Gibson, Josh 1911–1947
Josh Gibson 1911–1947
Professional baseball player
Josh Gibson, one of the most mysterious and revered figures of the Negro Leagues baseball era, was born on December 21, 1911. Some sources claim he hit over 900 home runs in his career, which spanned from 1930 to 1946 in the Negro National League and in leagues in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Mexico. Although his exact statistics may never be known, Gibson led the Negro National League in home runs in nine of his 15 seasons. His father, Mark Gibson, lived in Buena Vista, Georgia, and worked as a sharecropper. He and his wife, Nancy Woodlock Gibson, had three children—Josh, Annie, and Jerry. The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1923. Gibson attended a vocational school and, by the time he was 15, began working in steel mines with his father. Already 6’ 2” and 200 pounds, the hard physical labor further enhanced Gibson’s already imposing physique. During this time, he also started playing baseball. Gibson played catcher for company teams such as Westinghouse Airbrake, Carnegie-Illinois, and Gimbel’s department store.
In 1928 Harold Tinker, manager of a local professional team called the Pittsburgh Crawfords, first saw Gibson play at an IndustrialLeague all-star game and immediately signed him to a contract. This chance meeting would alter Gibson’s life and change the face of Negro League baseball. That same year, he met Helen Mason and the two were married on March 7, 1929. Gibson lived with his new in-laws on days when he didn’t have scheduled games with the Crawfords, and worked as an elevator operator at Gimbels department store. This situation would soon change, however. Gibson’s offensive power attracted the attention of the Homestead Grays, the professional Negro League team in Pittsburgh. On July 31, 1930, Gibson signed with the Homestead Grays. His professional success was soon dampened by personal tragedy. Gibson’s wife, Helen, died while giving birth to twins. Gibson was so stunned by the death of his wife that he left the hospital before the children were named. He immediately rejoined the Grays and didn’t tell anyone on the team what had happened. The children would eventually be raised by Helen’s parents and took the names Josh and Helen.
As a member of the Grays, Gibson worked hard to
At a Glance …
Born on December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia; died on January 20, 1947 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; son of Mark and Nancy Gibson; married Helen Gibson; children: Josh Jr. and Helen.
Career: Played baseball for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1928–29, 1932–36; Homestead Grays, 1930–31, 1937–39, 1942–46; played for Club Azul in Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1940–41; throughout his career also played in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.
Awards: Led the Negro National League in home runs in nine of 15 seasons, started in nine East West All-Star Games; Won the Mexican League batting title and MVP award, 1941; Enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame, 1972.
improve his baseball skills. He played various positions in the field, but was unable to displace the team’s regular catcher. This situation changed when the Grays met the Lincoln Giants in a ten-game championship series in 1930. During the series, Gibson played so brilliantly that he replaced Buck Ewing as the team’s catcher. The Grays won the series 6–4 and Gibson batted .368 in the series. After a solid 1931 season with the Grays, Gibson again signed with the team in February of 1932. The following day Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, called Gibson and offered him a contract that would pay $250 per month. Gibson stunned the Grays by signing that contract. Although Grays owner Cumberland Posey resorted to threats in an attempt to retain his services, Gibson reported to the Pittsburgh Crawfords spring training camp. Gibson missed the first three weeks of the season with appendicitis, but was fully recovered when the Crawfords opened their new stadium in Pittsburgh on April 30, 1932. Gibson was behind the plate and the legendary Satchel Paige was on the mound for the Crawfords inaugural game. Lena Home threw out the first pitch and Duke Ellington’s band played after the game, which the Crawfords lost 1–0. Paige and Gibson soon became good friends, although Gibson did not have Paige’s taste for the nightlife. Paige was known to pitch for other teams while under contract with the Crawfords, and soon began to bring Gibson with him when he moonlighted with other clubs. The duo even played a game for the Homestead Grays. When the 1932 season ended Gibson headed to Puerto Rico to play winter ball, a practice he continued throughout his career. In 1933, Gibson enjoyed another fine season and appeared in the first Negro League All-Star Game. That same year, he met Hattie Jones and entered into his first serious relationship since the death of his wife. Gibson and Jones lived together and then bought a house in the spring of 1934.
