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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)

  1. Steve says:
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    I just dropped Lackey for Kluber,is this a bad move?

    • Tehol Beddict says:
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      @Steve: he’s no babe ruth

      • Paulie Allnuts

        Paulie Allnuts says:
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        @Tehol Beddict: HA! Well, he could hit ‘em as far and as often as the Sultan of Swat, he could drink him under the table, but he fell short in his hot-dog consumption

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Steve: Not my forte, but why would you own Lackey in any league except an AL only league?

  2. Nelson Santovenia says:
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    Great article. Thanks

  3. Scrotchs says:
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    Cargo and Matt Carpenter for Darvish and Scherzer? I need pitching help but my hitting is just average.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Scrotchs: I would try to get Satchel or Smokey Joe Williams instead.

  4. Wallpaper Paterson says:
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    Josh Gibson was in scoring position when he was at-bat.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Wallpaper Paterson: Absolutely! Except when he faced Satch

  5. AL KOHOLIC says:
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    yeah,the tales come with all the great ones,love this one,keep them coming,thanks

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @AL KOHOLIC: Will do so, Kelly, for as long as aging arthritic fingers will type!

  6. phil says:
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    Good read. I knew he was recognized as one of the greats but didn’t realize the myth/legendary stories about him, nor about his mental issues later. Only 35 years old, dang

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @phil: Yeah, 35 years old…I believe that, like many others in the Negro Leagues, it felt like a canker not playing in the Major Leagues and testing your skills against the best of the white players. And Josh, like Satch and several others, felt that they should have been called up before Jackie.

  7. Philsfan76 says:
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    Great read. I love these types of posts, Paulie. keep it up. I have Buck O’neil’s autograph on a Dick Perez lithograph.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Philsfan76: Wow, now I am envious. And yes, I will keep up the articles as long as Grey keeps me on board. Which I hope is for a long time.

  8. ferris says:
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    I love hearing about the old negro league stuff. Nice piece!

    Didn’t Buck O’Neill say the third time that he heard the “sound” was from Bo Jackson?

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @ferris: Exactly correct! It was Bo. And one can only guess what Jackson’s career would have been like if he didn’t have the hip issues. He was a potential Famer both at Cooperstown and Canton.

      • Mike says:
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        @Paulie Allnuts:

        Power personified no doubt but the guy had 841 strikeouts in 694 games.

        • Paulie Allnuts

          Paulie Allnuts says:
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          @Mike: Thanks!

  9. Brownie says:
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    I love this stuff Paulie. The stories, the history – that’s what makes baseball go awesome. Keep them coming.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Brownie: Thanks, Brownie, there are several more in the cooker. And with baseball, there is never a dearth of material; unlike other major sports, baseball’s history goes back before the Civil War.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @curse420: Yes, its crazy alright. But can the guy hit?

  10. PhatBoy71 says:
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    Best read I’ve had in a long spell,well done.Thanks

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @PhatBoy71: Much appreciated. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  11. The Guru

    The Guru says:
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    Always a great read, Paulie.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @The Guru: Thanks, Guru!

  12. Great one as we’ve come to expect Paulie.

    Question, though I am not sure anyone knows the answer. He was credited with 70-85 home runs per season, but as far as I know the official negro league teams played only 50-80 games per season. It can’t be that Gibson hit that many home runs in official negro league games, so those numbers, including the 800 career dingers, must include a heck of a lot of barnstorming. Just wondering if you knew more about the stats.

    He sure was the negro leagues Babe Ruth though. Baseball-Reference has his career line at ,350 / .401 / .624 with a 1.026 OPS.

    Well, lets do this right, here are the average stat lines for Ruth and Gibson. To account for the crazy differences in playing time, these are prorated into 700 AB per season for their careers. Top # Ruth, bottom Gibson

    .342 / .474 / .690, 1.164 OPS, 33 2B, 09 3B, 47 HR, 143 R, 136 BB
    .350 / .401 / .624, 1.026 OPS, 35 2B, 14 3B, 38 HR, 160 R, 55 B

    Major difference is the walks, though Ruth Did have more power.

