Joshua "Josh" Gibson (December 21, 1911 – January 20, 1947) was an American Negro league baseball catcher. Baseball historians consider Gibson to be among the very best power hitters and catchers in the history of any league, including Major League Baseball (MLB). In 1972, he was the second player after Satchel Paige who had played in the Negro leagues to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Gibson played for the Homestead Grays from 1930 to 1931, moved to the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1932 to 1936, and returned to the Grays from 1937 to 1939 and 1942 to 1946. In 1937, he played for Ciudad Trujillo in Trujillo's Dominican League and from 1940 to 1941, he played in the Mexican League for Rojos del Águila de Veracruz. Gibson served as the first manager of the Santurce Crabbers, one of the most historic franchises of the Puerto Rico Baseball League.
Gibson was known as the "black Babe Ruth", in fact, some fans at the time who saw both Ruth and Gibson play called Ruth "the white Josh Gibson". Gibson never played in the major leagues because of an unwritten "gentleman's agreement" policy that prevented non-white players from participating. He stood 6-foot-1 (185 cm) and weighed 210 pounds (95 kg) at the peak of his career.
Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, c. December 21, 1911. In 1923, Gibson moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his father, Mark Gibson, found work at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. Entering sixth grade in Pittsburgh, Gibson prepared to become an electrician, attending Allegheny Pre-Vocational School and Conroy Pre-Vocational School. His first experience playing baseball for an organized team came at age 16 when he played third base for an amateur team sponsored by Gimbels department store where he found work as an elevator operator. Shortly thereafter, he was recruited by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which in 1928 was still a semi-professional team. The Crawfords, controlled by Gus Greenlee, was the top black semi-professional team in the Pittsburgh area and would advance to fully professional, major Negro league status by 1931.
In 1928, Gibson met Helen Mason whom he married on March 7, 1929. When not playing baseball, Gibson continued to work at Gimbels, having given up on his plans to become an electrician to pursue a baseball career. In the summer of 1930, the 18-year-old Gibson was recruited by Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, which was the preeminent Negro league team in Pittsburgh; Gibson debuted with the Grays on July 31, 1930. On August 11, Gibson's wife, Helen, who was pregnant with twins, went into premature labor and died while giving birth to a twin son, Josh Gibson, Jr., and daughter, Helen, named after her mother. The children were raised by Helen's parents.
Baseball career and statistics
The Negro leagues generally found it more profitable to schedule relatively few league games and allow the teams to earn extra money through barnstorming against semi-professional and other non-league teams. Thus, it is important to distinguish between records against all competition and records in league games only. For example, against all levels of competition Gibson hit 69 home runs in 1934; the same year in league games he hit 11 home runs in 52 games.
In 1933, he hit .467 with 55 home runs in 137 games against all levels of competition. His lifetime batting average is said to be higher than .350, with other sources putting it as high as .384, the best in Negro league history.
Gibson's Hall of Fame plaque states he hit "almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career." (This figure includes vs. semi-pro competition and in exhibition games.) His lifetime batting average, according to the Hall's official data, was .359. It was reported that he won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Grays. It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro league game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium's distant left field bleachers than the entire American League.
There is no published season-by-season breakdown of Gibson's home run totals in all the games he played in various leagues and exhibitions.
The true statistical achievements of Negro league players may be impossible to know as the Negro leagues did not compile complete statistics or game summaries. Based on research of historical accounts performed for the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, Gibson hit 224 homers in 2,375 at-bats against top black teams, 2 in 56 at-bats against white major-league pitchers and 44 in 450 AB in the Mexican League. John Holway lists Gibson with the same home run totals and a .351 career average, plus 21 for 56 against white major-league pitchers. According to Holway, Gibson ranks third all-time in the Negro leagues in average among players with 2,000+ AB (trailing Jud Wilson by three points and John Beckwith by one). Holway lists him as being second to Mule Suttles in homers, though the all-time leader in HR/AB by a considerable margin – with a homer every 10.6 AB to one every 13.6 for runner-up Suttles.
Recent investigations into Negro league statistics, using box scores from newspapers from across the United States, have led to the estimate that, although as many as two thirds of Negro league team games were played against inferior competition (as traveling exhibition games), Gibson still hit between 150 and 200 home runs in official Negro league games. Though this number appears very conservative next to the statements of "almost 800" to 1000 home runs, this research also credits Gibson with a rate of one home run every 15.9 at bats, which compares favorably with the rates of the top nine home run hitters in Major League history. The commonly cited home run totals in excess of 800 are not indicative of his career total in "official" games because the Negro league season was significantly shorter than the Major League season; typically consisting of less than 60 games per year. The additional home runs cited were most likely accomplished in "unofficial" games against local and non-Negro league competition of varying strengths, including the oft-cited "barnstorming" competitions.