Gibson played for the Crawfords during the 1934 season. Following the conclusion of the season, Gibson and Paige barnstormed against an all-white team of Major League All-Stars led by pitcher DizzyDean. Gibson played exceptionally well and frustrated his white opponents. After Gibson hit a massive home run, Dean became so upset that he threw up his hands and decided to play outfield for the remainder of the game. Gibson’s play also caught the attention of other Major League greats, such as Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson. Patrick Butters, in an article for Insight on the News, included Johnson’s comment that it was “too bad” Gibson wasn’t white. “He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile and he catches so easy, he might be in a rocking chair.” remarked Johnson. In 1935, Paige refused to sign with the Crawfords because they would not give him a large pay raise, but Gibson and his teammates prospered without him. Gibson led the Crawfords to the Negro National League pennant and he began to be referred to as the “Black Babe Ruth.” Paige returned to the Crawfords in 1936, but the team did not enjoy the success of the previous season. Gibson had one of his best seasons, however, batting .457 with 14 home runs.
In 1937, Gibson held out for more money and refused to join the Crawfords. He also began to spend time with Sam Bankhead, a former teammate in Pittsburgh and in Puerto Rico. Gibson became more assertive under Bankhead’s guidance, but he also began to drink heavily. When Gibson refused to accept the Crawford’s final salary offer, he was traded back to the Homestead Grays on March 27, 1937. The Grays were reinvigorated by Gibson’s return and quickly became the top club in the league. During the middle of the Grays season, however, Gibson decided to leave the team in order to play with other Negro National League stars in the Dominican Republic. During his stint in the Dominican Republic, he was paid $2,000 dollars for seven weeks of work and led the league in hitting with a .453 batting average. By the end of the 1937 season, the political situation in the Dominican Republic had greatly deteriorated. Gibson and other American stars were housed in jails for their own protection and often played their games before rifle-toting soldiers. Following the completion of the season in the Dominican Republic, Gibson returned to the Grays. In his first game back with the club, he belted three home runs. Gibson’s exceptional play earned him the attention of both the black and white media of the time. As his fame and public stature increased, Gibson began to abuse alcohol more frequently. In fact, he missed the 1938 Negro League All-Star Game because he had gotten drunk the night before he was to leave and missed his train to Chicago.
In 1940, Gibson’s personal life began to spin out of control. His drinking escalated and he began to use marijuana. His relationship with Hattie Jones also began to deteriorate. During 1940, Gibson opted to play baseball in Mexico and Venezuela. Many observers believed that Gibson had stayed out of the United States in order to escape his domestic troubles. After the conclusion of play in Mexico and Venezuela, Gibson returned to the United States and signed a new contract with the Grays that paid him $500 a month. In 1941, the Negro Leagues and its stars were receiving an increasing amount of attention from the white-dominated media. Legendary Washington Post sports writer Shirley Povich gave his opinion of the Negro Leagues, “There’s a couple million dollars worth of baseball talent on the loose, ready for the big leagues, yet unsigned by any Major League. There are pitchers who would win 20 games a season … and outfielders who could hit .350 … and there’s at least one catcher who at this writing is probably superior to (New York Yankee’s catcher) Bill Dickey—Josh Gibson.” Before the start of the 1941 season, Gibson shocked fans when he decided to renege on his contract with the Grays in order to play for Club Azul, the Mexican team he had played for previously. Deeply angered by Gibson’s defection, Gray’s owner Cumberland Posey sued Gibson for $10, 000. The judge in the case also ruled that if Gibson did not return from Mexico within six days, his house would be in foreclosure. After securing a promise from Gibson that he would return to the Grays for the 1942 season, Posey dropped the lawsuit. During his season in Mexico, Gibson led his team to a championship and received the league MVP Award and home run title.
In 1942, Gibson signed with the Grays for $250 a month plus bonuses. He also reconciled with Hattie Jones. The Grays enjoyed aspectacular season and met the Kansas City Monarchs, led by Satchel Paige, in the Negro League World Series. Paige dominated Gibson throughout the series. In game two, Paige intentionally walked the bases loaded to pitch to Gibson and struck him out on three straight pitches. This humiliating episode provided a graphic illustration that Gibson, the most feared hitter in the Negro Leagues, was a shadow of his former self.
Gibson tried to rest after the season, but was plagued by increasingly severe headaches. On New Years Day in 1943, Gibson collapsed and had a seizure. He was rushed to a hospital, where he fell into a coma. Upon regaining consciousness, Gibson’s doctors informed him that he had a brain tumor. Gibson refused to have the tumor removed and did not notify the Grays management regarding his condition. A newspaper reported that Gibson had been hospitalized for nervous exhaustion.
Gibson started the 1943 season stronger and slimmer. He had such a good season that he was honored with a “Josh Gibson Night” and was featured in a Time article. Gibson also led the Grays to a Negro World Series victory over the Birmingham Black Barons. Despite enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career, Gibson’s drinking problem worsened and his behavior became more erratic. On several occasions, Gibson’s teammates put him in a cab and sent him to a hospital to dry out after games. These hospital stays usually lasted only one or two days, but some of the stays lasted a week or more.
Gibson played baseball in Puerto Rico during the winter of 1943. When he returned to the Grays for the 1944 season, he was out of shape and skipped spring training. However, despite the obvious decline of his skills, fans still flocked to stadiums across the east coast to watch Gibson play. During this time, he began a relationship with Grace Fournier, who was married to a solider stationed in the South Pacific. The pair lived a very raucous lifestyle, were often drunk, and rumored to be abusing heroin. Some former teammates believed that Fournier was a drug addict who had contributed greatly to Gibson’s continued decline. In 1944, the Grays again won the Negro World Series against the Birmingham Black Barons in five games. Although his skills as a catcher remained sharp, Gibson struggled at the plate. During the series, he only hit three singles.
During the 1945 season, Gibson led the Negro Leagues with a .393 batting average. However, he only hit four home runs. That same year Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues. This event marked the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues, as many of its best players left for the majors. In 1946, Gibson played well in his last season with the Homestead Grays. He batted .361 and hit 18 home runs. It was becoming evident, however, that years of overindulgence and alcohol abuse had taken their toll on Gibson. By January of 1947, his health had declined dramatically. His weight slipped to 180 pounds and he suffered from liver disease, bronchitis, and nervous exhaustion. These health problems wereworsened by Gibson’s continued abuse of alcohol. He eventually became unable to care for himself and moved in with his mother. On January 20, 1947, Josh Gibson died. The cause of death has been attributed to either a stroke or a brain tumor. On August 7, 1972, Gibson was inducted into the major league baseball Hall of Fame.
Ribowsky, Mark. The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game. Simon & Schuster: NY. 1996.
Insight on the News, September 21, 1998.
The Tribune-Review, January 19, 1997.
Additional material for this essay was found on the worldwide web at http://www.majorleaguebaseball.com/nbl/nl13.sml.
American baseball player
Josh Gibson has been called the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, better in the eyes of some than Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio , or Mickey Mantle . Sketchy record-keeping in the Negro leagues makes it impossible to quantify Josh Gibson's career definitively. However, historians of black baseball estimate that, in 16 years of Negro league games, post-season barnstorming and winter ball, he hit close to 900 home runs while averaging over .350. He hit .483 in nine Negro National League All-Star games. In post-season games against white all-star teams, Gibson hit .426 in 60 at bats. He clubbed some of the most monstrous home runs ever seen. The longest homers ever hit in three major league parks, New York's Yankee Stadium, Pittsburgh's Forbes Field and Washington DC's Griffith Stadium belonged to Josh Gibson. As an African American in the 1930s and early 1940s, Josh Gibson was barred from playing in the major leagues. Ironically, only three months after Gibson's tragically early death—after finishing one of the best years of his career—Jackie Robinson became the first black to play with a white team.
