Josh Gibson

"Son, I don't break bats. I wear 'em out!"

--Josh Gibson to a young fan who wanted one of Gibson's "broken" bats

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Negro Leaguer of the Month
March, 2007

Josh Gibson

Born: December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia
Died: January 20, 1947 in Pittsburgh, PA

Ht:6'1", Wt: 225
Batted right and threw right
Position: catcher, left field
Years: 1929-1946
Teams: Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico

Most Negro League fans have heard that Josh Gibson hit some of the longest homers in history, but few know that he also hit for high averages, and was probably the greatest offensive player in Negro League history.

Gibson is often called "the Black Babe Ruth," but probably should be known as "the right-handed Ted Williams." Both Gibson and Williams hit for average and power, both had superb eyesight, both used a short stride, both were nearly impossible to strike out, and both could hit balls out of sight!

Many stories have been told regarding how Gibson was discovered, many of them fun but false. The truth is that Gibson played what would be considered sandlot ball with a youth team called the Pittsburgh Crawfords (not the Negro League team of the same name), then was recruited to play with the Homestead Grays in 1929 when the Grays' regular catcher, Buck Ewing, broke his finger.

1930 was Gibson's first full season in the Negro Leagues, and, at age 19, he tore the league apart. With strength that rivaled Mickey Mantle's, and foot speed just a notch below Mantle's, Gibson hit towering homers and could leg out infield hits, especially since most sane fielders played very deep!

The '31 Grays are considered by many to be the best team in Negro League history, and Gibson was the team's top player. It's estimated that Gibson surpassed 70 homers against all competition, and probably batted around .450.

In '32, Gibson, along with other Grays such as Oscar Charleston, Double Duty Radcliffe and Jud Wilson, jumped to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, joining Satchel Paige on another incredible team. Paige and Gibson, the two biggest drawing cards in Negro League history, helped the Crawfords pack the newly built Greenlee Field (named after owner Gus Greenlee) in Pittsburgh, and helped them win a roving "Negro League World Series" title over the champions of the South (the Monroe, Louisiana Monarchs), and champions of the West (Chicago American Giants).

Gibson stayed with the Craws through '36, then played his last seasons in the Negro Leagues back with the Homestead Grays where he teamed with Buck Leonard to form the Negro Leagues' greatest one-two punch.

Much has been written about Gibson's catching ability, much of it unfair. It's true that Gibson wasn't the defensive whiz that Biz Mackey or Larry Brown was, but he was a fine receiver with the strongest throwing arm in the league. Late in his career, health problems made catching pop-ups difficult for Gibson, but on the whole, Gibson was a great all-around catcher.

Fans had fun watching Gibson play, but not as much fan as Gibson had playing! It was hard to find people who weren't delighted by his exhibitions on the diamond. With an outgoing personality, and a constant smile, Gibson relished his career and celebrity greatly.

Gibson played several seasons in Central and South America, but nothing ever seemed to change--Josh hit!

In his career, Gibson batted over .350 against Negro League opponents, over .370 in Mexico, over .350 in Cuba, over .400 against Major Leaguers, over .450 in the Dominican Republic, and over. 470 in Puerto Rico!

Gibson played in 12 East-West games during his career, and, surprise, he batted .459!

Gibson helped his Grays win back-to-back Negro League World Series titles in '43 and '44, beating the Birmingham Black Barons both times. In the '44 series, Gibson batted .400 with a homer.

Now to what Gibson was known for: tape-measure homers! Gibson is one of two players (the other was Mickey Mantle) to hit a ball completely out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.; Gibson hit a homer in Monessen, PA that traveled over 500 in the air, went out of the park, across a street, and hit the front door of a house; Gibson hit a line drive off a speaker in center field at Comiskey Park (more than 450 from home plate) that bounced back onto the field and was ruled a double--it's estimated the ball would have traveled 600 feet if not for the speaker; and Gibson, according to several players, hit the only fair ball in history out of Yankee Stadium!

Toward the end of his career, Gibson started having health problems, and was hospitalized several times. Extremely overweight, his knees aching, and his spirit broken when Jackie Robinson was chosen to integrate the Majors (Gibson thought he should have been the one), Gibson died of a stroke in January of '47, a few months before Robinson joined the Dodgers.

In 1972, Gibson and Buck Leonard were both inducted into the Hall of Fame, becoming the second and third Negro Leaguers so honored (Satchel Paige had been inducted a year before).