It has been said that Josh Gibson passed away due to heartbreak – a broken heart given to him by the game he loved so deeply. His legacy lives throughout baseball history. With his untimely death at the age of 35 only three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Gibson would never make it to Major League Baseball.
Gibson was born on December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia to Mark and Nancy Gibson. The oldest of three, he and his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA in 1923, where his father found work at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. While in sixth grade, Gibson began preparing to become an electrician by attending Allegheny Pre-Vocational School and Conroy Pre-Vocational School. His education would end after the ninth grade.
He did not have his first experience with playing baseball until the age of 16 when he began playing third base for an amateur team sponsored by Gimbels Department Store called the Gimbels A.C., where he would work as an elevator operator. While working, he was recruited by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which at the time in 1929, were still a semi-professional team.
By 1928, Gibson had met his future wife Helen Mason – the two married on March 7, 1929. He also would give up his plans to become an electrician in the hopes of pursuing a baseball career.
During the summer of 1930, everything changed for Gibson. The 18-year-old was quickly recruited by Cumberland Posey, the owner of the Homestead Grays. On July 25, 1930, while sitting in the stands, Grays’ catcher Buck Ewing became injured and with a little help through the grapevine of Gibson’s monstrous home runs, the Grays wanted him.
If someone had told me Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them.Sam Jethroe, Cleveland Buckeyes.
On July 31, 1930, Gibson made his official debut with the team. Less than a month later, his wife Helen, who was pregnant at the time went into premature labor and died while giving birth to twins – Josh Jr. and Helen, named after her mother. Gibson did not raise the twins, his wife’s mother and father took them in.
His iconic run with the Grays have led many experts on the game to believe that Gibson was one of the sports’ greatest home run hitters. Despite the statistics for the Negro League at the time are incomplete, Gibson’s power will always be regarded as legendary.
In 1933, he hit .467 with 55 home runs in 137 games. His lifetime batting average is quite the conversation piece for many – some say it was around .350 and others have it higher at .384, which would be the best in Negro League history.
Known as the “Black Babe Ruth,” it has been said that Gibson once slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators once said that he had hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium’s distant left field bleachers than any one in the entire American League.
While many of his achievements may be impossible for the world to know due to the Negro League not compiling complete statistics or game summaries during Gibson’s time playing. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Gibson had 676 hits in 1,957 at-bats – with 480 runs, 106 doubles, 45 triples, 361 RBI, 26 stolen bases and 158 walks.
Gibson played for the Grays from 1930 to 1931 – returning in 1937-39 and then again in 1942 until his death, moving to the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932 and staying with the team until 1937. He played for Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo in Trujillo’s Dominican League in 1937. He went on to play in the Mexican League for Azules de Veracruz in 1940 to 1941. He also served as the first manager of the Santurce Crabbers, a historic franchise in the Puerto Rico Baseball League.
Standing at 6-1, the 220-pound catcher was seen as nearly indestructible behind home plate. He also occasionally found himself playing in left field and his original position of third base.
In early 1943, Gibson fell into a coma, eventually being diagnosed with a brain tumor. He refused to have it surgical removed and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. He was hospitalized in 1943 in Washington, D.C. at Gallinger Hospital for mental observation. And sadly on January 20, 1947, Gibson died of a stroke in Pittsburgh. He was buried at the Allegheny Cemetery, where he would lay in an unmarked grave until 1975 when a small plaque was placed for him.
Although Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier three months after his death, Larry Doby never took away his statement that Gibson was the best black baseball 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.Larry Doby
Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 based on his career in the Negro Leagues. His plaque claims that he had almost 800 home runs in his career. In 2000, he was 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. He was also nominated as a finalist for the MLB All-Century Team.
In 2009, a statue of Gibson was installed inside the center field gate of Nationals Park along with Frank Howard and Walter Johnson. He was also named to the Washington Nationals Ring of Honor for his contribution to the game of baseball in Washington, D.C. in 2010.
His son, Josh Gibson Jr., also played baseball for the Homestead Grays – he would later go on to help form the Josh Gibson Foundation.
For more information on the Josh Gibson Foundation, you can visit their website here.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)