Born on December 21, 1911 in the rural Georgia town of Buena Vista, nothing in Joshua Gibson's origins seemed to point to the greatness that lay in store for him. He was the first of three children born to Mark and Nancy Gibson, poor black sharecroppers. In 1923, his father moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he soon found work in a steel mill; after he had saved enough money, he sent for his family and found a home for them in Pleasant Valley, one of Pittsburgh's black neighborhoods. The difference between the urban North and the rural South for a young black man in the 1920s was enormous. "The greatest gift Dad gave me," Robert Peterson, the author of Only the Ball Was White, quoted Gibson as saying, "was to get me out of the South." In Pittsburgh Gibson learned the electrician's trade at Allegheny Pre-Vocational School. He left after the ninth grade and found an apprentice's position at a local factory that manufactured air brakes. When he was seventeen he married Helen Mason.
Gibson was an athletic child who loved roller-skating and was a good enough swimmer to win several medals in local competitions. He started playing baseball as a young boy and was so captivated by the game that he would roller-skate six miles to a ball field in Bellevue, Pennsylvania to watch games. As a teen, Gibson was developing the classic hitter's physique: tall, broad shoulders, well-muscled arms, a powerful chest. At sixteen he joined his first organized team, Gimbels A.C., a black amateur club in Pittsburgh. It was there that Gibson started catching, although he occasionally played other positions as well. Around 1929, with the semipro Crawford Colored Giants, Gibson began displaying his prowess as a slugger. His rocketing line drive home runs soon won him an enthusiastic following among Pittsburgh's black citizens, and it wasn't unusual for thousands to come to see him play.
By 1930, word of Gibson's exploits reached Judy Johnson, the third baseman-manager of the Homestead Grays, at the time one of the best teams in Negro ball. Homestead's fans were urging the Grays' owner Cumberland "Cum" Posey to sign the young phenom. Unfortunately for Gibson and Grays' fans, the team already had two catchers on their roster, including Buck Ewing, one of the finest in black baseball. Circumstances conspired, however, in a fashion worthy of the movies, to bring Gibson and the Grays together. In the middle of the 1930 season, at the first night game to be played in baseball, the Grays' pitcher crossed up catcher Ewing with an unexpected fastball and split his hand open. Gibson, who was in the stands, was asked by Judy Johnson to finish the game behind the plate.
Although he didn't get any hits in the game, Gibson stayed on with the Grays, playing whatever positions were open to get his bat into the line-up. There were early moments of glory for the 18-year-old rookie, like the homer he slugged in Philadelphia's Bigler Field, the longest anyone had ever seen hit there. He came into his own in a series at Yankee Stadium for the eastern championship between the Grays and the Lincoln Giants. Gibson's tape measure homers and a .368 average for the series won him the catcher's job with the Grays. Just at the moment Gibson should have been able to savor his good fortune, however, tragedy struck. His young wife died in childbirth leaving him the father of twins, Helen and Joshua.
Gibson's contemporaries agree that he was a natural hitter, one of the purest who ever lived. He had to work hard to become a catcher however, overcoming problems handling the catcher's mitt and blocking errant pitches. His biggest handicap was his difficulty with foul pop-ups. He was often unable to get oriented after he had thrown off his mask and frequently got dizzy running as he searched the sky for the ball. His pitchers sometimes derided him for it, but the problem was probably an early sign of the mysterious condition that would eventually lead Gibson to an early grave. Gibson dedicated himself to learning the catcher's trade, frequently catching both batting practice and games to gain experience. Some maintained Gibson only managed to become an adequate catcher. Others disagreed. According to Peterson, Roy Campanella , a black Hall of Fame catcher in the big leagues, called Gibson "[not] only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw." Walter Johnson, who played against Gibson in off-season barnstorming games, is quoted by Patrick Butters in an Insight on the News article, said of Gibson, "he catches so easy, he might be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey's not as good a catcher."
