The Majestic Power of Baseball's Forgotten Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one of the most prodigious baseball talents in history doesn’t get the attention he deserves.
By Sean Braswell
Some of the greatest athletes in history never got the attention or acclaim they deserved. In this series, ”The Unsung,” OZY looks at some of the most talented sports figures in history who were underappreciated, overshadowed or forgotten.
The tales of Negro league star Josh Gibson’s exploits on the ball field rival those of any Major League Baseball star, including Babe Ruth. The powerful slugger’s tape-measure home runs are the stuff of legend, though many of them are rooted in reality. Yes, Gibson once knocked a speaker off the right field roof at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. And he came within a few feet of hitting the ball out of Yankee Stadium.
Josh Gibson never got his chance to shine in the major leagues. His career was played entirely within the confines of racial segregation. He died at age 35, just a few months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. And so when, if ever, you hear baseball fans today discussing Gibson, it is usually in the subjunctive tense, a speculative tribute to what might have been. In some ways, however, lamenting what might have been misses the point entirely with Gibson. It misses the simple majesty of what was.
Gibson’s swing was a force of nature.
The Georgia native reportedly got his big professional break in 1930, when he was just an 18-year-old semi-pro ballplayer in the bleachers watching a Negro league game between the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs. When the Grays’ catcher was injured, the team’s manager went into the stands to offer Gibson a uniform.
Over the course of the next 17 years, the 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pound Gibson reportedly hit around 800 homers, including as many as 84 in a season, winning nine home-run titles and four batting championships — though the statistics from the Negro leagues remain murky and incomplete. He is said to have swung the longest and heaviest bat in the league with his bulging forearms, and made it look easy. To hear the stories told by his fellow ballplayers, Gibson’s swing was a force of nature. Here’s a sample:
Monte Irvin, Negro leagues and MLB star: “Josh Gibson had the strength of two men. The most imposing hitter ever.”
Hall of Famer Honus Wagner: “One of the best natural hitters I’ve ever seen.”
Hall of Famer Satchel Paige: “Josh was the greatest hitter I ever pitched to, and I pitched to everybody.”
Hall of Famer “Cool Papa” Bell: “He was a hitter, one of the greatest you ever saw. … He hit them straight. Line drives, but they kept going.”
Gibson routinely sent balls over the center field wall at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which stood 457 feet from home plate. Many blasts traveled more than 500 feet, including a shot in Monessen, Pennsylvania, that was reportedly measured at 575 feet. Sometimes the stories blend into legend. According to one, Gibson once hit a ball off a hot dog billboard high above the right field bleachers at Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, prompting a fan to yell, “Josh, you knocked the mustard off that dog.”
And sometimes the legend is based on something real. Gibson may have never hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium in New York, as is sometimes claimed, but The Sporting News and baseball historians credit him with hitting one that struck two feet from the top of the wall behind the center field bleachers — a 580-foot blast that would be the longest ball ever hit at a field that housed such great sluggers as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle.
Josh Gibson’s career tallies as a power hitter are even more remarkable given that he played the demanding position of catcher. “People don’t talk about his defensive skills as much as they talk about his home-run hitting,” says Sean Gibson, Josh’s great-grandson and the head of the Josh Gibson Foundation, “but he had a rocket arm and threw a lot of runners out.”
Gibson, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, is sometimes called “the black Babe Ruth.” But as Sean Gibson, who is good friends with Babe Ruth’s great-grandson, puts it, we could just as easily say Ruth was “the white Josh Gibson.” You can’t really say either is the greatest player who ever lived because neither played against the full spectrum of competition.
Gibson, however, would almost certainly have held his own in the major leagues. The talents of many Negro league stars, including Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby, transferred to the major leagues, and in one series of barnstorming tours in which major league and Negro league all-stars squared off against each other, Gibson batted .412 while facing Hall of Fame pitchers like Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean.
The legend also tends to obscure the reality when it comes to Gibson’s death, the timing of which — while Robinson was about to enter the major leagues — led many wistful fans to speculate he died of a broken heart. But Gibson had endured bad headaches for years and eventually suffered a stroke. “Josh Gibson did not die of a broken heart,” says Sean Gibson. “Josh Gibson died because he had a brain tumor.”
One of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Gibson may never have played in the major leagues. But regardless of what he didn’t get the chance to do, he deserves to be remembered for all that he did do.