Josh Gibson: Good Enough to be a Legend

Josh Gibson

By Glen Sparks

How good was Josh Gibson?

Well, we’ll never know exactly. Baseball’s unwritten rule against African-American players gets the blame for that.

Gibson played his entire career in the Negro leagues. He died, tragically, at the age of 35 on Jan. 20, 1947. Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers less than three months later.

How good was Josh Gibson?

Baseball writers elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1972. His plaque credits him with hitting “almost 800 home runs” over his career. Some people called him “the black Babe Ruth.” (Or, some say, Ruth was “the white Josh Gibson.”)

Gibson, born Dec. 21, 1911, in little Buena Vista, Ga., moved to Pittsburgh in 1924. His dad, Mark Gibson, found a job up north with the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co.

Young Josh decided early on to pursue a career as an electrician. Nothing wrong with that. But, Josh also played baseball as a teenager on local amateur teams. Scouts took notice. Josh Gibson stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 200 pounds at age 16. He swung a serious bat. Newspapers reported that Gibson regularly belted home runs of 400 feet and even 500 feet.

Gibson’s career in the Negro leagues began July 25, 1930. Supposedly, the catcher for the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays broke his finger during a game. Cumberland Posey, the Grays’ owner, called out to Gibson, who sat in waiting in the stands. “Let’s see if you can play.”

Well, maybe it happened that way. Maybe it didn’t. Either way, Gibson quickly worked his way into the Grays’ starting line-up. A star was born. In late September, he crushed a ball at Yankee Stadium that traveled 430 feet to 460 feet, depending on the report.

The Grays were one of the legendary Negro league teams. (In 1940, they moved part-time to Washington, D.C.) They won Negro league titles in 1931, 1937-45 and 1948. Besides Gibson, great players who wore the Grays’ uniform included “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson and Buck Leonard.

Following two seasons with the club, Gibson left for the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Owners wanted him to catch the team’s new pitcher–Satchell Paige.

Records in the Negro leagues were not exact. According to some reports, though, Gibson mashed 72 homers in 1932. Did he? Maybe he hit even more. The consensus was that few players could hit a ball as far as Josh Gibson.

How good was Josh Gibson?

In 1934, he reportedly belted a baseball completely out of Yankee Stadium. One player, Jack Marshall, swore that Gibson did just that. Did he? Did the ball land outside the stadium or simply settle way back in the bleachers? Does it matter?

Sam “The Jet” Jethroe said, “If someone had told me that Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed him.”

Gibson’s career continued that way. He hit one monstrous home run after another. 600 feet … 700 feet? Just how far could Josh hit a baseball?

The big right-handed batter stayed with the Crawfords from 1932 through 1936. He went back to the Grays from 1937 through ’39 and then left for Azules de Veracruz in Mexico (1940 and 1941). Gibson concluded his career with a third stint on the Grays from 1942 through ’46.

Gibson made 12 All-Star teams. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he batted .359 over his career and won nine home-run titles.

He did all this despite suffering from serious health issues. Terrible headaches plagued him. Doctors told him in 1943 that he had a brain tumor. His behavior became increasingly erratic. He spent time in a mental asylum.

And, he kept hitting tape-measure home runs. In 1946, he cracked a 457-foot homer in Pittsburgh and a 500-foot one at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He knocked one pitch over the roof at Shibe Park in Philadelphia.

Gibson died after collapsing at his home. His body lay in state for three days at the funeral home. A line of people a half-mile long showed up to pay their respects for the great Josh Gibson.

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