|1911||Born in Buena Vista, Georgia|
|1924||Moves to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|1927||Joins Gimbels A.C. baseball team|
|1928||Marries Helen Mackie|
|1929||Joins Crawford Colored Giants|
|1930||Signed by Homestead Grays|
|1930||Helen Gibson dies in childbirth leaving Gibson the father of twins|
|1931||Hits an estimated 75 home runs|
|1932||Hits an estimated 72 home runs|
|1932||Signs with Gus Greenlee's Pittsburgh Crawfords|
|1934||Hits an estimated 69 home runs|
|1937||Is traded by Crawfords back to Homestead Grays|
|1938||Leads Negro National League (NNL) in batting for first time with .440 average|
|1940||Runs out on Grays contract to play with Vera Cruz in Mexican League, and is sued by Homestead Grays|
|1940||Marries Hattie Jones after living together six years|
|1941||Wins batting title and Most Valuable Player award in Puerto Rican League|
|1942||Returns to Homestead Grays|
|1942||Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith expresses interest in signing Gibson and teammate Buck Leonard to a major league contract|
|1942||Gibson's health problems intensify|
|1942-43||Wins NNL home run title|
|1943||Spends ten days in hospital after blacking out and spending a full day in a coma|
|1946||Bats .379 and leads NNL in home runs|
|1947||Dies of a cerebral hemorrhage|
No one doubts that Gibson could hit. He had a short, compact stroke, much like Hank Aaron's, and strong wrists that enabled him to wait on a pitch until the last possible moment. His hits, even the tape measure jobs, were line drive shots that could tear open the hand of an infielder unlucky to get in front of one. Gibson's performance was phenomenal. His homers were the stuff of legend. Many of his home runs were blows of 500 feet or more. He is supposed to have hit the longest home run ever in old Yankee Stadium, a 580 foot blast that missed going out of the park by only two feet. The most apocryphal story tells of Gibson hitting a ball out of sight one day for a home run. The next day, at a game in the next town, a ball appeared out of the clouds, was caught by the centerfielder, and the umpire pointed at Gibson, yelling "You're out! Yesterday, in Pittsburgh!" Records for the old Negro leagues are sketchy at best, and black leagues, after a shorter season than the majors, played clubs of widely varying skill, from local semi-pro teams up to major league All-Stars. At a time when Babe Ruth held the season home run record with 60, Gibson is thought to have hit 75 homers in 1931 and 72 in 1932. In all he is believed to have slugged well over 800 home runs, leading Judy Johnson to say, as quoted by Peterson, "If Josh Gibson had been in the big leagues in his prime, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron would still be chasing him for the home run record." He hit for average as well as power, frequently ending seasons with an average in the high .300s. In over 60 at bats against major league pitchers, Gibson hit .426.
By his second season, Gibson was an established star on the Homestead Grays. In 1932, Gus Greenlee lured Gibson and a number of other Grays players to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. On Greenlee's new team, Gibson joined Satchel Paige , the remarkable pitcher who for decades dominated the Negro leagues—and later added to his legend in the big leagues. Gibson and Paige formed what has been called the greatest battery in the history of baseball. Gibson continued his epic performance with the new team in the Negro National League (NNL), as well as with barnstorming teams that saw black and white All-Star teams squaring off against each other. In 1934 Gibson hit 69 homers, and in 1936 hit for a .457 average. In 1937 Gibson's contract with the Crawfords was up. Aware of the enormous sums Babe Ruth had earned during his heyday, Gibson held out for more money. The two were unable to come to terms and the cash-strapped Greenlee eventually traded his two biggest stars, Gibson and Judy Johnson, back to the Homestead Grays for two minor players.
