There are maybe a dozen well-known names from the first half of the twentieth century when African Americans played professional baseball in segregated Negro Leagues. Some made the transition into the MLB and the names of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Minnie Minoso, and others are well known for their careers not in the Negro Leagues but in the formerly segregated MLB. Josh Gibson was not one of them, but regardless he holds a special place. A superb hitter, Gibson became known as the “Black Babe Ruth” and all who saw him play described his powerful swing, uncanny ability to collect hits, and to gun down runners from his position as a catcher. He started playing for the Homestead Grays in 1930 and remained in Pittsburgh, sometimes with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, until his career ended in 1945.
Josh Gibson is said to have a lifetime batting average higher than .350, although actual numbers are impossible to calculate since records were so poorly kept and much of the play was not against other Negro League teams but during barnstorming stints against all manner of teams, both professional and not. Some say that he hit over 800 home runs in his career, although others question that based on an analysis of newspaper box scores.
Tragically, Josh Gibson died young, in 1947, when he was only 35 years old. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943, and suffered a worsening condition throughout the rest of life before falling to a stroke. But he also suffered from alcohol addiction and some have suggested that this contributed to his stroke.
William Brashler’s biography of Josh Gibson does a reasonable job of telling what there is to know about Josh Gibson. It is not a scholarly account and there is no way to verify information presented in it. I very much regret that. I always want to verify what is reported. Regardless, it is a fine reading experience, giving all who delve into it a new appreciation for a superb baseball player.