Josh Gibson: The Greatest Baseball Player Ever
I often see people wearing Homestead Grays hats and when I ask if they know what the G stands for or say to them, "Hey, nice Homestead Grays hat," I am inevitably met with a puzzling look. I've recently stopped this futile exercise and created an informative exhibit including materials that provide insight into the life of Josh Gibson, the Homestead Grays best player and the greatest hitter in the history of baseball.
For more photographs and information about the life and career of Josh Gibson, please scroll down
from Beyond the Shadows of the Senators: the Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball
Last Updated: June 22, 2004
Brian Clay Jennings
Josh Gibson hit over 900 or 800 home runs in his career, depending on whose information you consult. His average was over .350. So why do we not hear Gibson's name mentioned in the recent discussion about baseball's best player ever that has surrounded Barry Bonds or at least as the greatest home run hitting catcher ever with Mike Piazza? This is because Josh Gibson played in the Negro Leagues.
Talk of Gibson's greatness has been glaringly absent from mainstream reporting on baseball. Let me share with you three examples of this error that I have encountered recently. The first occurrence I noticed recently was in a book published to commemorate the anniversary of the Yankee Stadium. In a section entitled, "the longest home runs hit in Yankee Stadium," Gibson is omitted entirely, although some of his home runs have certainly been among the longest balls ever hit in (or out of) that stadium. The second occurrence was in a recent New York Times article about Barry Bonds and his quest for the Major League home run record. It states, "as Barry Bonds builds a case as the best player ever, he also makes a run at being the most controversial and most unaccepted" (Jenkins). The most recent example was in a New York Times article regarding Mike Piazza, the catcher and slugger for the New York Mets. The article begins: "Mike Piazza, who has been playing more at first base than behind the plate these days, was honored last night for hitting more home runs as a catcher than anyone in baseball history" (Dicker). There are no mentions of Gibson, who played catcher throughout his career. His omission is his stake as the most unaccepted baseball great and his home run hitting prowess is the proof of his greatness. His exclusion from major league baseball is part of his legacy and one of the reasons his career deserves another look.
The story of Josh Gibson is one that captures the story of many African Americans in the midst of what is now known as the Great Migration. It begins in Georgia, but moves north to Pittsburgh in 1821 when his father, Mark Gibson, begins work in one of Andrew Carnegie's steel factories. After three years of saving money, he sends for the rest of his family - his wife and three children, including the 12 year old Josh. Gibson's family would settle in what was then Allegheny City, but is now the North Side of Pittsburgh. This section of the city was close to where the Carnegie family had settled in 1848 when they came to America from Scotland. Between 1910 and 1930, the African American population in Pittsburgh grew by some 120 percent, from 25,600 to 55,000. Gibson later recalled: "The greatest gift Dad gave me was to get me out of the South" (Peterson, 161).
An interesting discovery I made while researching for this exhibit is that in 1942, Wendell Smith - the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, made arrangements with the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates to pick Negro League stars for a tryout with the Pirates (Negro Candidates Picked). One of those stars was Josh Gibson. However, the tryout never materialized, because the president reversed his decision. David Kenneth Wiggins claims that the Pirates president "probably never had any intention of upholding his commitment, but merely expressed a willingness to conduct the tryouts in an attempt to placate the Daily Worker***, which had been pressuring him to sign Black players" (Wiggins, 17). Despite the fact that the tryout did not materialize, the possibility of a tryout indicates (along with other evidence - such as Walter Johnson's statement that a player like Josh would be worth 200,000 dollars to a team) that black players were making their mark in a way that made white players and owners take notice. If it were not for incredible players like Josh, there would not have been as much willingness to integrate baseball.
Josh's story is a sad one not only because he would never play in the Major Leagues, but because he died in 1947 at the age of 35 from brain cancer, just three short months before Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and only a few years after his tryout that never materialized. At the end of his book, William Brashler recalls the story of two of Gibson's teammates, Ted Page and Pedro Zorilla, searching for his grave in the early seventies and realizing that it was unmarked. Eventually, Major League Baseball purchased a proper gravestone for Josh.
Brashler, William. Josh Gibson: a Life in the Negro Leagues. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Holway, John B. Josh and Satch: the Life and Times of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1992.
"Josh the Basher." Time. July 19, 1943.
Leary, Ralph M. "Baseball in August Wilson's Fences: the Legacy of Exclusion." Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball 1990.
Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Snyder, Brad. Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: the Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball. Contemporary Books, 2003.
"Josh Gibson." National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Accessed June 3, 2004.
"Josh Gibson." Negro League Baseball Players Association. 2000-2004. Accessed June 3, 2004. http://www.nlbpa.com/gibson__josh.html.
Last updated: June 24, 2004
Brian Clay Jennings