Josh Gibson: Negro League Home Run Hitter
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"Only the good die young."
Gibson was a stout man who packed 215 pounds of muscle on a 6'1" frame. He is said to have hit 84 home runs in one season and nearly 800 in his 17-year career, which began in 1930 at the age of 18.
Negro League statistics of the 1930s and '40s have been described in the kindest terms as sketchy. Some myths and exaggerations are part of the aura of the leagues' heyday. What is not sketchy are the memories of some of the players of that era — those who remember the "monster" home runs swatted by Josh Gibson.
Although the number of games played varied from year to year, statisticians have devised a way to compare numbers from different eras and leagues. Since the average number of at-bats for a major leaguer was about 550 per year, that was the yardstick to which certain figures are compared.
For instance, it is known that Josh Gibson hit 224 home runs in the Negro Leagues. His totals of nearly 800 include those in the California Winter League and some of the Caribbean leagues, as well. He accomplished that feat in 2,375 at bats, giving Gibson an average of 51 home runs a year — Babe Ruth and Mark McGuire averaged 42 per 550 at-bats.
Against white ballclubs played while barnstorming*, Gibson hit .375 versus a career batting average of .351. In 1943, Gibson hit for an average of .517, albeit in only 57 games.
The early years
School in the north was a culture shock to Josh. From the near-comatose and bored-to-tears atmosphere of the Buena Vista school system, Gibson, by choice, was enrolled in the electrical studies program at Allegheny Pre-Vocational School. He followed up that program with a similar one at Conroy Pre-Vocational, a high school in the north Pittsburgh 'burb of Pleasant Valley.
By the time he reached the age of 15, Josh began to work alongside his father, Mark, in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. His body was already suited to handle the backbreaking work: broad shoulders almost as wide as his father's, thick neck, rippled torso, and sturdy legs.
At 17, Gibson had become a chiseled man, an untouchable as far as local gangs battling for turf were concerned. Not that Gibson couldn't have joined a gang if he felt he had something to prove — such as his manhood — but he didn't. He could hang around with the leaders of the pack without being pressured to fly their colors. His focus was on baseball, something outside of gang life at which he could excel.
When Gibson hung around the sand lots, he was immediately picked up by whichever team saw him first. He worked after school at such places as Westinghouse Airbrake, where he held an apprentice's position. That allowed him to play on the company team that competed with other company teams in a loose-knit city league.
Finding his place
Gibson was started out as a catcher because of his body structure, but was tried at other positions because he was a defensive liability behind the plate. His bat was what kept him in the lineup, so his team had to find a place to "hide" him defensively, at least at the beginning of his career, and he landed a spot at third base.
Gibson would eventually find his way back behind the plate after he accepted tutelage from arguably the best defensive catcher of all time — Raleigh "Biz" Mackey. Called an artist behind the plate, Mackey also coached Roy Campanella.
Even at his young age, Gibson was powerfully built, seemingly just for baseball. As he went through the bat rack for the first time, he picked out the longest and heaviest of the lot — 40 inches and 41 ounces, and unused.
Superlatives and accolades
Once in the batter's box, Gibson took a wide stance for balance and used a short stride for better vision. He would wait until the last instant to commit to swinging, and then it was loosed like a tightly wound spring. He could wait longer than most hitters, so he wasn't fooled by curveballs. Hooks Tinker of the Crawfords reminisces, "He was like a reflex, a nerve jumpin' all at once. I'm tellin' you, the Lord made that boy to hit a baseball."
In a story about the life of pitcher Satchel Paige that appeared in Collier's magazine, Paige named Gibson the toughest hitter he ever faced, and that list included the likes of Ted Wiliams and Joe DiMaggio.
In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James compiled a consensus of six independent lists of the top 100 players of all time. Gibson was voted ninth, ahead of such household names as Hank Aaron (12th), Lou Gehrig (14th), and Rogers Hornsby (22nd). The Sporting News lists Gibson as the 18th-best all time, and quotes Hall-of-Fame pitcher Walter Johnson as saying that Gibson was "a better catcher than Bill Dickey, who is still listed in the top-10 of 10 offensive categories for the New York Yankees. He [Gibson] can do everthing. He hits the ball a mile, he catches so easily he might as well be in a rocking chair, throws like a bullet."
Gibson won the Fleetwood Walker Award as the leagues' best player, six times, and was elected into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1972.
Unfortunately, the world of white baseball never had the opportunity to see Josh Gibson play at the Major League level. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in January 1947, three months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
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