Any player/Any era: Josh Gibson

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.

Similar to Josh Gibson: Satchel PaigeMonte IrvinJackie Robinson

Others in this series: Al SimmonsAlbert PujolsBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon Drysdale, Doug GlanvilleEddie LopatElmer FlickFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner), George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJack MorrisJim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film)Matty AlouMichael JordanNate ColbertOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy KoufaxShoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

Retelling the Monty Stratton Story

Before there was Plaxico Burress, there was Monty Franklin Pierce Stratton (man, people knew how to name their kids back in the day! See: Tenace, Fury Gene).

Once upon a time, Stratton was, seemingly, a young promising pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. An All-star, Stratton compiled a 36-23 record by the time he was 26. He completed 62 of the 70 games he started and had a 3.71 ERA and 1.31 WHIP.

He did the bulk of his work in 1937 (164.2 IPs) and 1938 (186.1 IPs). In ’37, Stratton posted a sparkling 2.40 ERA with a 3.77 K/9 rate and 2.02 BB/9 rate. His BABIP was .254 and his FIP was 3.39. It seems Stratton wasn’t great, just a tad lucky.

That said, in ’38, he posted a .265 BABIP, a 3.96 K/9 rate and a 2.70 BB/9 rate. His ERA was 4.01 and his FIP was 4.31. It would have been interesting to see if he was one of those guys who posted low BABIPs and beat his FIP routinely. For what it’s worth, Jimmy Dykes “foresaw unlimited possibilities” for the youngster according to Harold Sheldon’s Finishing the Stratton Story in 1949’s Baseball Digest.

Alas, everything changed for Stratton on November 27, 1938. Stratton had handled guns since he was 10 and owned five, including a .22 caliber pistol. “Monty stuck the .22 in his holster, and thought he had it on ‘safety,’ but it wasn’t, and when he pulled the gun out of the holster…it went off right away,” said his brother Hardin. There are some reports that Stratton tripped and fell and the pistol went off.

Stratton spent 30 minutes crawling toward his family home and was rushed to a hospital 10 miles away. However, they couldn’t get the bullet out, so they took him to a hospital in Dallas six hours after he was shot. Apparently, that didn’t really matter as Stratton, incredibly unluckily, completely severed the popliteal artery which is right behind the knee. The doctors had to amputate the leg.

Five months after the accident, Stratton signed a three-year coaching contract with the White Sox to throw batting practice and coach first base.

Four years after the accident, Stratton pitched in the minors. While managing the Lubbock Hubbers, Stratton sent himself to the mound in relief several times. He threw 9 innings and gave up 19 hits and 17 runs. He didn’t stay manager long.
However, four years after that, he threw 218 innings for the Sherman Twins. He posted a 4.17 ERA on a wooden leg. He pitched 103 innings the following year for the Waco Dons and would pitch intermittently until 1953 – 15 years after the accident.

All told, he threw 814 minor league innings, 388 of them were after his leg was amputated.

Forgive me if this is all old news to you because you saw the 1949 movie, which featured cameos by Dykes, Bill Dickey and Gene Bearden, but my dad was barely born then.

Stratton died on September 29, 1982, at the age of 70 – almost 6 months exactly after I was born.

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Dick Stuart and the Managers He Frustrated

After Dick Stuart hit 66 home runs and drove in 171 runs for Lincoln Chiefs in the “A” Western League in 1956, he began to add the digits “66” to every autograph. But by the time Stuart was promoted to the Hollywood Stars in 1957, he always signed with a five-point star above his name. What no one could figure out, then or now, is whether the star reflected Stuart’s team or his image of himself.

As Stuart immodestly said after his record breaking season:

If the pitching was better, I would have hit 90 home runs. I had to chase a lot of bad balls to get those 66 homers.

By 1957, the Pirates minor league system was starting to produce high quality prospects. Stuart was considered among the brightest. In his typically brash manner, when he arrived in Hollywood awash in publicity Stuart immediately announced that he would lead the league in homers and RBIs.

At the season’s start, it looked like Stuart would make good on his promise. Playing—of all places—in right field, Stuart took the collar in the season opener of a day-night double header in San Diego. Then, in the night cap, Stuart blasted two homers, one estimated to travel 500 feet which led the Stars to a 14-1 victory. Over the next two games, Stuart smashed three more. But soon after Stuart’s bubble burst. He stopped hitting homers; in fact, he quit hitting singles,too. To complicate matters, Stuart’s fielding—“Dr. Strangeglove”—was atrocious.

By mid-May, Stuart was on his way back to Lincoln via the Atlanta Crackers. Paul Pettit, who after arm trouble had re-invented himself as an outfielder, took Stuart’s place in right and remained there for the season’s balance.

As Hollywood manager Clyde King said to Stuart on his way out the door: “You’re losing me more games with balls hit through your legs than your winning me with home runs.”

Stuart’s Hollywood line: AB 72; BA .236; HR 6; RBI 17

No matter where his managers placed him, and they tried the corner outfield slots as well as first and third base, Stuart couldn’t field. Writing for Sport Magazine in 1962, Larry Merchant summarized Stuart’s glove skills (or, better said, lack of glove skills):

In the outfield, his indifference bordered on contempt. At first base, he resembled a dinosaur egg. Stuart’s trouble—it is theorized—is that he hates all pitchers including his own.

During his brief 13 game stint with the New Orleans Pelicans in the Southern League, Stuart fielded .889.

By 1958, Stuart was in the big leagues to stay first with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then the Boston Red Sox followed by cameos with the Phillies, Mets, Dodgers and Angeles. His major league tenure was full of ups and downs.

Along his way Stuart alienated the Pirates’ brass at every stop—Branch Rickey, Bobby Bragan, coach Dick Sisler and King.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the most famous fielding play that Stuart was ever involved in—while he was sitting on the bench during the 1960 Pirates-New York Yankees seventh game.