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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

Powerful bat
Gibson the best home run hitter in Negro Leagues
By Tom Singer/

Josh Gibson, considered one of the best catchers in baseball history, once hit 84 home runs in a season.
Born: Dec. 11, 1911, Buena Vista, Ga.
Died: Jan. 10, 1947, Kansas City, MO.
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Hall of Fame induction: 1972

Ray Dandridge on Josh Gibson: 56k | 300k

Mention most icons of the Negro Leagues, and the burning issue is how baseball's color line denied them acknowledgment alongside their Major League peers. But Josh Gibson paid a steeper price: Recognition as perhaps the greatest player of all time.

The Georgia-born, Pittsburgh-reared muscular catcher was that good. His drives were that majestic. His arm was that strong, his legs that fleet.

The numbers Gibson posted as the mainstay, alternately, of both the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays read like fiction: a .354 average and 962 homers throughout a 17-season career, with single-season highs of .517 and 84. Even conceding the unreliability of stat-keeping in the Negro Leagues, many of those numbers are corroborated by the official Baseball Encyclopedia.

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The numbers merely eulogize a man who made indelible impressions on everyone who saw him play. Negro Leaguers who played with and against him from 1929 through 1946 revered him. Big leaguers who tried to get him out -- and there were many, as postseason barnstorming series between Major and Negro Leaguers were big attractions, and Gibson hit a collective .412 in these games -- were awed by him.

"I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron," Monte Irvin once said. "They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson. You saw him hit, and you took your hat off.

"It makes me sad to talk about Josh, because he didn't get to play in the Major Leagues, and when you tell people how great he was, they think you're exaggerating."

In an allegorical sense, the color line was drawn right at Gibson's feet. In the early '40s, Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher was reprimanded by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for musing about how nice it would be to be able to jot Gibson's name on his lineup card. According to hearsay, Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bill Benswanger actually signed Gibson to a Major League contract in 1943 that was vetoed by Landis.

But while Gibson couldn't play in the Major Leagues, he could play in Major League parks, and the big houses nurtured his legend. He preceded Mickey Mantle as the only two men to smoke a ball out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. He also is credited with being the only one to ever hit one out of Yankee Stadium, an undocumented blow ostensibly struck in September 1930 off Connie Rector of the Lincoln Giants.

Gibson, himself, always pooh-poohed the notion he'd actually hit a ball out of The House that Ruth Built, maintaining that he'd only reached the center-field bullpen. He was a modest man and a playful one. Gibson would needle opposing hitters by throwing fistfuls of dirt on their shoes, and goad pitchers by rolling up his sleeves to make his biceps bulge.

Josh Gibson, second from left, helped the Pittsburgh Crawfords win the Negro National League pennant in 1935 and 1936.
Mostly, though, Gibson was a sad man, going through a short life under the weight of many burdens. The padlocked Majors wasn't even the heaviest.

Gibson never fully recovered from an early-career trauma, the death in 1920 of his 17-year-old wife Helen while giving birth to his twin children. Unable to bear the haunting memory of Helen he saw in the twins, he left them in the care of his in-laws and tried to lose himself in baseball, and in an out-of-control lifestyle away from the diamond.

But through the binges and the dry-outs, and despite ailing knees that had kept him out of World War II service, Gibson kept hitting the covers off the ball.

In 1943, the source of recurring headaches was diagnosed as a brain tumor. Gibson understood the gravity of that condition, but didn't flinch.

"Death ain't nothing," he said. "You can't tell me nothing about death. Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner."

On a January evening four years later, having sought refuge from the pounding in his head in a darkened movie theater, Gibson was found unconscious in his seat when the lights came on. He was taken to his mother's house, where he passed away early the next morning -- at 35 -- three months before Jackie Robinson kicked down the door to the Majors.

For nearly three decades, he lay in an unmarked grave in Allegheny Cemetery. Then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and a former Pittsburgh Crawford teammate chipped in in 1975 to erect a headstone that says simply, "Legendary Baseball Player."

In 1972, Gibson became one of the first Negro League veterans to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When The Sporting News chose The 20th Century's 100 Greatest Players in 2000, Josh Gibson was No. 18.

Tom Singer covers the Angels for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.