What he did: Twitter lit up Thursday evening with news Josh Hamilton slipped again in his sobriety. Hamilton, who overcame monumental drug issues in the minors and relapsed before in 2009, at least has time to regroup before the season starts. Josh Gibson never got that opportunity, the end of his life a storm of drug and alcohol abuse after perhaps the greatest career in Negro League history. Gibson was good enough that some called him the black Babe Ruth, while others referred to Ruth as the white Josh Gibson. The history of black baseball admittedly has its share of hyperbole, though one can only wonder what Gibson might have done with an opportunity.
Era he might have thrived in: Bill James ranks Gibson as the greatest catcher of all-time, suggesting he may have fared well in any era the majors would have him. If Gibson hadn’t died of a sudden stroke at 35 in January 1947, mere months before Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier, I suspect he might have been picked up by the same Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck who signed 42-year-old Satchel Paige in 1948. As such, we’ll go in a different direction here. We’re taking Gibson to the late 1980s and early ’90s where he could fill in for one of the few players who rates a comparison to him.
Why: In his interview for the Ken Burns Baseball miniseries that aired on PBS in 1994, Buck O’Neil spoke of hearing Ruth hit the ball, a “sound of the bat that I had never heard before in my life.” O’Neil heard the sound again with Gibson and, decades later, he heard it again with Kansas City Royals slugger Bo Jackson.
Gibson had power for sure, with Negro League expert Scott Simkus telling me he hit 10 balls clear out of Griffith Stadium in 1942 alone. Gibson hit for average, too, a reported .359, which trumps Jackson’s .250 lifetime clip. Simkus said Gibson most closely parallels Jimmie Foxx, another sweet-hitting slugger capable of playing catcher, though the possibilities with Jackson intrigue me more. In Jackson’s place, Gibson might have been the superstar Kansas City lacked in the late ’80s while George Brett was aging and the Royals declining. Gibson might not have been Bo’s equal as a marketing icon, no “Josh Knows Josh” campaign for Nike, but he could have forged a Hall of Fame career in the majors. I see Gibson good for at least 40 home runs and a .300 batting average with Triple Crown potential.
What else might Gibson have gotten playing in recent years? Besides a seven-figure contract and the basic amenities that black baseball lacked, Gibson would have had better options for combating substance abuse. There’s also the question of his mental health, which went largely untreated in his lifetime. Stories of his issues abound, with Gibson battling depression, having conversations with an imaginary Joe DiMaggio late in life, and once breaking free of a straitjacket he’d been placed in by police. Treatment for mental health was somewhat draconian up through the 1960s, and while today is no renaissance, with plenty of stigma still attached, Gibson might stand a better chance of having his issues properly diagnosed and treated.
Certainly, Gibson’s personal demons wouldn’t be easy to face in any era, as Josh Hamilton could attest. Here’s wishing Hamilton the best.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Cesar Cedeno, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Doug Glanville, Eddie Lopat, Elmer Flick, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, Gene Tenace, George W. Bush (as commissioner), George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack Morris, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays