"There is a catcher that any big league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow." — Walter Johnson
He was referred to as the black Babe Ruth, but some – then and now – believe it might be just as accurate to call the Bambino the white Josh Gibson.1 In June 1967 a column in The Sporting News credited Gibson with a drive in a Negro League game that hit just two feet from the top of the wall circling the bleachers at Yankee stadium, approximately 580 feet from home plate in the original park. Had the ball been just two feet higher, the article mused, the ball might have carried 700 feet.2 Jack Marshall, of the Chicago American Giants, swore that he saw Gibson hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium,3 and some accounts credit Gibson with between 800 and 1,000 home runs in a career that lasted only 16 years.
“There exists no official source of statistics … no compilations of scorecards. … Many gaps exist in the historical record,” an authority on the Negro Leagues points out.4 The record-keeping was incomplete and nonstandardized, so the actual total is unclear and probably unknowable. That reality, that statistics cannot be usefully compared between the Negro Leagues and the pre-integration major leagues, is an unfortunate one, yet it is also largely irrelevant. Josh Gibson was, by so many accounts as to make the claim indisputable, one of the greatest sluggers who ever stepped into a batter’s box.
Gibson was born to Mark and Nancy (Woodlock) Gibson in Buena Vista, Georgia, on or about December 21, 1911, named Joshua after one of Mark’s grandfathers.5 As Leigh Montville observed about such specific facts in his biography of Babe Ruth, “Details are important but do not seem to be available. There is so much we want to know. There is so much we never will.”6 That is especially true of the histories of many of the old Negro League players, certainly ones born in the Deep South in the early part of the 20th century. But it is close to certain that Gibson was the eldest of three children. His brother Jerry, who pitched briefly for the Cincinnati Tigers, was three years younger, and sister Annie (Gibson) Mahaffey was six years his junior.7
Mark Gibson was a sharecropper who in 1923 traveled to Pittsburgh in search of a better life for his family. He found work with the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company and sent money back to Georgia for three years until he was able to bring the whole family to Pennsylvania in 1926. The Gibsons bought a house on Strauss Street in the Pleasant Valley section of Pittsburgh, and set about turning it into a home.
Josh had finished the fifth grade while in Georgia. In Pennsylvania he started in the electrical studies program at the Allegheny Pre-Vocational School, and at 13 was placed in a similar program at Conroy Pre-Vocational, in Pleasant Valley.8 By the time he turned 15 he dropped out of school in order to take a job at an air brake manufacturing plant to help support the family. At 6-feet-1 and 200 pounds, he was already capable of working with the adult men doing heavy labor. He went to work after school with Carnegie-Illinois Steel, which left his evenings free for recreation.
Despite his combination of size and an easy, natural athleticism, Gibson did not embrace football or basketball, instead preferring swimming and, of course, baseball, the sport at which he excelled. His first formal, uniformed baseball team, at age 16, was an all-Negro team sponsored by Gimbels Department Store.9 After a stint as a catcher, Gibson finally settled in at third base. Mark Ribowsky summarized it neatly: The firm “thought enough of his ability that (they) gave him a job as an elevator operator so it could keep him in uniform.”10
The baseball team, along with other amateur black teams, became organized into the Negro Greater Pittsburgh Industrial League. The entity included teams from various steel companies, Pittsburgh Railways, and Pittsburgh Screw and Bolt,11 and the contests drew quite a few fans (and some gamblers) to the ballyards. One newer team, Pittsburgh Bath House, was able to recruit several additional sponsors and renamed itself the Pittsburgh Crawfords. One of those partial sponsors was Honus Wagner, who, retired as a player and the owner of a sporting-goods store, donated uniforms to the team. Even so, the team might have folded due to lack of funds had it not been for the intervention of Gus Greenlee, who took control in 1926. With the infusion of money, and commensurate talent, the Crawfords dominated both the Negro Industrial league and Pittsburgh’s recreational league that year.
In 1927 Greenlee installed Harold “Hooks” Tinker as manager. Tinker happened to watch an Industrial League all-star game at Ammon Field in 1928, and Josh Gibson’s life changed forever. “I had two of my Crawford players on that all-star team. … Otherwise I wouldn’t have been there. And that’s when I saw Josh. He was playin’ third base, and he was very mature in his actions; you wouldn’t think he was only 16 years old.”12 “He was built like sheet metal. If you ran into him it was like you ran into a wall.”13 Tinker later recounted: “I signed (him). I brought Josh Gibson into the semipro picture.”14
Gibson, for all his size and notoriety, was a decent human being. “Now with Josh,” Ted Page, a fellow Negro Leaguer, observed, “Nobody could criticize his personality. Next to hitting, I think he liked eating ice cream more than anything else in the world.”15
In 1928 Gibson met Helen Mason, a year his junior, and by 1929 the two had fallen deeply in love. That February Helen announced that she was pregnant with their first child, and a month later, on March 7, 1929, the two were married at Macedonia Baptist Church in Pittsburgh. The pregnancy did not endure, but Helen became pregnant again in 1930, this time with twins.
On August 11, 1930, Helen went into premature labor. Her pregnancy had evidently “aggravated an undiagnosed kidney condition and by the time she reached the hospital, one of her kidneys had ruptured.”16 Josh arrived at the hospital minutes before Helen died. The babies, at least, were delivered safely. The first was a son, Josh Jr., and a sister, Helen, followed him. Josh Sr., however, was inconsolable at the loss of his wife. Deciding that he was neither ready nor fit to be a single parent, he prevailed on his in-laws, James and Margaret Mason, to take the infants into their home. Gibson was emotionally devastated, and some argue that he never recovered from the tragedy.
On the baseball diamond, though, there was no difference in Josh’s performance. Gibson played for the semipro Crawford Colored Giants in 1929 and 1930, earning a few dollars a game while often playing in front of 5,000 or more spectators, and word of his power inevitably reached Judy Johnson and the Homestead Grays. “I had never seen him play,” said Johnson, “but we had heard so much about him. Every time you’d look at the paper you’d see where he hit a ball 400 feet, 500 feet.”17 The Grays already had two catchers, Buck Ewing and Vic Harris, so they didn’t immediately pursue Gibson, but he was certainly on their figurative radar.
On July 25, 1930, the 1929 Negro League Champion Kansas City Monarchs came to Pittsburgh to play an exhibition. Monarchs’ owner J.L. Wilkinson had developed a portable lighting system that the team towed around the country so that they could play at night and maximize the local attendance, but the lights were far dimmer than those used in the modern day. According to legend, Joe Williams was catching for the Grays that night and lost the ball in the low visibility, breaking a finger in the process. Vic Harris was in the outfield that evening, the story goes, so Grays owner Cum Posey called Josh out of the stands and asked him if he would like to catch the rest of the game.18
It is, perhaps, an apocryphal story, myth mixed with memory and laced together with a few facts, but there is no other more definitive account of how Gibson became a member of the Homestead Grays. He went hitless that night, but recorded no errors, either, and he remained with the team for the rest of 1930. Johnson had Gibson catch batting practice every day, eventually working him into a few games if only to get his bat into the lineup.
Over his career, there would form several opinions about Gibson’s ability as a catcher. Some who saw him said he was passable, even good, but not as talented as Biz Mackey or Bruce Petway. Roy Campanella, though, averred that Gibson was “not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw.”19 Regardless of his ability as a backstop, the man could hit and hit with power. Any team he played for would have found a uniform for Josh. On September 27, 1930, Gibson smote the first of his most legendary homers, a shot that flew an estimated 430 to 460 feet into the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium during a playoff game between the Grays and the New York Lincoln Giants.20
In 1931 the Homestead Grays affiliated with the American Negro League, a short-lived precursor to the Negro National and American Leagues that would emerge in 1932. The Grays played on a circuit with the Cuban Stars East, the Baltimore Black Sox, and the Philadelphia Hilldale Giants, and 19-year-old Josh had the opportunity to play alongside legends like Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, Smokey Joe Williams, Jud Wilson, Ted Page, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. Within league play, Gibson was credited with 132 at-bats, hitting 10 home runs and slugging at a .545 clip.
The next year, 1932, Gus Greenlee enticed Gibson back to the still-independent Crawfords to catch for a pitcher named Satchel Paige, the first time the two were paired. As independents, the Crawfords played exhibitions against a wide array of teams, and some have credited Josh with as many as 72 homers during the long season, although only five are recognized by baseball-reference.com. Again, with incomplete records, unregulated ballparks and fence distances, and a wide span of exhibition pitching talent, the number is less important than the reality that Gibson was already an elite power hitter.
In order to make a few more dollars, and to play in an environment where racial segregation was not an issue, Gibson traveled to Puerto Rico that year to play part of an exhibition season with the new Santurce Cangrejeros for a reported $250 per month. In 1933 he returned to Pittsburgh and played for the Crawfords in the new Negro National League through 1936. The 1934 season saw another epic blast at Yankee Stadium, this time one that Jack Marshall of the Chicago American Giants swore flew completely out of the ballpark.21 Whether or not it actually departed the friendly confines is, again, largely irrelevant. Even if the blast only made it to the bleachers, it was still one of the longest blows ever in the history of the stadium, and only added to the growing legend. Sam Jethroe later noted: “If someone had told me that Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them.”22 Gibson himself “always pooh-poohed the notion that he’d actually hit a ball out of the House That Ruth Built, maintaining that he’d only reached the center-field bullpen. He was a modest man and a powerful one.”23
“In the hotel, in the restaurant, or at a bar everybody wanted to meet Josh Gibson,” said Monte Irvin. “He could handle the attention that came with his celebrity status. Josh never did get a swelled head. He had that kind of quiet confidence. Naturally the ladies were all crazy about him because he looked so boyish.”24
After a 1936 season in which he was credited with as many as 84 homers (albeit only six in Negro National League play), Gibson headed back to the Caribbean and the Cuban Winter League for the 1936-37 season. When he returned to the United States, the Crawfords’ cash-strapped owner, Gus Greenlee, was forced to sell Gibson back to the Grays for $2,500 and two players (Pepper Bassett and Harry Spearman). Gibson spent part of the season with Homestead, hitting .392 with 12 home runs in just 97 at-bats, and part of the year playing in the Dominican Republic. Working for Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, Josh batted .453 and led the Dominican League in RBIs and triples.
Gibson moved back and forth between Pittsburgh and Cuba throughout the period 1937-1940. In 1937 he hit another mythical home run, later credited as 580 feet in The Sporting News.25 In a report filed three decades after the fact, the paper noted that “Gibson hit one in a National Negro League game that hit the escarpments in front of the 161st Street elevated railway, about 580 feet from home plate. It has been estimated that if the drive would have been two feet higher, it would have sailed out of the park and travelled some 700 feet.” The various uncorroborated distances reported for some of Gibson’s longer home runs have been the source of much of the doubt about the facts of his career.26
Regarding Gibson’s power and the lore of his tape-measure homers, Sam Jethroe noted: “If someone had told me that Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them.”27 “Gibson himself always pooh-poohed the notion that he’d actually hit a ball out of the House That Ruth Built, maintaining that he’d only reached the center-field bullpen.”28 Jethroe’s comment, especially in the context of some of Gibson’s reported home-run distances, is laden with implication. Author, historian, and analyst Mark Armour, among others,29 has noted that over the last 15 years or so, home-run distances are measured with greater precision over earlier times. The new system relies on dozens of measurements taken at every major-league park, and when fused with observed ball velocity and height data for each homer yields a much more accurate estimate of the actual distance. As might be expected, reported home-run distances have dropped considerably under the new protocol.30
Perhaps Gibson did not hit baseballs 600 or 700 feet. Perhaps his longest blows were only 450 or 500 feet. Perhaps they were even shorter than that. It remains indisputable that Gibson was hitting the ball farther than any of his contemporaries in the Negro Leagues, and it is quite plausible that he was hitting them as far as, or farther than, his white contemporaries as well. Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith interviewed Dizzy Dean in 1937 and asked his opinion of some of the more prominent Negro League stars. When pressed about Josh, Dean was unusually articulate: “Gibson is one of the best catchers that ever caught a ball. Watch him work this pitcher. He’s top at that. And boy-oh-boy, can he hit that ball!”31
In 1937-38 Gibson batted .342 for Havana, in the Cuban League, while back with Homestead in 1938 he hit .365 with 10 homers in fewer than 100 at-bats before hitting .380 that winter in Puerto Rico. In 1940 Gibson accepted a pay raise to join the Veracruz Azules in the Mexican League. Despite playing only about one-quarter of the season he tied for second in the league with 11 home runs. After the Mexican League season he returned to the Puerto Rican Winter League where he not only batted .480, but hit a home run that was estimated at 600 feet.32
Back in Mexico for 1941, alongside fellow Negro Leaguers Cool Papa Bell, Martin Dihigo, Leon Day, Willie Wells, and Ray Dandridge, Gibson continued to terrorize pitchers. Josh batted .374 and slugged at a .754 clip with 100 runs, 33 homers, and 124 RBI in 94 games, drawing 75 walks while striking out only 25 times. Burnis “Wild Bill” Wright led the league that year with a .390 batting average, beating Gibson by only .016 for the crown. Of note, Gibson’s 1941 RBI total remained, as of 2001, the 19th best single-season total ever in Mexican League history.33 Josh’s slugging percentage topped Wright by 121 points and third-place Bus Clarkson by 156, and he also finished fifth in runs scored, driving in 29 more than runner-up Santos Amaro, third with 31 doubles, and second in walks to Leslie Green. His 33 homers were 14 more than Clarkson as the runner-up, and Gibson nearly outhomered the second- and third-ranked hitters combined.34
Gibson returned to Cum Posey’s Homestead Grays for the 1942 season. On January 1, 1943, he suffered a seizure and lost consciousness at home. He recuperated at St. Francis Hospital in Lawrenceville, near Pittsburgh, for 10 days, and was ultimately diagnosed with a brain tumor.35 The newspapers reported that Gibson had suffered a nervous breakdown; he was unwilling to share his true condition with the public. That year Mark Gibson, Josh’s father, died, adding tragedy to turmoil, but Josh enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his baseball career in 1943.
Although he was reportedly becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol and marijuana,36 the 1943 version of Josh Gibson was as lethal as ever. At the age of 31, Josh batted .486 with 12 home runs and 22 two doubles. Posey had crafted a unique arrangement in which some of the Grays’ home games were played in Pittsburgh and the rest at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. According to author Brad Snyder, “In front of record crowds, Gibson wrested center stage away from (Satchel) Paige by hitting a home run once every four games.”37 Josh hit more homers over Griffith Stadium’s left- and center-field walls in 1943 than did the entire American League that year, Snyder wrote.38
Gibson’s headaches and the erratic behavior, along with his weight, continued to increase, while his on-field production began to move in the other direction. Josh led Homestead to another Negro National League crown in 1945, batting .323, and in 1946, according to baseball-reference.com, reportedly bashed a 440-foot home run at Yankee Stadium, a 457-foot blow in Pittsburgh, a 500-foot shot at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and a ball that cleared the roof at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Even until the end, he was the best hitter in the universe of black baseball.
On January 20, 1947, at 1:20 in the morning, Gibson collapsed in an unconscious heap. At 1:30 he awoke briefly in a moment of apparent lucidity, then lay back down and died. For three days after his death, Gibson lay in state at the funeral home, then for three more days at the home of Margaret Mason, his mother-in-law. The funeral was held at the same church, Macedonia Baptist, in which he and Helen had been wed 20 years earlier, and according to some accounts, people lined up for more than a half-mile to pay final respects.
For his “official” career, Josh Gibson hit 107 home runs and batted .350. His Grays teams won nine consecutive league titles at one point, and he played on too many all-star teams to count. Unofficially, he may have homered close to 900 times in various settings. Some in the media, and historians since, have occasionally tried to portray Gibson as a martyr of segregated baseball, a big man who died of a broken heart at not getting to play in the integrated major leagues, but that would seem to diminish the contributions of the entire cadre of Negro League players. Gibson’s son, Josh Jr., said, “When I hear that stuff about how my father died of a broken heart, that pisses me off. Cause that wasn’t my father. He was the last guy to brood about something he couldn’t do nothing’ about.”39
Gibson’s National Baseball Hall of Fame plaque credits him with “almost 800 homers” in a 17-year career, but it is the testimony of his peers that truly underscores Josh Gibson’s prowess. “I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron,” said Monte Irvin. “They were tremendous players but they were no Josh Gibson.”40 Josh Gibson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, part of the inaugural induction of former Negro League stars. He was, truly, worthy of the honor.
1 Ken Burns, volume 5 of the documentary series Baseball (“Shadow Ball”), 1994. Quote online at hardboiledcinema.blogspot.com/2010/05/ken-burns-baseball-5th-inning-1930-1940.html.
2 Dick Kaegel, “Gibson’s HR Blast Was Indeed Majestic,” The Sporting News, June 3, 1967, quoted in Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970): 160.
4 Lawrence Hogan, Shades of Glory (New York: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 2006): 380.
6 Leigh Montville, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
7 Mark Ribowsky, Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 23.
8 Ribowsky, 25.
9 Ribowsky, 26.
10 Ribowsky, 27.
11 Ribowsky. 11.
12 Ribowsky, 29-30.
13 Ribowsky, 30.
14 Hooks Tinker, quoted in Brent Kelley, ed., Voices From the Negro Leagues: Conversations With 52 Baseball Standouts of the Period 1924-1960 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1998): 13-14.
15 James Banks, The Pittsburgh Crawfords: The Lives and Times of Black Baseball’s Most Exciting Team (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, Publishers, 1991), 48.
16 Ribowsky, 49.
17 Judy Johnson, cited in Peterson, 158-170.
18 Peterson, 160.
21 John Holway, Josh and Satch (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishing, 1992).
24 Monte Irvin and James Riley, Nice Guys Finish First: The Autobiography of Monte Irvin (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996), 55.
25 The Sporting News June 3, 1967: 4.
26 In 2004 George Manning, a mechanical engineer with Battelle Memorial Institute and the True Temper Corporation before becoming the vice president of technical services for Hillerich & Bradsby Company in Louisville (home of the Louisville Slugger), commented on the feasibility of such prodigious home runs. There are, according to Manning, an array of factors that impact distance of flight, including speed and mass of the bat, the mass of the ball, weather conditions, direction of bat and ball at impact, the spin on the ball, and perhaps a dozen more. Gibson swung a heavy, 41-ounce bat and held it at the knob, increasing the potential for maximum distance of a perfectly struck fastball, and he was certainly a strong, athletic man. Extrapolating from Manning’s remarks, however, there is absolutely no reason to assume that Gibson hit a 700-foot fly ball, a blow that would have flown more than 20 percent farther than Mickey Mantle’s shot out of Griffith Stadium in 1953 estimated by a Yankees PR man at 565 feet. The only evidence for the reported distances is the collection of eyewitness accounts from game participants, but such evidence is rife with problems and error (among many, see Laura Englehardt, in a 1999 article in the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies (agora.stanford.edu/sjls/Issue%20One/fisher&tversky.htm) in which she clearly impeaches the value of much eyewitness reporting. None of that is to diminish Gibson in the slightest, but only to caution against absolute reliance on that which was reported but which remains unproven. Full contents of the Manning interview available online at sluggermuseum.com/workspace/uploads/hitting-a-baseball.
30 Mark Armour, email dated June 5, 2015.
31 Lester, 110.
33 Pedro Treto Cisneros, The Mexican League: Comprehensive Player Statistics 1937-2001 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2002), 40.
35 Ribowsky, 215.
37 Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2003), 156.
38 Snyder, 157.
39 Ribowsky, 300.