While it might be impossible to statistically gauge who the best player to play in the Negro Leagues was (which as of 2020 are classified as Major Leagues) because of the incompleteness of the stats, it is incredibly clear that one name everyone agrees belongs somewhere at the top of the list is Josh Gibson.
Josh Gibson was born on December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgie to Mark and Nancy Gibson. In 1923, Josh’s father landed a job with the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company and the family relocated to Pittsburgh. It was here that Josh would learn about baseball, not playing on his first organized club until the age of 16 when he played for a team sponsored by Gimbel’s department store for whom he was an elevator operator.
The scouts in the area quickly realized the young Gibson’s talent and offered him a job playing for the then top black semi-pro team in Pittsburgh, the Crawfords. That same year, Gibson met Helen Mason. They were to be married a year later on March 7, 1929. He continued to play ball and work at Gimbels having given up on pursuing a career as an electrician in favor of playing baseball.
In 1930 Cumberland Posey, owner of the professional team the Homestead Grays, recruited Gibson. The legend goes that on July 25, 1930 the Grays catcher sustained an injury on the field and Posey pointed to the 6’1” Gibson in the stands and asked him to replace the injured player right then and there. This would be the beginning of a truly mythical career, as Hall of Famer Roy Campanella put it about Gibson, “(he was) not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw.”
Just as Gibson’s fortune seemed to be rising, tragedy struck on August 11th of 1930 when Helen went into premature labor with the twins she was carrying. Helen Gibson died giving birth to the twins, Josh Jr. and Helen, named for their mother and father. The tragedy seemed to only strengthen his will, however, as Gibson went on to hit what some people tally as close to 800 home runs in his professional career earning him the nickname “The Black Babe Ruth”. Even more telling is that some people that saw both men play would call Babe Ruth the “White Josh Gibson”.
Gibson would play all over North and South America. He played in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the USA. In his 14 seasons between the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords he would slash .374/.458/.719 with a career OPS+ of 215. He absolutely dominated, winning the triple crown 3 times and he is the owner of the second highest single-season major league batting average with .466 in 1943.
His legend continued to grow, tales of Gibson hitting 700-foot home runs are surely exaggerated, but they were persistent. One thing is clear: Gibson was hitting balls harder and farther than any of his contemporaries. Bouncing between league play, barnstorming, and different pro leagues, Gibson could hit 80+ home runs a year.
In 1943 Gibson fell into a coma. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor but upon regaining consciousness he refused to have it operated on. He would live the rest of his life with debilitating headaches, but it didn’t stop him from destroying the baseball. That same year he had the second-highest OPS of his career, an unfathomable 1.427. He still holds the first (1.474) and second highest single-season OPS records, besting both Ruth and Barry Bonds. Even in his final season in 1946, at age 34, he led his league in home runs, OPS, and slugging.
Tragedy struck again, however, as Josh Gibson had a stroke on January 20, 1947 and died at the age of 35, just three months before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Larry Doby, the first black player to play in the AL and a Hall of Famer, said of Gibson, “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.”
Josh Gibson was a 12-time all-star, a 3-time batting leader, a 3-time Negro League World Series champion, and by all accounts one of the best hitters that ever lived. In 1972, Gibson was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Buck Leonard, making them the second and third players (after Satchel Paige) inducted for their playing time in the Negro Leagues. In 2009, the Washington Nationals erected a statue of Gibson outside of Nationals Park. His legend remains larger than life.
Contributed by Jordan Miesse