    Finally, I know this comparisons are absurd, the league’s were just too different, but what else can we do. Here are the career OPS leaderboards slotting Gibson in where appropriate

    1) 1.164 – Babe Ruth
    2) 1.112 – Ted Williams
    3) 1.078 – Lou Gehrig
    4) 1.051 – Barry Bonds
    5) 1.038 – Jimmy Foxx
    6) 1.026 – Josh Gibson

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Lou Poulas: Lou, you certainly know as much about the calculations for home runs as I do. Satchel Paige stated that he won something like 2,000 games, but of course many of these were on barnstorming tours, so the quality of the opposition in some instances was far below major league standards. On the other hand, the Negro League teams/players who played the white ballplayers in exhibition games reportedly won about 2/3 of the games. Ralph Kiner, who played in some of the later games, claimed once that white ballplayers didn’t take the matches as seriously as did the black ballplayers. Obviously, more was at stake for the black players in terms of pride. I also presume that many of Gibson’s home-runs were hit in barnstorming tours. As for comparing stats with the Babe and other renowned sluggers, one thing in Gibson’s favor was that catching takes much more of a toll on batters then it does on position players. The only ML catcher whose hitting stats were probably similar was Mike Piazza, and I seriously don’t think he accomplished what he did without the aids of P.E.D.’s, although there is no evidence except severe acne on his body.

      • Lou Poulas

        Lou P says:
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        @Paulie Allnuts: Great point about him being a catcher. Amazing player.

  13. Tony says:
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    I cant believe that after this great piece, some douche asks about john lackey…what an idiot!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Tony: Ha! that happens at least once in every piece that I write. Vin, who does the stats for the RCL, also gets numerous questions about fantasy ball, and we sometimes joke about it. As I am currently struggling in 9th place in my own RCL league, I am perhaps not the best source for advice! Thanks for the compliment, by the way.

  14. Serch says:
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    Great read Paulie, as always, your contributions to this site are priceless….I’m curious, did you see 42? What did you think? I took my 12 year-old softball playing daughter, she loved it and wants to see it again!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Serch: Yes, I saw 42 the day after it came out with my wife, cousin, and a close friend of mine who actually was a big-time Brooklyn Dodger fan, just to check its veracity. Rachel Robinson gave it her seal of approval. The actor who played Jackie did a marvelous job, as did Tommy Lee Jones as Branch Rickey. At some point I will write my own piece on the manner in which the lives of these two great individuals intertwined, but it is difficult because the topic has been covered by other writers quite thoroughly, and I will have to give it a new twist. I don’t think that it will be a Razzball Piece, however, maybe appear in a book. And Serch – thanks so much for the compliment! I plan on writing for Razzball for as long as they will have me; my next piece, btw, could be on Satchel Paige. At least it will be one of my oncoming pieces.

  15. Brice says:
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    Articles like this are the reason that Razzball is easily the best baseball blog. Thank you for paying tribute to a true legend.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Brice: I believe that I am the only writer on Razzball that doesn’t cover fantasy. Which is a nice compliment from Grey and Rudy

  16. Terse

    Terse says:
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    I’m with Brice. Nice piece, Paulie.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Terse: Thanks!

  17. More like Babe Ruth was the white Josh Gibson!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Rudy Gamble: Ha! Of course, blacks called Babe Ruth the White Josh Gibson.

  18. Chicken Dinner says:
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    Would have loved to see him in action. Any baseball back then actually. Seems like it was just bigger back then. Thanks Paulie.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Chicken Dinner: Baseball was the National Pastime when Gibson played ball. Today, the NFL draft gets better TV ratings then the world series. So yes, baseball was bigger then, and much more interesting. The players today are cookie-cutters; very few of them are colorful enough to actually write a story about.

  19. Brent says:
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    Great article! I wish more writers would focus on the Negro Leagues. Their stories have always entertained me ever since Ken Burn’s massive documentary “Baseball.” Any chance you might write on Cool Papa Bell? The tall tales of his legendary speed always make me chuckle in wonderment, such as stealing two bases on a single pitch or scoring from first on a sacrifice bunt. These fascinating snippets are great and I can’t wait for the next one!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Brent: I haven’t written an article yet on Cool Papa Bell, but I have started to research his history. Yes, the stories about Bell are in the area of the mythological. Also, upcoming articles on the Negro League will include Rudy Foster, the Father of the Negro Leagues, and Satchel Paige, of course. Maybe one or two others. If you by chance missed some of my articles on other Negro League Players, check out the author archives under Paulie Allnuts

  20. Paulie! Great read! Thank you!

    The myths from the unseen era have a magic that today’s game lacks. Gibson was a luminary of the age and I certainly hope he’s never forgotten.

    Keep droppin knowledge!

    That Rutledge pickup was cold-blooded! Hope we can talk soon

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