Publish Date: 09/23/2021
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa
The story of the life of baseball great Josh Gibson is one of the most tragic tales in sports history, one of the greatest players in the game’s history, who never got a chance to prove himself against the other greats of his time. Josh Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, on December 21, 1911. In 1923, Gibson moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father, Mark Gibson, found work at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. Entering sixth grade in Pittsburgh, Gibson prepared to become an electrician, attending Allegheny Pre-Vocational School and Conroy Pre-Vocational School. His first experience playing baseball for an organized team came at age 16. He played third base for an amateur team sponsored by Gimbels department store, where he found work as an elevator operator. Shortly after that, he was recruited by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which in 1928 was still a semi-professional team. The Crawford’s, controlled by Gus Greenlee, was the top black semi-professional team in the Pittsburgh area and would advance to entirely professional, major Negro league status by 1931.
In 1928, Gibson met Helen Mason, whom he married on March 7, 1929. When not playing baseball, Gibson continued to work at Gimbels, having given up on his plans to become an electrician to pursue a baseball career. In the summer of 1930, the 18-year-old Gibson was recruited by Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, the dominant Negro League team in Pittsburgh; Gibson debuted with the Grays on July 31, 1930. On August 11, Gibson’s wife, Helen, pregnant with twins, went into premature labor and died while giving birth to a twin son, Josh Gibson, Jr., and daughter, Helen, named after her mother. Helen’s parents raised the children.
The Negro leagues found it more profitable to schedule relatively few league games and allow the teams to earn extra money through barnstorming against semi-professional and other non-league teams. Thus, it is essential to distinguish between records against all competition and records in league games only. For example, against all levels of competition, Gibson hit 69 home runs in 1934; the same year in league games, he hit 11 home runs in 52 games.
In 1933, he hit .467 with 55 home runs in 137 games against all levels of competition. His lifetime batting average is higher than .350, with other sources putting it as high as .384, the best in Negro league history.
Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states he hit “almost 800 home runs in the league and independent baseball during his 17-year career. (This figure includes vs. semi-pro competition and in exhibition games.) His lifetime batting average, according to Hall’s official data, was .359. He won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawford’s and the Grays. It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro League game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left-field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium.
There is no published season-by-season breakdown of Gibson’s home run totals in all the games he played in various leagues and exhibitions.
The correct statistical achievements of Negro league players may be impossible to know as the Negro leagues did not compile complete statistics or game summaries. However, based on the research of historical accounts performed for the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, Gibson hit 224 homers in 2,375 at-bats against top black teams, 2 in 56 at-bats against white major-league pitchers, and 44 in 450 AB in the Mexican League. John Holway lists Gibson with the identical home run totals and a .351 career average, plus 21 for 56 against white major-league pitchers. According to Holway, Gibson ranks third all-time in the Negro leagues on average among players with 2,000+ A.B. (trailing Jud Wilson by three points and John Beckwith by one). In addition, Holway lists him as being second to Mule Suttles in homers, though the all-time leader in HR/AB by a considerable margin – with a homer every 10.6 AB to one every 13.6 for runner-up Suttles.
Recent investigations into Negro league statistics, using box scores from newspapers from across the United States, have led to the estimate that, although as many as two-thirds of Negro league team games were played against the inferior competition (as traveling exhibition games), Gibson still hit between 150 and 200 home runs in official Negro league games. Though this number appears very conservative next to the statements of “almost 800” to 1000 home runs, this research also credits Gibson with a rate of one home run every 15.9 at-bats, which compares favorably with the rates of the top nine home run hitters in Major League history. Moreover, the commonly cited home run totals of more than 800 indicate his career total in “official” games because the Negro Leagues season was significantly shorter than the Major League season, typically less than 60 games per year. Thus, the additional home runs cited were most likely accomplished in “unofficial” games against local and non-Negro League competitions of varying strengths, including the oft-cited “barnstorming” competitors.
Although statistical validation continues to prove difficult for Negro league players, the lack of verifiable figures has led to various amusing “Tall Tales” about immortals such as Gibson. A good example: In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hits one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappears, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams are playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams have positioned themselves on the field, a ball comes falling out of the sky, and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, “You’re out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!”
In early 1943, Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After he had regained consciousness, he refused the option of surgical removal and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. Finally, in 1944, Gibson was hospitalized in Washington, D.C. at Gallinger Hospital for mental observation.
He died of a stroke in Pittsburgh in 1947 at age 35, just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. Some believe the stroke was linked to drug problems that plagued him in his later years. He was buried at the Allegheny Cemetery in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where he lay in an unmarked grave until a small plaque was placed in 1975.
Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League a few months after Robinson broke it in the National League, stated at the time of Robinson’s signing with a minor league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, “One of the things that were 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.
In 1972, Gibson’s accomplishments were recognized, along with Buck Leonard’s. Gibson and Leonard became the second and third players behind Satchel Paige, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for their outstanding careers in the Negro leagues. Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque claims “almost 800” home runs for his career. When you look at it, why do people never say that the white players of Gibson’s era should have asterisks by their records? Let’s face it the white players before 1947 never had to play against all of the best players either.