Before spring training was over, however, Gibson left for the Dominican Republic, drawn by reports of the good money Satchel Paige was getting from Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Despite the country's dangerous political climate, Gibson played in the Caribbean until July. He rejoined the Grays in mid-season, hitting three home runs in his first game and leading the team to an NNL championship. He had hit .360 for the Crawfords in 1936. He led the NNL in homers in both 1938 and 1939, and won his first league batting title in 1938. By then, even white baseball began to take notice. White writers like Jimmy Powers and Shirley Povich wondered in print why a talent of Gibson's magnitude hadn't been signed to play on a team in white organized ball.
|Grays: Homestead Grays; Pitt: Pittsburgh Crawfords; WAS: WAS Homestead.|
By the early 1940s, Gibson had reached the peak of his abilities as a baseball player. After hitting 17 homers in 1939—more than half of his hits in league play—Gibson skipped out on his Homestead Grays contract again in 1940. Accepting an offer of $6000 from Vera Cruz—$2000 more than Homestead was paying him—Gibson played the season in Mexico. Homestead's Cum Posey had had enough. He went to court and got a $10,000 judgment against Gibson, who by 1941 was playing in Puerto Rico, where he won the batting title and was named the most valuable player, a dual honor he would later call the greatest thrill of his career. He returned to Pittsburgh for the 1942 season just as his house was about to be repossessed by the court. Once he donned the Grays flannels again, however, Posey dropped all charges against his star.
Gibson was one of the highest paid players in Negro ball, his $1000 a month salary second only to Satchel Paige. Gibson, however, was not the showman Paige was on the field, he was just a terrific ballplayer. He was a friendly, outgoing, gregarious man, quick with a smile, who would banter with opposing batters to rattle them. His friendly nature extended to young players as well, whom he frequently encouraged. He so loved playing baseball that he would often join in games with kids on his walk home from the ballpark.
In the early 1940s Gibson began a variety of problems. He had begun to drink heavily. According to some rumors, he had begun using marijuana while playing in Mexico, and estranged from his second wife, he became involved with a woman who was said to be using harder drugs. More seriously, he was experiencing recurring headaches—that may have been related to his attacks of dizziness chasing foul pop-ups. His personality under-went a change during the 1942 season. "He wouldn't have nothing to do with you. He'd just sit. He wouldn't talk much, wouldn't joke around, he's just lost that spark," Frazier "Slow" Robinson later wrote in Catching Dreams: My Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues. "Josh was jolly all the time, but starting in 1942 he didn't say nothing to nobody, and he was never quite the same after playing winter ball south of the border." That season the headaches grew worse. On New Years Day 1943, Gibson collapsed and was taken to the hospital where he lay in a coma for an entire day. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor, but Gibson refused to allow doctors to operate, feeling it would render him a vegetable.
Gibson did not reveal his condition to the Homestead Grays and continued to play for the team for four more seasons. They were among the most productive of his career. He won Negro league home run titles in 1942 and 1943, won the batting title in 1943 with an astounding average of .517. Playing part of the 1943 season in Washington D.C.'s Griffith Stadium, Gibson hit ten home runs in the spacious park—more than the entire American League hit there that year. His fine batting in 1943 led the Grays to a pennant and victory over the Birmingham Barons in the Negro World Series, and Pittsburgh celebrated a "Josh Gibson Night" that year. Despite his sterling performance on the field, his behavior was becoming more bizarre and unpredictable. He would abruptly take off all his clothes at ball games or friends' houses; he sometimes arrived at games too drunk to play. The team frequently had him put in a hospital, sometimes for more than a week at a time. Nonetheless, in 1946, his last season, Gibson batted.379 and led the league with 16 home runs. Once the season ended, his health declined rapidly. He suffered from bronchitis, a diseased liver, and nervous exhaustion, and continued to drink heavily. On January 20, 1947, at the age of 35, Josh Gibson died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Some observers have speculated that Gibson's final decline was due in part to his disappointment at not being selected to break the big league color barrier. He had had come close at times to the majors at his peak. In 1939, according to the Pittsburgh Courier, there was an agreement between Bill Benswanger, the president of the white Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Homestead Grays to buy the contracts of Gibson and Buck Leonard. It fell through, Benswanger later said, because Cum Posey asked him not to sign the two players—it would have meant the death of the Negro leagues. A couple years later, Clark Griffith, the owner of the white Washington Senators, met with Gibson and Leonard and discussed the possibility of signing them. That too ultimately came to naught.
