One of the neat things about Negro League History is how fact turns to exaggeration; exaggeration to legend, and legend to myth.
Josh Gibson hit a scorching line drive which whizzed inches above the head of Satchel Paige. The ball wound up in the center field bleachers of Yankee Stadium, well over 500 feet in the distance. It has been said that Gibson once knocked a speaker off the roof of Comiskey Park. When Gibson was with the legendary Homestead Grays, he played Babe Ruth to Buck Leonard’s Lou Gehrig. Leonard, also immortalized at Cooperstown, stated that one time Josh hit a ball “out of existence.” There are many stories where the real truth of the tale is difficult to discern. But some things would be wonderful if they were true, and this nugget is certainly one of them.
Yet another: In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hits one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappears from sight, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams are playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams have positioned themselves on the field, a ball comes falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, “You’re out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!”
“I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.” – Hall of Famer Monte Irvin
Gibson was good-natured and oftentimes jovial early in his career, although in his later years he became brooding and at times ominous in his demeanor. But he was always supremely confident in his ability. He was known to walk up to the opposing team’s dugout before games in order to inform the starting pitcher that “Josh feels good tonight”, and describe the details of the home runs he would hit off him that day. And more often than not, he came through with his promise.
“He (Gibson) and Ruth had power alike. But he hit from the right side, Ruth hit from the left side. But Ruth maybe struck out 115 times a year. Josh Gibson probably struck out 50 times a year. Outstanding hitter. The best hitter that I’ve ever seen. He had the power of Ruth and the hitting ability of Ted Williams. That was Josh Gibson. Would have been outstanding [in the majors]. Would have rewritten the book as far as the home runs are concerned. See. It could have been 75 home runs.” – Buck O’Neill
Although there is considerable differences in lifetime compilations, many publications have credited Gibson with hitting anywhere from 70-85 home runs in a season; his Hall of Fame plaque states that he hit “almost 800” homers in his career, which spanned 17 years. His lifetime batting average was somewhere between .350 and .385, likely the highest or amongst the highest in Negro League history. He was also known for hitting prodigious clouts, much like the Babe; Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of the House That Ruth Built; The Sporting News of June 3, 1967 credits Gibson with mashing a dinger at Yankee Stadium that went two feet from the top of the wall around the bleachers in center field, measuring about 580’ from home plate. Baseball’s greatest pitcher, Walter “The Big Train” Johnson, stated that “He hits the ball a mile.” In truth, countless Negro League and MLB players, as well as managers, stated that Josh Gibson was the greatest right-hand hitter they ever saw.
“…I heard Ruth hit the ball. I’d never heard that sound before, and I was outside the fence but it was the sound of the bat that I had never heard before in my life. And the next time I heard that sound, I’m in Washington, D.C., in the dressing room and I heard that sound of a bat hitting the ball — sounded just like when Ruth hit the ball. I rushed out, got on nothing but a jockstrap, I rushed out — we were playing the Homestead Grays and it was Josh Gibson hitting the ball. And so I heard this sound again… But now, I’m living because I’m going to hear it again one day, if I live long enough.” – Buck O’Neill
As a catcher, Gibson was initially mediocre, but improved as his career advanced. He had quick hands, had a good arm, but did have occasional difficulty with foul pop-ups.
In 1943, Gibson suffered a brain tumor that put him in a coma. When he awoke, doctors wanted to operate. But Gibson wouldn’t let them, fearing that surgery would leave him as a vegetable. His alcohol consumption increased due to the constant pain of excruciating migraines; despite this, he continued to rampage through the league, winning three home run titles and two batting titles in the next four years. However, Gibson’s alcoholism and drug addiction progressed rapidly the next several years, and he went into deep depressions which threw him into fits of rage, and occasional rambling outbursts. Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe related that Gibson “just lost his mind” towards the nadir of his career. He stated that on one occasion Gibson hit a double, then proceeded to rip off the base, wondering where the potatoes were that he had planted the night before.
In October 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers farm club, with the obvious intention of bringing him up to the Major Leagues. Josh Gibson understandably felt that he should be the first black ball player in the Majors, and used his rage to propel himself to one of his best seasons ever in 1946. However, he still did not receive any offers to play in white baseball.
He passed away at the young age of 35, just months before Jackie Robinson changed the face of Major League Baseball forever.
A famous tale of the last day on earth of Josh Gibson: “On Jan. 20, 1947, Gibson told his mother that he was going to die that night. She laughed, but told him to go to bed and that she would call a doctor. With his family gathered around him, Gibson asked for his baseball trophies to be brought to his bedside. He was laughing and talking when he suddenly sat straight up, had a stroke and died.” *
Josh Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. He was recognized as No. 18 in The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest players ever, compiled in 1998.
* The Ballplayers: Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference – Mike Shatzkin (Editor)