1943.
Kendrick turned me onto a story told by Negro League great Buck O’Neil. The Kansas City Monarchs were playing the Homestead Grays in Yankee Stadium when the great Satchel Paige tried to get a fastball by Gibson. As O’Neil would describe, “Josh hit the ball so hard right over the top of Satchel’s cap as Satchel was in his follow through. The ball, hit on a rope, landed in Monument Gardens. As Josh was circling the bases, Satchel was still in his follow through position, knowing that he had been just inches away from getting in harm’s way, and he looks over at me where I was playing first base and says, ‘Nancy (Satchel’s nickname for Buck), a fella could get killed out here!’”
Gibson struck fear into one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. No one could handle him. Sadly, no one took a chance on him in MLB. Washington Senators owner, Clark Griffith, showed interest in bringing in both Gibson and his teammate Buck Leonard before Branch Rickey integrated the game. However, nothing ever came of it, and by the time Jackie Robinson came around, Gibson was both too old and sick to continue his career. Gibson did, however, get some shots against Major League talent, hitting .420 in a large amount of exhibition games against Major League and Major League All-Star teams.
Gibson’s career and life were both cut far too short. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and declined treatment out of fear that surgery would leave him in a vegetative state. He passed away in early January of 1947 at age 35, just three months before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier.
The Negro Leagues produced some of the greatest players to ever play the game, and Josh Gibson may be at the top of that list. Remember, next time you’re talking about the best batters ever, that Josh Gibson’s name must not be left out.
Featured Photo: Harrison Studio via Wikipedia