Related Biography: Manager Judy Johnson
Besides being Josh Gibson's first manager in the Negro Leagues, Judy Johnson was one of the finest third basemen—black or white—in the history of baseball. An ardent student of the game, his greatest joy later in life was passing down his knowledge to young players. He was also an astute judge of talent who, as a major league scout, discovered the likes of Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, and Ritchie Allen.
Born William Julius Johnson on October 26, 1899, in Snow Hill, Maryland, he would not acquire the nickname "Judy" until after he had broken into the Negro leagues and someone noticed his physical resemblance to another player, outfielder Judy Gans. Johnson got his start in 1918 playing for the Hilldale club in Philadelphia, one of the dominant clubs of the day. Johnson's skills were still shaky. However, John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, a giant of early black ball, took the young Johnson under his wing. The elder's influence was decisive. Judy Johnson would later remark that he had learned more from Lloyd than he had in 16 years playing ball.
During the 1920s with Hilldale, Johnson established himself as a wizard on the field and a solid .300 hitter. He also developed into one of the most intelligent analysts of the "inside game." He hit .364 in the first Negro World Series in 1924, leading Hilldale to a Series victory over the mighty Kansas City Monarchs. In 1929, he hit a career high .416, leading the Pittsburgh Courier to name him the Most Valuable Player of the Negro National League.
In 1930, when the Great Depression drove the Hilldale club out of business, Johnson signed with the Homestead Grays. He was managing the club when catcher Buck Ewing injured his hand. Johnson asked a young catcher he knew, who was tearing up Pittsburgh's black semipro circuit with his hitting, to come down from the stands and take Ewing's place. Josh Gibson was eager, willing and more than able. After the game, Gibson stuck with the team—it was plain to Johnson that he was too good a hitter to give up.
Gibson's work behind the plate left much to be desired though. So Johnson began teaching the youngster as Pop Lloyd had taught him, concentrating in particular on the foul pop-ups that caused Gibson such trouble. It was a subject which third baseman Johnson had studied long and hard. Under the veteran's patient tutelage, Gibson slowly came into his own as a catcher.
Johnson returned to Hilldale in 1931, before signing with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he rejoined Gibson from 1932 to 1935 and finished his playing career. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Judy Johnson became a major league scout, first for the Philadelphia Athletics, and later for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1975. Judy Johnson passed away in Wilmington, Delaware on June 15, 1989.
Despite the gross injustice that for so long kept black stars from competing in the major leagues, for anyone who saw him play, Gibson was a living refutation of the canard that African Americans were inherently less capable on the diamond than whites. Organized baseball belatedly recognized this fact itself in 1972 when it inducted Josh Gibson into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. He was the second player so honored.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1933-34, 1936, 1939, 1942-44, 1946||Member of East team in East-West All-Star Game|
|1935||Member of West team in East-West All-Star Game|
|1938, 1943||NNL batting champion|
|1938-39, 1942-43, 1946||Leads Negro National League (NNL) in home runs|
|1941||Wins batting title and Most Valuable Player Award in the Puerto Rican League|
|1943||"Josh Gibson Night" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|1972||Elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame|
Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1988.
