Josh Gibson’s stats, talent transcend even his own legend

The only thing grander than Josh Gibson’s power on a baseball field might have been the stories told about his power.

It is believed that in 1930, an 18-year-old Gibson launched a ball that traveled beyond the 457-foot fence in center field at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

There are claims that he hit home runs out of Yankee Stadium in 1930, ’34 and ’37. The Sporting News wrote in 1967 that the ‘37 shot traveled 580 feet and actually fell a couple of feet shy of leaving the ballpark.

“I saw him hit a ball one night in the Polo Grounds that went between the upper deck and lower deck and out of the stadium,” said Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, who was teammates with Gibson. “It must have gone 600 feet.”

Sam Jethroe, the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner, once said: “If someone had told me Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them.”

Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states that he bashed nearly 800 home runs during his career. Other estimates have that number closer to 1,000.

These accounts — apocryphal or not — all add to Gibson’s towering baseball legacy. It’s why he is known as “The Black Babe Ruth,” although many Negro League fans in Gibson’s heyday instead referred to Ruth as “The white Josh Gibson.”

“This is a historical moment for the game of baseball as these great players will forever be recognized within Major League Baseball’s official record books,” Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting said. “Congratulations to all these great players, especially Pittsburgh’s own Josh Gibson. The Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays are an important part of the rich history of baseball in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have long celebrated these great teams and players such Josh Gibson, Ray Brown, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard and so many others for their tremendous accomplishments. Whether it is in our Pirates Hall of Fame, the large baseballs on the riverwalk, the Crawfords and Grays Championship banners, the many other displays throughout PNC Park, or the support of educational displays and programs within our community, we are proud to continue to share the stories of these great players for generations to come.”

With Negro Leagues stats now a part of the official Major League Baseball record, there is no disputing Gibson’s status as a tremendous power hitter. Yet he was so much more than a slugger. He was an outstanding catcher. He was a record-setting hitter. He was perhaps the greatest player who never got a chance to play in the American or National League.

“He had the power of Ruth and the hitting ability of Ted Williams,” Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil once told filmmaker Ken Burns. “That was Josh Gibson.”

Gibson was born on Dec. 21, 1911, in the small Georgia town of Buena Vista, a little more than 100 miles south of Atlanta. In 1926, he and his family moved to Pittsburgh, a city that was central to Gibson’s baseball life.

He dropped out of school by the age of 15, and by 16, he had joined his first formal baseball team, one that was sponsored by a department store. It would later become a member of the semipro Negro Greater Pittsburgh Industrial League, which included clubs from steel companies and other businesses in the area.

At 6-foot-1 and about 220 pounds, Gibson’s blend of size, strength and athleticism as a teenager made him capable of doing heavy labor at an airbrake manufacturing plant when he wasn’t playing baseball. Those traits were also perfect for smashing baseballs and dealing with the collisions that came with playing behind the plate.

“[Gibson] was built like sheet metal,” said Harold Tinker, who was Gibson’s manager while with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1928. “If you ran into him, it was like you ran into a wall.”

Gibson went on to play for the semipro Crawford Colored Giants in 1929 and 1930. That latter year featured Gibson’s first time suiting up for Homestead Grays, the franchise with which he would eventually have his greatest successes.

On July 25, the Grays, who were an independent team at the time, needed a catcher for the evening’s exhibition game versus the Kansas City Monarchs, a powerhouse in the Negro National League (I). Gibson’s reputation as a star ballplayer was just beginning to blossom, and one person aware of the 18-year-old’s talents was Grays owner Cumberland Posey. In what is likely another tale that straddles the line between fact and fantasy, Posey spotted Gibson in the stands and called him down to the field to fill in at catcher. In what is a dream scenario for some baseball fans, Gibson went from spectator to competitor in an instant.

Gibson played a few more games with the Grays in 1930. He also made his National Negro League (I) debut when the Memphis Red Sox added him for a game in Scranton, Pa. He picked up two singles in four at-bats, but Memphis manager Jim Taylor was left unimpressed, later remarking that Gibson would never be a catcher.

By 1933, Gibson had rejoined the Pittsburgh Crawfords for the inaugural season of the seven-team Negro National League (II). Through 74 games that season, the catcher led the league in batting average (.395), slugging percentage (.737) and OPS (1.178). He belted 18 homers that year and another 15 in 1934, including one of those Yankee Stadium dingers that purportedly made its way onto the streets of the Bronx.

Gibson played four seasons with the Crawfords, each of which concluded with Pittsburgh winning the league pennant. His slash line during this span: .366/.437/.696 through 941 plate appearances.

