Josh Gibson

 

 
A Homestead Grays Cap

Josh Gibson: The Greatest Baseball Player Ever
or
What does that G on
your hat
stand for?



- Exhibit at the Pace University Library -


 

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




 

Josh Gibson at Bat

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: The Best Ever or what does the G on your hat stand for?

 

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.

Gibson batting
from http://baseballguru.com/jholway/analysisjholway43.html

 

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.



Josh and His Family Come to Pittsburgh

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).

Josh completed the ninth grade in Allegheny pre-vocational school, where he learned the basics of being an electrician. This helped him get a job as an apprentice in the Westinghouse airbrake factory. He would also work in a Carnegie steel mill and as an elevator operator in the Gimbels department store in downtown Pittsburgh. While he held an assortment of jobs around town, he began to become known on the playgrounds and ballfields. He played on a recreational team affiliated with Gimbels and this provided him with his first shot at organized baseball.

 

The First Wave of the Great Migration (1916-1919) - part III
The First Wave of the Great Migration (1916-1919) - part III
"Many migrants moved to Pittsburgh, which was a great industrial center at the time."
Jacob Lawrence



The Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays

In the Spring of 1928, Josh finally got his break when Harold "Hooks" Tinker, the Pittsburgh Crawfords centerfielder and manager, saw him play for the first time. After the game, he asked Josh: "How would you like to play with a real baseball team?" (Ribowsky, 30). The next Tuesday he was with the Crawfords, who were a semi-pro club at the time.* Cum Posey easily wooed Josh away from the Crawfords at the end of the 1930 season and he made his way to the Homestead Grays, which was the top Negro League professional team at the time. However, Gus Greenlee would soon buy the Crawfords and turn them into a real professional team, assembling the team pictured below with Josh back on the team:


The Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1935
The Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1935 were champions of the Negro National League and perhaps the greatest team ever. The team included five future Baseball Hall of Fame members. They were Oscar Charleston, on the left; Satchel Paige, second from the right; Josh Gibson, fourth from the right; Cool Papa Bell, seventh from the right; and Judy Johnson, eighth from the right.




In the midst of a financial crisis in 1936 which was supposedly caused by a bad numbers hit, Gus Greenlee traded Josh back to the rival Homestead Grays for a player and cash. Gibson would play for the Grays for the rest of his career** and thus we have our G which stands for the Grays of Homestead - a team that was started as a recreational league for black steelworkers.

 


The Homestead Grays in 1913
The Homestead Grays in 1913

Cum Posey (middle row, third from left) would become the team's manager and then owner - he would get Josh to leave the Crawfords and play for the Grays
from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

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.

Unfortunately, his greatness may have also been Gibson's downfall. In a 1950 interview with the Sporting News, the Pirates president from 1942 who rejected those tryouts claimed he tried numerous times to purchase Gibson from Cum Posey, the owner of the Homestead Grays. Posey rejected his offers, saying he felt "such a movement would wreck the Negro leagues. He was not against seeing Gibson or any of the other boys make the grade, but as an official he had to protect his own league and rights" (Lanctot, 441).


How Many Home Home Runs did Josh Gibson Hit and How Far Did They Go?

This is where the sources are muddled. In Robert Peterson's Only the Ball Was White, considered by most people to be the best study of Black baseball, he states that Gibson hit a ball that "hit just two feet from the top of the stadium wall circling the bleachers in center field, about 580 feet from home plate. It was estimated that had the drive been two feet higher it would have sailed out of the park and traveled some 700 feet!" Peterson also quotes Jack Marshall, of the Chicago American Giants, as stating that he witnessed Gibson hit a ball that went out of Yankee stadium, which would be the only fair ball ever hit out of that ballpark. Peterson cites old timers as crediting Gibson with seasons of 75 and 89 homers (Peterson, 158-159).

John Holway refutes the claims of 75 and 89 home runs in his book and on his web site and instead indicates that Gibson is the lifetime leader in batting average. In 1942, Gibson supposedly hit .542 in the Negro National League (Lanctot, 141). Regarding home runs, Holway states "the data suggest that, had he played in the integrated majors, he would almost surely have broken Babe Ruth's record within a decade after the Babe set it" (Holway).

No matter what numbers you dig up on Gibson's hitting prowess, they are likely to be incomplete. However, the numbers we do have indicate that Gibson was the best hitter of all-time.



Josh Gibson His Death, Legacy, and Our Memory
 

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.


