One of the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson was one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Even now, 105 years after his birth, his exploits on the diamond remain legendary.
Just as Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson was his equivalent on the offensive side of the game. A power hitting catcher, he is considered not just the greatest hitter in their history, but perhaps the greatest catcher of all time. Yet, because he never played in the Majors, his exploits are somewhat forgotten in baseball lore.
Yet, during his playing days, he was just as celebrated as some of the major stars of the day. Called the “Black Babe Ruth” due to his tremendous power, other scribes attested that Ruth was the “White Josh Gibson.” It was high praise indeed, but his performance on the field backed those accolades up.
While the statistics from the Negro Leagues are often infuriatingly incomplete, Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque states that he hit “almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career.” As teams in the Negro Leagues would often barnstorm and take on semi-pro and other assorted teams, it is possible that he hammered that level of opposition. The best estimate as to his career numbers, accounting actual league games, places Gibson with a batting average over .350 and 224 home runs.
Yet, Gibson was more than just the raw numbers. He was well known for his prodigious feats of power, accomplishing things that no one else could. A twelve time home run leader, Gibson also led the Negro Leagues in batting average, doubles, triples, RBI, and slugging. His power was so great that he was the only player to ever hit a fair ball completely out of Yankee Stadium, a feat that even the mighty Ruth was unable to accomplish. He was even considered to have hit more balls into the left field bleachers at old Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators, than the entire American League combined.
He continued to punish the baseball in his later years, leading the league in homers and hitting for a high average. This was all the more impressive because, starting in 1942, Gibson had been battling alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, and possibly drug use. In 1943, he spent most of the season in a sanitarium in Washington DC, but he still annihilated the ball. His 22 home runs were more than the next three hitters, combined.
Unfortunately, he never played in the Majors. While Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in 1947, Gibson would not see it. His problems began in 1943, when he lapsed into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Refusing the surgery to remove it, Gibson suffered recurring headaches over the next few years. Finally, on January 20, 1947, he suffered a stroke, passing away at just 35 years old.
Due to segregation in baseball, we were cheated of the chance to see some of the greatest players perform at the highest stage. Yes, some of the stars, like Robinson, Larry Doby, and Paige reached the Majors, but we missed out on seeing the likes of Cool Papa Bell, Leon Day, and Oscar Charleston play against the best of their era. And, perhaps most egregious of all, Josh Gibson was never able to match his power against the legendary Ruth.