However, with Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee in need of money, he agreed in 1937 to send Gibson back to Homestead for $2,500 and a couple of players. The Grays had been also-rans during their first few years in the Negro National League (II), but with Gibson in tow, both player and team were about to reach new heights.

The 1937 campaign was arguably Gibson’s greatest through his 14-year career in the Negro Leagues. He batted .417 and racked up 40 extra-base hits in just 39 games. He smashed 20 homers, including that alleged 580-foot shot highlighted by The Sporting News.

The Grays ended the season at the top of the league with a 45-18 record. Gibson ended it with a .974 slugging percentage and a 1.474 OPS, each of which now stands as an MLB single-season record. The Crawfords fell to 18-36 and last place in the six-team league.

The 25-year-old was unquestionably the No. 1 star in Negro Leagues baseball. Fans packed stadiums to get a glimpse of this extraordinary figure. But while Gibson’s larger-than-life game matched Ruth’s, their personalities differed.

“In the hotel, in the restaurant, or at a bar, everybody wanted to meet Josh Gibson,” Hall of Famer Monte Irvin once wrote. “He could handle the attention that came with his celebrity status. Josh never did get a swelled head. He had that kind of quiet confidence.”

“Nobody could criticize his personality,” former Crawfords teammate Ted Page said of Gibson. “Next to hitting, I think he liked eating ice cream more than anything else in the world.”

However, Gibson wasn’t afraid to voice that confidence at times. When a Kansas City Monarchs player once asked Gibson if a broken bat belonged to him, Gibson replied, “I don’t break bats, I wear ’em out.”

The Grays reigned atop the Negro National League (II) for the next several years while Gibson continued to post gobsmacking numbers. Then, in 1943, he experienced what was a truly amazing season — for multiple reasons.

Gibson’s .466 batting average that year is now the highest mark in Major League history, while his .564 on-base percentage ranks third. He tallied 116 hits, 93 runs, 20 homers and 112 RBIs in just 249 at-bats that year. The Grays went 53-14, won the league by 17 games and went on to capture their first Negro World Series crown, knocking off the Birmingham Black Barons.

But the on-field triumph is only half of the story. Prior to the season, the 31-year-old Gibson suffered a seizure and was soon diagnosed with a brain tumor. Yet he decided to play on without having the tumor removed.

The Grays repeated as World Series champions in 1944 and won another pennant in ‘45 as their star player continued to hit well above .300 and register an OPS north of 1.000 while battling increasingly severe headaches.

Gibson’s final Negro Leagues season was 1946, a year in which he, as legend has it, hit a 500-foot home run at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He belted 13 homers that season and turned in a .316 average — Gibson’s lowest in any Negro National League season, save for 1940, when he played in only two games.

Gibson died as the result of a stroke on Jan. 20, 1947, about a month after his 35th birthday and about three months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Twenty-five years later, Gibson was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

If we had an accurate record of all of the exhibition and semipro games that Gibson played, perhaps his actual homer total would be closer to those estimates that put it near 1,000.

What we do know is that Gibson hit 174 home runs across his 14 seasons in the Negro Leagues. That may seem like a modest number, but Gibson’s slugging is unmatched. He is the first player to be recognized with a career slugging percentage over .700, as his .718 mark blows past Ruth’s long-standing record of .690. He slugged .600 or better in 12 of his 14 seasons.

And in terms of plate appearances per home run, Gibson trails only Ruth among the Majors’ 700 home run club.

Babe Ruth: 14.9 PA/HR
Josh Gibson: 15.2 PA/HR
Barry Bonds: 16.5 PA/HR
Hank Aaron: 18.4 PA/HR
Albert Pujols: 18.6 PA/HR

But again, power was only one tool in Gibson’s incredible skill set.

“He can do everything.” Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson said. “He hits the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle.”

Gibson’s .372 batting average over 2,255 at-bats and 653 games surpasses Ty Cobb (.367) for the best of all-time. His OPS, which never fell below 1.000 in a single season, is another record-holder (1.177). His career .459 on-base percentage ranks third, behind only Williams (.482) and Ruth (.474). He did this while playing the most physically demanding position on the diamond, and he was still extremely productive late into his career while in the throes of cancer.

Segregation kept Gibson from receiving an opportunity to show what he could do against the white Major League stars of his day. Through all the myths and lore surrounding his career, at least one truth exists: He was one of the very best players in the history of the sport.

“I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron,” Irvin said. “They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.”

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