Picture this: a boy racing to the barbershop, reveling in his
newfound freedom from his mother's hand, his pace accelerated by
the thought that a black man's world is beckoning. There are no
appointments at Scotty's, just three chairs and a wait that
always eats up the clock. But the boy doesn't mind as long as
the men are talking, and they always seem to be doing that,
these cops, longshoremen and layabouts. Hour after hour they
carry on as if there were no place they would rather be than
here, where the only other sources of entertainment are a girlie
calendar from Jet magazine and a transistor radio with a coat
hanger for an antenna.
The men meander from topic to topic--politics, race, sex--and
almost everything the boy hears is an education, especially about
the action between the sheets. The one subject he feels fit to
comment on is baseball. When the men ask him who his favorite
players are, he has their names ready: Mays, Aaron, Clemente and,
oh yeah, Richie Allen. Got to put Allen in there, because this is
Philadelphia, and it's 1964, and he's hitting the ball so hard
for the Phillies that he seems more an aspiring deity than a
Scotty gazes solemnly at the boy from behind the number 1 chair.
He's the oracle of the shop, always has something certifiably
intelligent to say, and when the boy looks back at him, Scotty
seems as old as the blues, though he's probably only in his 40s.
"You never heard of Josh Gibson?" the barber asks.
The boy is puzzled. Why, no, he never has. And that is when the
deluge begins. At first it's just Scotty, but pretty soon all the
men are chiming in with stories. About Gibson hitting more homers
than anybody--black, white or whatever. About the way Gibson and
Satchel Paige tuned each other up for the greater glory of the
Negro leagues. About Gibson dying of a broken heart because he
never got a chance to take a swing in the Jim Crow major leagues.
About Gibson still having the last laugh because he pounded a
home run clean out of Yankee Stadium, and nobody else, not even
Babe Ruth himself, ever did that.
June 25, 2000
As far as the men are concerned, you don't put any other hitter
in the same sentence with Josh Gibson, least of all some damn
rookie. When the boy finally leaves the barbershop, still trying
to wrap his mind around everything he has heard, his one
overriding thought is, Man, if this guy's better than Richie
The boy will check for himself, for that is his nature long
before he becomes known as Gerald Early, professor of English and
African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis
and author of an award-winning collection of essays, The Culture
of Bruising. He has a passion for books and a trust in the wisdom
they hold. So he goes to the library and digs out every volume of
baseball history he can find. In none of them is there so much as
a word about Gibson. All the stories that the men at the
barbershop offered up as gospel might as well be vapor.
We know just enough about Josh Gibson now to forget him. It's a
perverse kind of progress, a strange step up from the days when
the mention of his name drew blank looks. He has been a Hall of
Fame catcher since 1972, so that's a start. And you can always
remind people that he got the Ken Burns treatment on public
television, or that he was a character in an HBO movie, or that
he inspired Negro leagues memorabilia harking back to his old
ball club, the Homestead Grays. Any of it will do to jog
memories. Josh Gibson, sure. Hit all those home runs, didn't he?
Then he's gone once more, gone as soon as he's remembered.
It happened again in the last two seasons as Mark McGwire and
Sammy Sosa woke the long-ball ghosts with their history-making
thunder. Suddenly the Babe and Roger Maris were leading a parade
out of the mists of the past, counting cadence for Hank
Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle. Baseball grew misty
over the musty, as only it can, and a grand time was had by
all--except anyone who cared about Gibson.
He drew so few mentions that if you didn't know better, you would
have wondered if he ever really picked up a bat. His obscurity
recalled that of Jackie Robinson, a mystery to far too many
African-American ballplayers three years ago, on the 50th
anniversary of his shattering of baseball's color line. But
Robinson made it to the mountaintop, and in doing so he helped
set the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, Brown
v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For
Gibson, there was none of that, only booze and dope and busted
Whatever pain he died with lives on in the Negro leaguers who
played with him, against him and maybe even for him if they were
fortunate enough to walk where he never could. "I almost hate to
talk about Josh," says Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who jumped from
the Negro leagues to the New York Giants in 1949. "It makes me
sad, for one thing, on account of he didn't get to play in the
major leagues. Then, when you tell people how great he was, they
think you're exaggerating."
But that's what greatness is: an exaggeration. Of talent, of
charisma, of the acts that live long after the athletes we deem
legendary have shuffled off this mortal coil. So it is with
Gibson, who opened Irvin's eyes in 1937 by hitting a simple
grounder so hard that it knocked the shortstop who caught it
backward. Then there was the night in McKeesport, Pa., as Irvin's
Newark Eagles played Gibson's Grays, when Gibson bashed a homer
and the mayor stopped the game until the ball was found, because
he'd never seen one hit that far. "I played with Willie Mays and
against Hank Aaron," Irvin says. "They were tremendous players,
but they were no Josh Gibson."
