Josh GibsonJul 27th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1911-1947 Josh Gibson was widely believed to be the greatest home run hitter of his time, and possibly of all time. Tragically, he was unable to participate in major league baseball due to discrimination against African Americans. He died just three months before the sport’s integration.
Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, on December 21, 1911. His family moved to Pittsburgh in 1924 after his father found work in a steel mill. Gibson attended school and received vocational training as an electrician. He worked in various factories and stores while developing an early athletic talent, competing successfully in track, and showed the makings of what would become a six-foot one-inch 215-pound muscular frame. During this time, he also began playing baseball, and by the age of 16, was making a name for himself in semiprofessional sandlot ball and specializing as a catcher.
Pittsburgh was home to the finest teams in the Negro Baseball League. Gibson had been noticed by the owner/manager of one of those teams, the Homestead Grays, and had been told to be ready to enter the professional league. When Gibson was 18 years old, the Grays’ catcher injured a finger in a game. Knowing that Gibson was playing across town, the Grays summoned him. He entered the game several innings later and was signed to a contract the same day. Sadly, that year, his wife died giving birth to twins.
Gibson remained with the Grays for the rest of 1930, batting a superb .461 in his rookie year while helping lead them to victory in the Eastern Division Championships, and continued with the team through the 1931 season when he hit 75 home runs. He then left for the formidable Pittsburgh Crawfords. During five remarkable seasons with the Crawfords, he won three home run titles, batted as high as .467, and during the 1936 season, caught for all-star pitcher Satchel Paige, thus creating one of the most dynamic and popular shows in African American athletic history. That year, Gibson belted 84 home runs. Paige, who would ultimately go on to play in major league baseball, said Gibson was “…the greatest hitter that ever lived.” In 1937, Gibson joined Paige and a handful of other Negro League superstars in a team created in the Dominican Republic. While the others were temporarily banned from League baseball, Gibson was permitted to return that summer, and resumed playing for the Grays at the start of their nine-year dominance of Negro League championships.
Major League Material
Gibson had also developed into a fine catcher; his muscular anatomy allowed him to throw runners out without taking the time to stand. His powerhouse home run hitting, which exploded from a compact swing, was matched by a fine sense of control and an ability to hit for averages. The Negro League teams kept no rigorous statistics, but Gibson won two additional home run titles with the Grays in 1938 and 1939. Many of his feats are the stuff of legend: Gibson is said to have hit a ball that struck the Yankee Stadium center field wall two feet from its top, and 580 feet from home plate. Had it cleared the wall, it would have been a 700-foot hit. Eyewitnesses swear that on another occasion, he did hit a home run out of “the House that Ruth Built,” which would make him the only player ever to do so. Home runs of over 500 feet became so common for Gibson that he was the standard against whom hitters were measured.
During this time, it is fairly well documented that the Pittsburgh Pirates of major league baseball prepared a list of Negro League players it would consider hiring, including Gibson, and that the Washington Senators actually came close to recruiting him. It has also been suggested that major league baseball’s offers to buy out Gibson’s contract were refused because he was too valuable. Lending credence to this idea is a 1937 statement from the Grays’ owner that Gibson was “…the best ballplayer, white or colored, that we have seen in all our years of following baseball.”
Like many other players, Gibson took advantage of lucrative winter season contracts in Cuba, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. He played through the 1940 and 1941 seasons for the Vera Cruz club of the Mexican League, and in the Puerto Rican Winter League, which earned him another batting title and the Most Valuable Player award. But in response to a lawsuit filed by the Grays, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1942 where some sources say he hit .542.
The following year, Gibson was hospitalized with what was diagnosed as a nervous breakdown; after persistent dizziness and nausea, it was determined that he had a brain tumor. Suffering headaches and other ailments resulting from thousands of innings of baseball, he continued to play. His deteriorating physical condition was complicated by drinking, and by some accounts, drug use, which may have been in response to depression at being denied access to major league baseball. Nevertheless, Gibson won two more batting championships and three more home run titles over the course of the next four seasons.
Gibson died in 1947 at the age of 35 from a stroke. Legend holds that he predicted his demise that morning, and asked his family to join him with his baseball trophies. Just three months later, Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African American to join major league baseball. Gibson was, nevertheless, recognized by his peers as a towering great of baseball and home run hitting, often referred to as the “Black Babe Ruth.” He had a lifetime batting average over .350 and possibly close to .400, the highest in the history of the Negro League. He started in nine East-West All-Star games, in which he maintained a .483 average. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 where a commemorative plaque states that he hit “almost 800 home runs” in his 17-year career, the most fitting acknowledgement of all.