Josh Gibson: Paul Bunyan with a bat

Josh Gibson is considered to be the greatest power hitter in the history of the Negro leagues.

Coleman Young, Detroit’s longtime mayor, once recalled for sportswriters his youth in the city’s Black Bottom neighborhood. Among his favorite memories of the 1920s and ‘30s was listening to Ty Tyson’s radio broadcasts of Tigers games and sneaking into Navin Field. Did he ever dream of one day playing for the Tigers, one writer innocently asked. No, replied the mayor, who also closely followed the Negro Leagues as a kid. “I would have been more likely to dream about playing for the Homestead Grays.”

The circuit clouts of Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues’ Bunyan-esque slugger, had that effect on starry-eyed youngsters. Gibson, who started his career with the independent Homestead Grays in 1930, made several appearances in Detroit during his career. Other fans remember him from later in the decade, by which time he was playing for the powerful Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords, like the Grays, usually found their way to Detroit at least once each summer on western barnstorming tours. Aside from Satchell Paige, whose fastballs he caught for several years in Pittsburgh, Josh Gibson’s name remains the most recognizable in the history of black baseball.

Born Joshua Gibson on December 21, 1911, in Buena Vista, Georgia, the heavily muscled right-hander got as far as ninth grade before surrendering to the siren call of the diamond. To be precise, it was more of an emergency call. Sitting in the stands during a night game between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Grays, Gibson—then a teenager playing for a local semipro team—was pressed into duty by Grays owner Cum Posey when his regular catcher lost a ball in the lights and split his finger. Gibson didn’t collect any hits in his Negro Leagues debut, but he stayed with the Grays for the rest of the summer, often playing the outfield just so the Grays could make use of his volatile bat.

Gibson had three separate tours of duty with the Grays, which originally was an independent club based in a smokestack suburb of Pittsburgh. He played with Homestead from 1930 through 1933, then signed with the Crawfords, helping them to a pair of pennants in the Negro National League. In 1937 he returned to the Grays, playing though 1940. After spending the 1941 season in Mexico, he returned to the Grays in 1942, where he spent the final five years of his brilliant, abbreviated career. The Grays had become a member of the reorganized Negro National League upon Gibson’s first homecoming in 1937; thanks in large part to his slugging, they would win the pennant nine straight seasons.

As a receiver, Gibson was more than adequate, but not in the same class as top-flight receivers like Detroit’s Bruce Petway or Biz Mackey. Although he had a strong arm, he was weak chasing pop flies. It hardly mattered since he clearly was hired for his hitting. Standing 6-1 and weighing about 220 pounds in his prime, he could knock balls over—and sometimes almost through—any ballpark in the land.

“The center-field fence at Comiskey Park was 435 feet from home plate,” recalled Jack Marshall of the Chicago American Giants. “The wall was low and on top of it was a loudspeaker about 20 inches in diameter. Josh hit a line drive to center field that didn’t seem to rise. It went like a frozen rope smack into the middle of the loudspeaker. It stuck there and a groundskeeper had to pry it out.”

Nobody knows how many home runs Gibson actually hit during his lifetime. One number that was used for many years – 962, or more than Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, or anyone else has ever hit – included hundreds against semipro creampuffs as well as those hit against the cream of Negro League, Latin league, and major-league pitching. According to one source, Gibson hit .354 in 16 Negro League seasons, including 141 home runs in 439 recorded games. That works out to roughly one home run for every three games played, or about 51 homers projected over the 154-game big-league schedule of his era.

On the basis of contemporary observations, there is little doubt that, had he been given the chance, Gibson would have approached similar numbers batting against big-leaguers every day. As an 18-year-old, he smashed a ball over the center-field fence at Forbes Field, joining Oscar Charleston, Dick Stuart, and Mickey Mantle as the only players to accomplish this prodigious feat. In 1943, the Grays rented Washington’s Griffith Stadium for games. That summer Gibson slammed 11 home runs to distant left field, reportedly surpassing the number hit by all American League teams combined.

During this time there were persistent rumors that Gibson would be signed by Washington owner Clark Griffith, making Josh the majors’ first black player of the 20th century. Because of Griffith’s cold feet, that dream never materialized. It was just one of many heartbreaks the gregarious Gibson suffered during his life. In 1931, his wife had died delivering twins, and possibly as a result the young ballplayer fought a long battle with the bottle. Then, during his prime, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which produced mind-numbing headaches and blackouts.

Gibson died of a stroke at his home on January 20, 1947. He was only 35. Many years later, the commissioner’s office paid for a proper headstone to replace the numbered metal cap that had marked Gibson’s simple pauper’s grave. The stone gave Gibson his due, stating that here rested a great ballplayer. There was no room on the tablet for the many Bunyon-esque stories describing Gibson’s extraordinary strength. A favorite had him walloping a game-winning home run one day in Pittsburgh, a moon shot that disappeared from view. As the story goes, the jubilant Crawfords then embarked on a road trip. Midway through the following day’s game in Philadelphia, the ball finally came to earth, plopping into a startled outfielder’s glove.

The umpire turned to Gibson, who was standing in the batter’s box. “Yerrr-r-r-r out!” the ump declared. “Yesterday, in Pittsburgh!”