This is different from Roy Campanella telling one and all that he
couldn't carry Gibson's mitt. Or Walter Johnson arguing that
Gibson was better than Bill Dickey in the days when Dickey was
the benchmark for catchers. Or Dizzy Dean, a true son of the
South, wishing his St. Louis Cardinals would sign Gibson--and
Satchel Paige--so they could wrap up the pennant by the Fourth of
July and go fishing until World Series time. Irvin, with his
proclamation, leaves himself no wiggle room. He doesn't just
count Gibson among the game's greats; he ranks him first.
To help make his case, Irvin paints a picture of a ninth-grade
dropout from Pittsburgh who grew up to become John Henry in
baseball flannels: 210 pounds of muscle sculpted on a 6'2" frame,
with the speed of a sprinter and a throwing arm that cut down
would-be base stealers with lightning bolts. There is no mention
of the fact that Gibson was less than artistic behind the
plate--"a boxer" for the way he jabbed at the ball, in the
estimation of his otherwise admiring former teammate, Ted (Double
Duty) Radcliffe. Likewise, Irvin remains silent on Gibson's
struggles with pop-ups. Dwelling on shortcomings doesn't burnish
a legend, and Irvin knows it. Better to concentrate on Gibson at
the plate. "You saw him hit," Irvin says, "and you took your hat
You might even use that hat to fan yourself, so overheated are
the statistics Gibson left behind: a .354 batting average for his
17 years in the Negro leagues, .373 for two summers in Mexico,
.353 for two winters in Cuba. "Lifetime .300 and a whole lot,"
croons Buck O'Neil, the old Kansas City Monarch with a gift for
euphonious phrasing. "He come up there righthanded, kind of a
wide stance, didn't take much of a stride. But great shoulders,
great wrists. Hit that ball a long way all over."
Gibson's statistical pinnacle was the .517 average he parked in
the middle of the Grays' 1943 lineup. It looks like a typo, but
The Baseball Encyclopedia says .517 is really what the man hit.
He did it using bats and balls that were inferior to the ones big
leaguers used. More significant, he did it with people arguing
that his average wouldn't be so fat if he had to hit against
white pitchers. These same doubters, however, never would have
dreamed of belittling the Babe's 60 homers or Ted Williams's .406
season or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak because they
faced nary a pitcher of color. So maybe Gibson delivered his most
important message by batting .412 against the big leaguers on
autumn barnstorming tours that the black teams dominated. Says
O'Neil: "He wanted to prove he wasn't inferior to anybody."
Gibson made his point with his batting average, then made it
again by hitting so many home runs that only the blind and
bigoted dared ignore him. If you embrace everything you hear,
there were 962 homers--including 75 in 1931, 69 in 1934 and, brace
yourself, 84 in 1936. But not even the greatest Gibson advocate
will try to convince you that box scores are available to
document all the homers with which Gibson is credited. Nor are
you expected to believe that every pitcher to whom he laid waste
was prime beef. There were too many games against semipros and
independent teams, too many games played for the sole purpose of
making enough money to get to the next backwater town and the
next rocky diamond. That was life on the fringe, where black
Yet when Negro league teams went head-to-head, the competition
matched that in the big leagues--and Gibson, predictably, was up
to the challenge. Witness his 11 homers in 23 games in 1936, his
seven in 12 games in '37 and his 17 in 29 games in '39. "If you
factored in what he did in league games over the old 154-game
schedule," says Negro leagues historian John B. Holway, "he would
have broken Ruth's record at least three times."
It is doubtful that any of the old-timers at Scotty's barbershop
knew that or would have put much stock in it if they had.
Statistics were for kids and white people. The barbershop
regulars wanted something more out of baseball, something they
could feel the way they felt a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.
"They were like African-Americans everywhere," Gerald Early says.
"They connected to baseball in a different way from white
Americans. They built stories, they built myths, and those tended
to become the sole reality."
Thus the tale of how Gibson, alone among men, hit a home run out
of Yankee Stadium. It would have been in September 1930, just
months after he joined the Grays at age 18. They were playing the
Lincoln Giants when he caught hold of a pitch thrown by the
estimable Connie Rector and sent it soaring into never-never
land. "I heard it bounced off the subway train," whispers Orlando
Cepeda, sounding more like the awed child whose father played
with Gibson in Puerto Rico than the slugger whose own plaque is
in Cooperstown. Everybody has heard something about the
homer--that's the problem. Nobody has ever found a shred of
documentation, not even in a newspaper story about the game. The
best guess is that the ball landed in the far reaches of the
left-centerfield bullpen. Not that saying so will stop anyone
from telling the story. Not that anyone will cease using it as a
springboard to all the other home runs that fueled Gibson's
Some homers you can document, like the one he launched out of
Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a feat duplicated by only a select
group that includes Ruth and Willie Stargell. Other shots are
forever confined to folklore, like the one that supposedly
knocked a public-address speaker off the grandstand roof in
Washington's Griffith Stadium. "I didn't see it," confesses Don
Newcombe, a workhorse righthander for the Newark Eagles and the
Brooklyn Dodgers, "but that's what the other players said." Of
course they did.
Ninety-seven-year-old Double Duty Radcliffe--nicknamed by Damon
Runyon after he pitched one game of a doubleheader and caught
the other--is still telling people about an old lady who thought
she was safe watching Gibson from the rocking chair on her front
porch. "Wasn't no fence in this particular park," Radcliffe
recalls. "Someplace in Pennsylvania, I think it was. She's way
out there in centerfield rockin' away when Josh hits one.
And...and...." Radcliffe erupts in laughter made raspy by a
lifetime of cigars. "Josh made that old lady jump."
But of all the stories inspired by Gibson's homers, one resonates
most memorably about his life and times. It comes from an article
his son, Josh Jr., clipped out of the Pittsburgh Press years ago.
In it the retiring mayor of suburban Dormont talked of the day in
1933 that he saw Josh hit a home run out of the local ballpark,
over a flagpole and across a street, 470 feet if it was an inch.
There were 500 people in the stands, but when they passed the
hat, $66 was the best they could come up with in the heart of the
Depression. The umpires and ball-chasers got paid first, and the
two teams had to divvy up the $44 that remained. Josh's share was
It was a life on the run, and in the days when he could get away
with ignoring real-world complications, he thrived on it. Didn't
matter how many whistle-stops he rolled into in the dead of
night, or how many bug-infested hotels he slept in, or how many
times he was turned away in restaurants by the same white people
who cheered his slugging. Josh was going to be Josh: a
muscle-stuffed scamp who teased opposing batters by throwing dirt
on their shoes and who menaced pitchers by rolling up his sleeves
to show off his biceps.
He never said much, but talking wasn't his game. Hitting was.
When he had finished another day's work at the plate, he would
climb back onto the bus that was his cocoon. It seemed as if
nothing could touch him there. All he had to do to keep his
teammates happy was lean out the window when they passed another
ball club's bus and say what he always said: "Same team won today
is gonna win tomorrow." Hell, it even kept the other ball club
happy. This wasn't just anybody needling them. It was Josh
They called him "the black Babe Ruth," but he was more than that.
He was a 1,000-watt celebrity in the parallel universe that
spawned him, and his star shone brightest whenever he rolled into
one of the big cities on the Negro leagues' endless caravan: New
York or D.C. or sweet home Pittsburgh. He would hit the jazz
clubs then, places that were to black players what Toots Shor's
was to the Yankees, and he would rub shoulders with Lena Horne,
Duke Ellington and the Mills Brothers as if they were old
friends. After a while maybe they were, because they let Gibson
get up and sing with the band, sing something smoky or swinging
in that rich voice of his.
Pittsburgh's hot club was the Crawford Grille, up on what the
locals still know as the Hill. Gus Greenlee ran it with the money
he made in the numbers racket, and when he branched out into the
Negro National League, he bought Gibson. And Paige. And fearsome,
hard-hitting Oscar Charleston. They were the engine that drove
the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the '30s, and surely they would have
lasted far longer if Greenlee hadn't run afoul of the IRS. Then,
in 1937, Gibson went back to the Homestead Grays, back where he
had started and where he would finish.
There was heartbreak at both ends of his journey, though the
focus usually falls on his premature death, at 35. Overlooked too
often is what he faced 17 years earlier, when he was just a kid
with a big future in baseball and a pregnant girlfriend who
became his wife. The former Helen Mason was 17 when she gave
birth to twins, then died before she could hold them in her arms.
From that day forward Gibson didn't stop running until he, too,
was in his grave. Fatherhood scarcely slowed him. Indeed, it
might have done just the opposite. Says James A. Riley, director
of research for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas
City: "Every time he saw those kids, he thought of his wife."
The thought, if you accept Riley's theory, was more than Gibson
His wife's family fought to change his rambling ways. They were
strong Baptists who had been lured out of the South by the clang
of Pittsburgh's steel mills, just the way Gibson's family had.
The Masons weren't about to stand by while Gibson chose a mere
game over the son who bore his name and the daughter who bore
Helen's. "There was incredible bitterness," says Ken Solarz, the
Hollywood screenwriter who sent a love letter to the Negro
leagues with his 1979 documentary Only the Ball Was White. "Can
you imagine what it was like when his wife's family told him he
had to quit baseball and raise those children? It must have been
devastating." It was also ineffective.
