Josh Gibson: The Black Babe Ruth?

His Hall of Fame plaque reads that Josh Gibson hit “almost 800 homeruns” in his career. There are several reports of Josh Gibson hitting home runs which traveled more than 500 feet. Walter Johnson said Gibson could, “hit the ball a mile.”  Satchel Paige simply called Gibson, “the greatest hitter who ever lived.”  “There were a hundred legends about him,” catching great Roy Campanella said. “Once you saw him play, you knew they were all true.”  Gibson once reportedly hit a ball over the fence in Pittsburgh which was not caught until the next day during his next game in Philadelphia.  He was called out in Pittsburgh for the previous day.

Gibson, the subject of a recent column by Graham Womack, was born December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia. In 1923, the Gibson family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father found employment at the Carnagie-Illinois Steel Company. Josh Gibson was preparing to become an electrician at a Pittsburgh school. Instead, he found work as an elevator operator at Gimbels department store and at 16 years old, played third base for the company team. Baseball was definitely a better profession than working in a mill, and Gibson knew that was what he wanted to be.

It wasn’t long before he caught the eye of Gus Greenlee who controlled the then still semi-pro Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords were the top semi-pro team in the Pittsburgh area. In 1930, Gibson was signed by Cum Posey, owner of the top Negro League team in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays. There were already whispers about the legendary power and ability of Gibson. On July 31, 1930, the legend was about to begin.

Negro League statistics are notoriously difficult to verify as when they were compiled at all, often did not differentiate between pro and amateur opponents nor did they take into consideration the various ballpark distances.  The Negro League season was usually no more than 60 games and more money was made barnstorming than against professional opponents in league games.

Still, Gibson compiled some staggering even if only partial accurate statistics. In 1931, Gibson hit .461 and slugged 75 home runs. He resigned with the Pittsburgh Crawfords who were now fully professional in 1933 and hit .467 with 55 home runs and he drove in 239. He was just getting warmed up. The following season he hit 69 homeruns. In 1937 he returned to the Homestead Grays and led them to nine Negro League titles.

Throughout his career, Gibson played winter baseball in Latin America adding to a legend that the major leagues and Branch Rickey, the man who broke the colour barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, couldn’t help but notice. There are stories that Rickey had considered signing Gibson and making him the first black player in the major leagues. Rickey was heard to remark that for sheer talent alone, Gibson would have been the logical choice.

But Gibson had demons that he could not shake. He seemed good natured and carefree on the surface but beneath the surface was a deeply troubled soul. He often drank heavily and had high blood pressure. He was plagued for many years by injuries suffered due to catching thousands of games and he suffered from terrible headaches. He suffered from blackouts. He would gain much weight only to quickly lose it. Doctors insist that Gibson undergo an operation to determine the cause of his health issues but he refused and continued to play.

He won the Negro League batting title in 1945 and 1946 but in January of 1947, just months before Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier, Josh Gibson passed away at the age of 35 after suffering a stroke.

Some teammates insist that Gibson really died of a broken heart. He was said to have been always bitter at never having the opportunity to play in the major leagues. It plagued and depressed him his entire career. When Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson felt his chance had come and gone. But his passing was really baseball’s loss.

Gibson was elected in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and a plaque was erected in 1996 at Ammon Field in Pittsburgh and in 2009 he was honored with a statue inside the center field fence at Nationals Park, home of the current Washington Nationals.

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