Josh Gibson’s HOF career mythical, legendary

Josh Gibson’s display from the Baseball Hall of Fame

Imagine a player so talented that Bill James, the father of Sabermetrics, ranked him as the 9th greatest baseball player in history.

Imagine a player with skills at the plate that were compared to Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.  His work behind the plate was compared to Johnny Bench and other great catchers in the history of the game.

Some of his contemporaries described him as having very few weaknesses at the plate.  The myths of his on-field accomplishments have turned him into a baseball legend.

His Hall of Fame plaque states that he “hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during 17-year career.” Yes, 800 home runs.

And, yet, the only reason we don’t talk about him more is because he played before baseball’s color barrier was broken and his accomplishments are compiled from the limited number of box scores from Negro Leagues’ baseball. 

That, in a nutshell, is the triumph and frustration of the career exploits of Josh Gibson.  Dubbed the “Black Babe Ruth,” Gibson was born on Dec. 12, 1911 in Buena Vista, Ga., and his father moved his family to Pittsburgh to find work in a factory. 

At the age of 16, Gibson was participating in and organizing semi-pro baseball teams and establishing himself as a strong hitter.

So, imagine an 18-year-old Gibson attending Negro Leagues game in 1930.  And, on this day, he watches as Buck Ewing, the catcher for the Homestead Grays, goes down with an injury.

As legend has it, Grays Manager Judy Johnson sees Gibson in the stands and asks him to suit up and finish out the game.  And, the rest, some might say, is history.

Legend also has it that while he was just 19 years old, Gibson hit 72 home runs in a season for the Grays that included barnstorming tours.  Found box scores from the Grays season only record eight home runs for Gibson.  Games, however, do not include exhibitions and local games that would be a part of that kind of tour.

Some suggest Gibson hit as many as 800 home runs in a season.  The site, seamheads.com, is continuing to research box scores for Negro Leagues games.  So far, they have authenticated 238 home runs for Gibson — more than any other Negro Leagues player.

Another reported feat for Gibson came in The Sporting News.  According to the publication, Gibson hit a 580-foot home run in Yankee Stadium with the ball hitting two feet below the top of the bleacher wall.

The tales of his baseball heroics are the things of myths and legends.

Negro Leagues and Major League player Satchel Paige said, “You look for his weakness and while your lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs.”

Monte Irvin, another player who started in the Negro Leagues and joined Baseball’s Hall of Fame, said, “I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.”

There is a renewed interest in Gibson’s career following Major League Baseball’s decision to recognize the Negro Leagues as a major league. The decision included bringing Negro League statistics into the record.

Some suggest Gibson hit as many as 800 home runs in a season.  The site, seamheads.com, is continuing to research box scores for Negro Leagues games.  So far, they have authenticated 238 home runs for Gibson — more than any other Negro Leagues player. The site has calculated that Gibson’s career batting average, so far, is .365 and that would rank him in the top 10 in MLB history.

How those numbers are included and ranked will be an ongoing discussion in baseball communities and as more box scores are discovered and logged.

Another reported feat for Gibson came in The Sporting News.  According to the publication, Gibson hit a 580-foot home run in Yankee Stadium with the ball hitting two feet below the top of the bleacher wall.

Gibson’s life was also marked by struggle and loss.  Gibson’s young wife, Helen, died while giving birth to twins in 1930, just as Gibson’s baseball career was about to take off.

In 1943, Gibson started to suffer from headaches and dizziness. Doctors diagnosed Gibson with a brain tumor and wanted to operate. Gibson refused the operation. Despite suffering from the brain tumor and nursing bad knees, Gibson still lead the Negro National League in home runs in 1945 and 1946. The headaches intensified and he missed winter baseball for the first time in 1946.

Gibson died of a stroke just about a month after his 35th birthday in 1947.

Sources

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