Born: Dec. 12, 1911 in Buena Vista, Ga.
Died: Jan. 20, 1947
Defining fact and fiction is often important in dealing with the man and the myth behind Josh Gibson. Still, the measurable feats of Gibson’s career would leave some feeling he is that much more of a myth.
Another accepted fact is that Gibson hit one of the longest home runs in the history of Yankees Stadium — an estimated 580 ft. Another story says that Gibson has hit the only home run in history that went out of Yankees Stadium.
AT A GLANCE
Actual stats are hard to define for Negro League players because many newspapers didn’t carry information on their games. However, what is known for Gibson is that he hit 142 home runs in 508 games with a .384 average in one Negro League. Led League in home runs in 32, 34, 36, 38-39, 42, 44-46. Led League in batting average in 38, 42-43, 45. Was elected to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1972
Josh Gibson was born in 1911 in Buena Vista, Ga. His father, Mark, scratched out enough of a living to keep his three children fed. However, in 1924, his father found work in the factories in Pittsburgh and moved the family there. “The greatest gift Dad gave me was to get me out of the South,” Gibson said later.
Gibson’s baseball skills started to develop at a young age. At 16, he became a catcher with Gimbels, AC, an amateur Negro team in Pittsburgh. Gibson dropped out of school that year after completing the ninth grade and took a job at a local factory producing air brakes. His skills, however, were pushing him toward a career in baseball.
Gibson organized the Crawford Colored Giants in 1929 and 1930. The semipro Negro team earned about $50 a game from a collection, charged no admission and drew more than 5,000 fans. Many of those fans were probably drawn to the games to see Gibson’s display of power.
The break in Gibson’s professional career came when the Kansas City Monarchs traveled to Pittsburgh to play nearby Homestead. The Monarchs brought their portable lighting system and the Homestead Grays took the field in the team’s first night game. Josh Gibson was sitting in the stands.
The Grays had two catchers already on the roster. Buck Ewing was the fulltime catcher and Vic Harris, an outfielder, filled in with catching duties during the second game of doubleheaders. That night, Joe Williams took the mound for the Grays. Williams and Ewing had trouble with the signs under the lights and got crossed up on a pitch. The pitch split Ewing’s finger.
The Grays faced a problem. Vic Harris was already in the lineup and Ewing was unable to continue. So, Grays manager Judy Johnson spotted Gibson in the stands and asked him if he wanted to finish out the game.
“Yeah! Oh, Yeah!” was all the response Gibson had to make. He quickly suited up and took his first steps toward becoming a superstar in the Negro Leagues at the age of 18.
In his first year with Homestead, Gibson often played in the outfield. He was still learning the position of catcher and the Grays already had a starter in Ewing. Playing in the outfield was a way for Johnson to get Gibson’s bat into the lineup.
In 1931, at the age of 19, Gibson is credited with hitting 75 home runs during a season that included a barnstorming tour of Northern states. In 1932, he joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords and would play for them for the next five seasons. Gibson, often referred to as the Black Babe Ruth, is credited with 69 home runs in 1934. In 1936, he returned to Homestead.
At the beginning of the 1937 season, Gibson was listed on the spring training roster of the Crawfords. However, by March, the team had labeled Gibson as a holdout. The Crawfords and the Grays worked out a trade that demonstrates the financial strains of Negro League teams. The Crawfords traded Gibson and star third baseman Judy Johnson to the Grays for two journeymen and $2,500. Gibson didn’t join the Grays until July of that year. He spent the first part of the season playing on Satchel Paige’s team in the Dominican Republic.
In the 1940-41 seasons, Gibson umped to the Mexican League. He received $6,000 a year in the Mexican League as compared to the $4,000 he had received with the Grays. In 1942, he returned to play for the Grays.
In 1943, Gibson started to suffer from headaches and dizziness. Doctors diagnosed Gibson with a brain tumor and wanted to operate. Gibson, fearing the operation would leave him a “vegetable,” refused the operation. Despite suffering from the brain tumor and nursing bad knees, Gibson still lead the Negro National League in home runs in 1945 and 1946. The headaches intensified and he missed winter baseball for the first time in 1946.
On Jan. 20, 1947, Josh Gibson died at home following a stroke.