Brashler, William. Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Clark, Dick, and Larry Lester (eds.) The Negro Leagues Book. Cleveland: The Society for American Baseball Research, 1994.
Contemporary Black Biography. Volume 22. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.
Gardner, Robert and Dennis Shortelle. The Forgotten Players: The Story of Black Baseball in America. New York: Walker and Company, 1993.
Holway, John B. Black Diamonds. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1989.
Josh and Satch: The Life and Times of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige Westport, CT: Meckler, 1991.
Logan, Rayford W. and Michael R. Winston. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: W.W. Norton.
Peterson, Robert. Only The Ball Was White. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Robinson, Frazier "Slow," with Paul Bauer. Catching Dreams: My Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
Rogosin, Donn. Invisible Men: Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues. New York: Atheneum, 1983.
Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Brashler, William. "Looking for Josh Gibson." Esquire. (February, 1978): 104.
Butters, Patrick. "Meet the unknown slugger." Insight on the News, (September 21, 1998): 43.
"Josh Gibson: Greatest Slugger of 'em All." Ebony, (May 1972): 45.
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan
December 21, 1911
January 20, 1947
If any one man personified both the joy of Negro League baseball and the pathos of major league baseball's color line, it was catcher Josh Gibson, black baseball's greatest hitter. Born Joshua Gibson to sharecroppers Mark and Nancy (Woodlock) Gibson in Buena Vista, Georgia, Josh moved to Pittsburgh in 1924 when his father found employment at the Homestead Works of the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. On the diamond, the solidly built Gibson astounded fans and players with his feats for two decades, but he never got the chance to play in the major leagues.
As a youth on the north side of Pittsburgh, Gibson attended a vocational school where he prepared for the electrician's trade. But it was on the city's sandlots, playing for the Gimbel Brothers and Westinghouse Airbrake company teams, that he prepped for his life's work. Joining the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1927 when this team of local youths was still a sandlot club, Gibson soon attracted the attention of Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey.
Gibson starred for the Grays in the early 1930s, returning to the Pittsburgh Crawfords for the 1934–1936 campaigns. By then, the Crawfords were owned by numbers baron Gus Greenlee, who remade them into the 1935 Negro National League champions. With future Hall of Famers Gibson, Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, and "Cool Papa" Bell on the team, the Crawfords were quite possibly the best team ever assembled.
In 1937, after breaking his contract and joining many of his Crawford teammates in the Dominican Republic, Gibson was traded back to the Grays. There, he and Buck Leonard were considered black baseball's equivalent to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The Grays won nine pennants in a row after Gibson returned, a mark equaled only by the Tokyo Giants.
Although a fine defensive catcher, the muscular six-foot one-inch, 215-pound Gibson is remembered best for his legendary swings at the plate. Perhaps the greatest slugger ever, he hit balls out of parks across the United States and the Caribbean basin, where he played each winter between 1933 and 1945. His home runs at Forbes Field and Yankee Stadium are thought to have been the longest hit at each. During his career, Gibson never played for a losing team.
His lifetime .379 batting average in the Negro and Caribbean leagues is the highest of any Negro Leaguer. He won batting championships, most-valuable-player awards, and/or home run titles in the Negro Leagues, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. His home run blasts are still recalled throughout these lands.
The second-highest-paid Negro Leaguer, Gibson also was the league's second-best attraction, behind Satchel Paige in both categories. Promoters often advertised for Negro League games by guaranteeing that Gibson would hit a home run. He rarely let them down.
Although fellow Negro Leaguers remember Gibson with fondness and a respect that borders on awe, his personal life was touched by tragedy. His young bride, Helen, died delivering their twin children, Josh Jr. and Helen, in 1930. Gibson himself died in 1947, soon after the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. He was only thirty-five at the time. In 1972 he joined batterymate Satchel Paige in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Holway, John B. Josh and Satch: The Life and Times of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1991.
Ribowsky, Mark. The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game. Replica Books, 2001.
Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
rob ruck (1996)