Josh Gibson's children: Josh Jr. and his twin sister Helen with their
Josh Gibson's children: Josh Jr. and his twin sister Helen with their
Aunt Rebecca Mason, Josh's sister - circa 1934

from The Power and the Darkness: the Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game


Josh's legacy also survives in literature through a reference in Fences, August Wilson's play that tells the story of Troy Maxson, a Negro League baseball player who never got the chance to play in the Major Leagues. In the play, Maxson's friend Bono suggests Troy came too early to take advantage of integration. Troy responds:

There ought never have been a time called too early! Now take that fellow...what's the fellow they had playing right field for the Yankees back then? You know who I'm talking about, Bono. Used to play right field for the Yankees [...] Selkirk! That's it! Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees! I saw Josh Gibson's daughter yesterday. She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! Now I bet you Selkirk's daughter ain't walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that! (Wilson, Fences, 9)


Ralph Leary talks more about baseball's "Legacy of Exclusion" in Fences, the racism that continued even after integration, and its impact upon Wilson's work. Like Josh, and all of us, Troy Maxson ends up battling death, or as he would say, "a fastball on the outside corner" (Wilson, Fences, 10).

It is important for us to remember Josh Gibson and his great feats and not to forget baseball's exclusionary past. As August Wilson said, "You’ve got to make this connection with your recent past in order to understand the present and then to plot the future" (Wilson, Interview).






* An important piece of nostalgia is that Tinker succeeded Teenie Harris as the manager of the Crawfords. Teenie left the club to run numbers for his brother Woogie and Gus Greenlee, but is best known today as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier for 40 years. His 80,000 photographic images in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh are the largest collection of photographs of any Black community in the world and are perhaps the greatest evidence of what life was like in Pittsburgh's black community from 1930 thru the early 70s (Crouch).
For more on Harris - check out the Teenie Harris Archive Project.
Back to the essay


**Josh did play some baseball in Latin America which deeply angered Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey. Although when Josh came back, he was the only returning Negro League player allowed to continue playing - the others, including Satchel Paige were temporarily blacklisted.
Back to the essay


***The Daily Worker was a daily newspaper published by the American Communist Party from 1924-1957.
Back to the essay


Books and Articles

Brashler, William. Josh Gibson: a Life in the Negro Leagues. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Crouch, Stanley. One Shot Harris: the Life and Photographs of Charles Harris.

Dicker, Ron. "Catchers Who Hit Homers Honor One of Their Own." New York Times on the Web. June 19, 2004. Accessed June 21, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/19/sports/baseball/19PIAZ.html
 

Holway, John B. Josh and Satch: the Life and Times of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1992.

Jenkins, Lee. "On and Off the Baseball Field, Bonds Prefers to Go For Distance." New York Times on the Web. April 20, 2004. Accessed April 20, 2004.
-(I actually took the quote from the New York Times homepage. The quote pointed to the full article back on April 20, 2004 - now it no longer exists on their page although a smart Google search  will retrieve a version of what the page looked like back then and evidence of its existence).
 

"Josh the Basher." Time. July 19, 1943.

Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Leary, Ralph M. "Baseball in August Wilson's Fences: the Legacy of Exclusion." Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball 1990.

"Negro Candidates Picked." New York Times. August 21, 1942. p. 22.

Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Ribowsky, Mark. The Power and the Darkness: the Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

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.

Vancil, Mark, and Mark Mandrake (eds.). New York Yankees: One Hundred Years: The Official Retrospective. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Wiggins, David Kenneth. "Wendell Smith: The Pittsburgh Courier-Journal and the Campaign to Include Blacks in Organized Baseball, 1933-1945." Journal of Sport History 10 (1983): 5-29.

Wilson, August. Fences: a Play. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Wilson, August. Interview with Herb Boyd. Black World Today. April 26, 2000. Accessed June 17, 2004.
http://www.tbwt.com/views/specialrpt/special%20report-3_4-26-00.asp

Web Sites

Holway, John R. "John Holway's Baseball Page." Accessed June 22, 2004. http://baseballguru.com/jholway/.

"Josh Gibson." National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Accessed June 3, 2004.
http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers_and_honorees/hofer_bios/gibson_josh.htm.

"Josh Gibson." Negro League Baseball Players Association. 2000-2004. Accessed June 3, 2004. http://www.nlbpa.com/gibson__josh.html.

Lawrence, Jacob. The Great Migration: a Story in Pictures. Columbia University. Accessed June 10, 2004.
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/odonnell/w1010/edit/migration/migration.html.


Last updated: June 24, 2004
Brian Clay Jennings