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Negro Leaguer of the Month
John "Dirk" Gibbons
Teams: Pepsi-Cola Giants, Tampa Rockets, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees, Indianapolis Clowns, Brandon Greys, Winnipeg Royals, Minot Mallards
John Gibbons was one of many in a long line of great Negro League pitchers under six feet tall. While the average Major League pitcher today stands close to 6'-3", Gibbons barely stood 5'-7", about the same as Negro League legends Leon Day, Bullet Rogan and Dave Barnhill.
Gibbons, nicknamed "Dirk" and "Bubblegum," threw right-handed, and his speed belied his modest size. After playing semi-pro ball in his hometown of Tampa, Gibbons made the black Majors with the Philadelphia Stars in 1941 at age 19, joining a team that featured future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston and star pitcher Chet Brewer. Later in the season, Gibbons played with the New York Black Yankees who featured Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Mule Suttles; in 14 innings, Gibbons struck out 10 but lost his only position.
After serving during World War II, Gibbons returned to baseball with the Indianapolis Clowns, the top traveling team in the world, which featured pitchers Fireball Cohen, Leon Henry and Andy "Pullman" Porter, as well as stars Goose Tatum, Ted Strong, Ray Neil, future Major Leaguer Sam Hairston, and manager Buster Haywood.
In the book "Barnstorming to Heaven" by Alan Pollock, Gibbons first game against the Kansas City Monarchs was recounted. According to pitcher Jim Cohen, "Kansas City was educating Dirk. He threw a pitch--BOOM, off the tin. Another, BOOM, off the tin." Clowns' owner Syd Pollock looked at Cohen and said, "Gibbons is throwing nothing but doubles."
But, Gibbons was soon the one doing the educating. With a good fastball and great control, Gibbons became a fine pitcher, and he often struck out 10 or more batters per game. Dirk was also durable, completing more than 75% of his starts during his prime.
In 1949, with the Negro Leagues struggling to survive, Gibbons went to Canada and played with the Brandon Greys. Gibbons was the best pitcher in the Manitoba Senior League, winning 19 games and striking out 229 batters, both league leading totals, while losing only five decisions; he completed 20 of his 23 games. Gibbons could also swing the bat, and led the league in batting with a .370 average, though he didn't have enough at bats to qualify for the batting title; the athletic Gibbons was a fine base-runner, stealing five bases, and he clouted one homer.
In '50, Gibbons again pitched well, going 8-4 in league games, and he also threw a 4-hitter against the strong Harlem Globetrotters traveling team. Gibbons' Greys made the playoffs, and after winning their first round, faced the Winnipeg Buffaloes in the finals. Winnipeg won the first three games, but Gibbons won game four with four fine innings of relief. The Buffaloes won the title the next night, though, when Hall of Famer Leon Day pitched 17 innings and won 1-0
Gibbons spent '51 and '52 back in the Negro Leagues, then was back in Canada from '53-'55.
In '53, Gibbons was signed by the Brandon Grays again, but was cut early in the season and Gibbons signed with the Winnipeg Royals; he went 11-5 (his 11 wins were second in the league to Minot's Sugar Cain) with a .232 average in league games, and 20 wins overall, and got a measure of revenge against Brandon by beating them on a three-hitter.
In '54, Gibbons was back with Brandon where he went 11-7 and led the league innings with 153-2/3. Included in his wins were a two-hitter versus Williston and a shutout of Minot. In the playoffs, Gibbons won three games in the semi-finals against Williston, but Brandon lost to Minot in the finals with Gibbons losing game six, 4-0.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so Gibbons signed with Minot in '55, and he started out terribly, losing his first seven decisions. Gibbons caught fire, though, and so did Minot, and Gibbons won his last eight decisions, including three during the playoffs, and the championship-clinching game in the finals against Dickinson.
Gibbons was back with Minot in '56, and he pitched well, going 6-7 with five wins in relief and one homer on the year, but Minot lost to Williston in the playoffs. In '57, Gibbons slumped to 3-9 with a 4.33 ERA with Minot, but Minot still made the finals against Bismarck. Gibbons lost one game of the finals when the winning run scored on his wild pitch, and with Bismarck up two games to one, heavy rains canceled games for several days, and when the teams couldn't agree on a location for the remaining games the finals were not continued and Bismarck won the title.
After retiring from baseball, Gibbons managed a night club and worked for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.