Despite the fact that statistical validation continues to prove difficult for Negro league players, the lack of verifiable figures has led to various amusing "Tall Tales" about immortals such as Gibson. A good example: In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hits one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappears from sight, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams are playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams have positioned themselves on the field, a ball comes falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, "You're out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!"
In early 1943, Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After he regained consciousness, he refused the option of surgical removal and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. In 1944, Gibson was hospitalized in Washington, D.C. at Gallinger Hospital for mental observation.
Gibson died of a stroke in Pittsburgh in 1947 at age 35 just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. Some believe the stroke was linked to drug problems that plagued him in his later years. He was buried at the Allegheny Cemetery in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where he lay in an unmarked grave until a small plaque was placed in 1975.
Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League a few months after Robinson broke it in the National League, stated at the time of Robinson's signing with a minor league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, "One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jack was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that's one of the reasons why Josh died so early – he was heartbroken
In 1972, Gibson's accomplishments were recognized, along with Buck Leonard's. Gibson and Leonard became the second and third players, respectively, behind Satchel Paige, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for their outstanding careers in the Negro leagues. Gibson's Hall of Fame plaque claims "almost 800" home runs for his career.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 33-cent U.S. commemorative postage stamp which features a painting of Gibson and includes his name.
In 2000, he ranked 18th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking of five players to have played all or most of their careers in the Negro leagues. (The others were Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston.) That same year, he was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
In 2009, a statue of Gibson was installed inside the center field gate of Nationals Park along with ones of Frank Howard and Walter Johnson.
Ammon Field at 2217 Bedford Ave., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was renamed Josh Gibson Field in his honor and is the site of a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker.
His son, Josh Gibson, Jr., played baseball for the Homestead Grays. His son also was instrumental in the forming of the Josh Gibson Foundation.
- In 1996, Gibson was played by Mykelti Williamson in the made-for-cable film Soul of the Game, which also starred Delroy Lindo as Satchel Paige, Blair Underwood as Jackie Robinson, Edward Herrmann as Branch Rickey, and Jerry Hardin as Commissioner Happy Chandler.
- The character of Leon Carter played by James Earl Jones in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is based on Gibson.
- The character Josh Exley played by Jesse L. Martin in The X-Files episode "The Unnatural" is based on Gibson.
- Gibson played baseball in the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Mexico, with a lifetime batting average of .354 – .384, depending on which statistics are counted.
- Starting in 1932–1933, Gibson played in Puerto Rico. In 1941–1942, Gibson played for the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. Playing for the Santurce Crabbers, Gibson won the batting title that season with an average of .480, recognized as the record for that league.
- Barry Bonds referred to "Josh Gibson's 800 home runs" in his post-game press conference after hitting his 756th MLB home run.
- An opera based on Josh Gibson's life, The Summer King, by composer Daniel Sonenberg, premiered in concert form on May 8, 2014, in Portland, Maine.
- "ESPN.com: No joshing about Gibson's talents". Espn.go.com. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
- Vázquez, Edwin; ''Beisbol De Ligas Negras''-''James "Cool Papa" Bell Beisbox Caribe''; December 22, 2006 Archived August 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
- Bjarkman, Peter C.; Winter pro baseball's proudest heritage passes into oblivion Archived November 7, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- Curry, Jack (August 9, 2007). "No. 757 for Bonds follows long night". The New York Times.
- Hyde, Christopher (May 9, 2014). "'The Summer King' takes risks, but has potential to be a classic". Portland (Me.) Press Herald (PressHerald.com). Retrieved May 9, 2014.
According to the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, Josh Gibson's Negro official league stats were as follows: Total years played – 16. Total games played – 501. Total career at bats – 1679. Total career hits – 607. Total career 2B hits – 89. Total career 3B hits – 35. Total career HR – 146. Total career SB 11. Career Batting Average .362
The first official statistics for the Negro leagues were compiled as part of a statistical study sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and supervised by Larry Lester and Dick Clark, in which a research team collected statistics from thousands of boxscores of league-sanctioned games. The first results from this study were the statistics for Negro league Hall of Famers elected prior to 2006, which were published in Shades of Glory by Lawrence D. Hogan. These statistics include the official Negro league statistics for Josh Gibson:
Source: , p. 151.
Cuban (Winter) League
Source:, pp. 222, 225.