Gibson, Josh(ua)

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GIBSON, Josh(ua)

(b. 21 December 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia; d. 20 January 1947 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), professional baseball player considered the Negro Leagues' greatest home run hitter, enshrinee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Gibson, the eldest of three children of Mark and Nancey Woodlock Gibson, was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, where his father farmed a tiny bit of acreage, barely enough to support the family. When Gibson was about twelve years old, his father headed north alone in search of a better life, eventually settling in Pittsburgh, where he found a job working for the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. After about a year, he sent for his family and settled them into a modest home in Pleasant Valley, a black neighborhood on Pittsburgh's north side.

It was in this Pittsburgh neighborhood that Gibson was first introduced to sports. He showed particular talent for swimming and baseball, proving a natural hitter. At age sixteen Gibson joined his first formal baseball team, an all-black, company-sponsored amateur club known as Gimbel's A. C. that played throughout the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Shortly after completing the ninth grade he dropped out of school and took a job with Westinghouse Air Brake, playing catcher for the company's baseball team in his spare time.

Although he was blessed with an extraordinary talent for baseball, Gibson grew up in an era when the major leagues were off limits—on a de facto basis, as no written prohibition existed—to black players. This meant that Gibson could hope for nothing more than winning a position with one of the teams of the Negro Leagues. The Negro League teams were rich in talent, producing such great ballplayers as Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, but they were uniformly poor in terms of financial resources, which meant they could not compete with the salaries of major league teams. However, Gibson soon decided that he'd rather be playing ball than working in a factory. In his late teens Gibson was discovered by the manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a local professional team, and quickly signed to a contract. Shortly afterward he met Helen Mason, and the two were married on 7 March 1929. The newlyweds moved in with Helen's parents. When Gibson wasn't playing ball for the Crawfords, he operated an elevator for Gimbel's Department Store in Pittsburgh.

In late July 1930 Gibson left the Crawfords and signed as a catcher with the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh's professional Negro League team. The Grays were attracted to his powerful hitting rather than his catching skills. Shortly thereafter Gibson suffered a stunning personal loss when Helen died giving birth to twins. Lost without his beloved wife, Gibson took little interest in the fraternal twins, who were named Josh and Helen and raised by Helen's parents.

In his first full year with the Grays, Gibson managed to knock in seventy-five home runs as the team traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia, playing against other black teams and a handful of white semiprofessional teams. Early in his career Gibson became known as the Black Babe Ruth and among the players of the Negro Leagues was second only to Satchel Paige in terms of popularity. In February 1932 Gibson again signed with the Grays, only to renege on the contract a day later when the owner of the Crawfords offered him $250 a month to play for that team. Despite threats from the Grays, Gibson reported to the Crawford spring training camp. Felled by an appendicitis attack, he missed the first three weeks of the season but returned to the team when it opened its new stadium in Pittsburgh on 30 April 1932. For the team's first game in its new stadium, Satchel Paige pitched and Gibson played behind the plate. The duo was unable to prevent a 1–0 loss. However, Paige and Gibson developed a close friendship, and Gibson began to accompany Satchel occasionally when he moonlighted for other teams.

In 1933 Gibson enjoyed another winning season and was tapped to appear in the first Negro League All-Star game. He also found love once again when he met Hattie Jones, with whom he soon was sharing a home. Gibson played the 1934 season for the Crawfords, but he and Paige drew far greater attention after the season when they traveled the country playing against an all-white, All-Star team that included pitcher Dizzy Dean. Dean was so frustrated when Gibson hit a huge home run off him that he decided to abandon the mound and play outfield for the rest of the game.

Paige left the Crawfords at the beginning of the 1935 season over a pay dispute, but the team won the Negro National League pennant anyway, thanks in no small part to the power of Gibson's bat. Although Gibson returned to the team in 1936, the Crawfords were unable to duplicate the success of 1935. For Gibson, however, 1936 was a banner year; he batted .457 and smashed in fourteen home runs. In 1937 he refused to play for the Crawfords when the team wouldn't pay him what he demanded. In late March of that year he was traded back to the Homestead Grays. Midway through the season he left the Grays to play in the Dominican Republic with other players from the Negro League.

When the political climate in the Dominican Republic began to deteriorate, Gibson returned to the Grays late in 1937. However, he began to encounter significant problems with alcohol abuse and, by 1940, marijuana use. That year Gibson played the season in Mexico and Venezuela, in part to escape his disintegrating relationship with Jones. The following year he reneged on his contract with the Grays to play for a club in Mexico, and the Grays owner asked the court to force Gibson to return. This led to an agreement from Gibson to return to the Grays for the 1942 season.

Gibson played for the Grays in 1942, leading the team to a face-off with the Kansas City Monarchs—led by Satchel Paige—in the Negro League World Series. However, the glories from early in the season were soon forgotten as Paige easily dominated Gibson throughout the series, at one point striking him out on three straight pitches. It was clear that his abuse of alcohol had taken a terrible toll.

Felled by a seizure on New Year's Day 1943, Gibson was rushed to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The ballplayer declined to have the tumor removed, and he failed to inform the Grays management of his condition. A few months later he started the season in fine form, turning in a strong performance for the whole year and leading his team to a Negro League World Series victory over the Birmingham Black Barons. But his alcohol problem continued to worsen, and his behavior was at times erratic. His decline seemed to accelerate in 1944, particularly following the start of a relationship with Grace Fournier, who was rumored to be a drug addict. Although the Grays once again bested the Black Barons in the Negro League World Series, Gibson's performance was but a shadow of the previous year's.

In 1945 Gibson turned in a very impressive batting average of .393 but managed to swat in only four home runs. The following year, in what was to be his final season playing ball, his hitting remained strong, but he began to show dramatic signs of the toll that alcohol was taking on his body. Near the end of 1946 Gibson was no longer able to care for himself, and he moved into his mother's home in Pittsburgh. He died there of a stroke at age thirty-five, and is buried in Pittsburgh in the Allegheny Cemetery.

One of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Gibson's talent was eventually recognized in 1972 when he was inducted posthumously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It would be difficult to find a more tragic figure in professional baseball than Gibson. A shining star of baseball's Negro Leagues, he died only three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues.

With a lifetime batting average of .347, Gibson was widely considered the best hitter in the Negro Leagues. Equally impressive are the 800 to 900 home runs he hit in his seventeen years of playing ball. Walter Johnson, who pitched for the Washington Senators, said of Gibson, "He hits the ball a mile." Paige, who played with Gibson on the Pittsburgh Crawfords and later pitched for the Cleveland Indians, declared Gibson "the greatest hitter who ever lived."

The most comprehensive account of Gibson's life and baseball career is in Mark Ribowsky, The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game (1996). Other useful books include William Brashler, Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues (1978); and John B. Holway, Josh Gibson (1999). For an overview of the history of Negro League baseball in the United States, see Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (1970).

Don Amerman

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Gibson, Josh(ua)

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