Josh Jr., 69 and twice the recipient of a kidney transplant,
approaches the issue gingerly, conceding only that he was raised
by his maternal grandmother and that growing up he didn't see
much of his father. "They used to say the Negro leagues never
dropped the ball," Josh Jr. says, "so my father, he was always
off playing somewhere." Big Josh spent his summers Stateside,
coming back to Pittsburgh every two weeks or so. In the winters
he set sail for Latin America and the paydays to be had there.
When he returned, it was always with gifts. "Good leather stuff
for me and my sister," Josh Jr. says. An empty, groping moment
passes. "And we were glad to see him."
The awkwardness of those words is amplified when the son recalls
how he and his sister romped in a field across the street from
the house where their father lived with his common-law wife. "We
never knew her name," Josh Jr. says.
He thought things would change when he turned 11 and big Josh
invited him to travel with the Grays as their batboy for two
weeks. This was to be the bonding mechanism for father and son, a
ritual that would continue for the next three summers. When Josh
Jr. thinks back, however, his memories run mainly to his father's
home runs, the art of living on $2 a day in meal money, and
riding the team bus with the legend who begat him. They were
supposed to sit together up front, Josh and Junior, but once the
bus was on the road, the boy always found himself alone. His
father had left him to play gin rummy in the back with the other
Grays. It didn't matter where big Josh was; he couldn't stop
It's a different kind of crack of the bat. I'll tell you what,
you listen to a .22 rifle, and then you listen to a .30-30.
That's the difference right there. --BUCK O'NEIL
If you insist on calling the story that follows apocryphal, keep
in mind that Buck O'Neil has been dining out on it for years,
and he isn't about to stop. It begins sometime in the 1920s with
Buck lurking behind the outfield fence in Sarasota, Fla., fresh
out of the celery fields where he usually toiled, and surrounded
by kids as hungry as he was. They were there to track down the
balls that sailed over the fence and sell them to tourists eager
for spring-training souvenirs. Never mind that the Yankees had
rolled into town with their Murderers' Row. This was strictly
And then it wasn't. As the longest ball of the day soared into
view and the take-no-prisoners race for it began, young Buck
stood stock-still, mesmerized by the crack of the bat. "Oh, a
beautiful sound," he says more than 70 years later, as rhapsodic
as if he'd been the first to hear Heifetz or Hendrix. In an
instant Buck was climbing the nearest pine tree, going up the
wooden slats that kids had nailed into it as steps so they could
watch games without paying. "When I got to the top," he says, "I
saw this guy with a big barrel chest and skinny legs and a
beautiful swing." Dramatic pause. "It was Babe Ruth."
A decade or so later, O'Neil was the Kansas City Monarchs' first
baseman, and the first time he suited up in Griffith Stadium to
face the Grays, he heard it again. That wondrous sound. "So I
ran out of the clubhouse, through the dugout and onto the
field," O'Neil says. "There was this beautiful black sucker. Big
chest, broad shoulders, about 34 inches in the waist. That was
Josh Gibson. Hitting the ball, making it sound just like Babe
Ruth. I'm standing there taking it all in when I hear people
laughing, people applauding. I look around, trying to find out
what's the matter, and one of my teammates says, 'Buck, you got
nothing on but your jockey strap.'"
O'Neil returned to the clubhouse embarrassed but wiser, for he
knew he had the perfect standard for assessing sluggers. They had
to match the Babe's sound, and Josh's. If you think it's easily
done, be advised that when O'Neil traveled to St. Louis last
year, McGwire flunked the test.
Oh, there were some players back in the day--Cool Papa Bell and
Mule Suttles, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day and Martin Dihigo. Legions
of them when you get right down to it, men who make you want to
weep for having missed out on seeing the Negro leagues. Yet the
two names you always come back to in any discussion of that
star-crossed age are the same ones that were on the billboards
that shouted, SEE SATCHEL PAIGE STRIKE OUT THE 1ST NINE HITTERS.
SEE JOSH GIBSON HIT TWO HOMERS!
Satch and Josh were as big as the type that promised these
heroics, for both of them had moved beyond mere greatness into
walking immortality. "Emblematic," Gerald Early calls them. "They
represented the mythology of the Negro leagues." But when they
played together on the Crawfords, everyone had five years to
study how different they were as human beings.
"Josh rode the team bus; Satch drove his own car," James A. Riley
says. "Josh showed up at the park when he was supposed to; Satch
might not show up at all. Satch was a modern ballplayer before
there were modern ballplayers." Gibson was a mystery, no matter
how good-natured and playful he was. He would win a game with a
homer and have a beer with the guys afterward, but then, if there
wasn't a bus to catch and another game waiting at the end of an
all-night drive, he would be gone, off into a world all his own,
a world he didn't share. Not that Satch ever noticed, as caught
up as he was in his own magnitude. There were years when Satch
won 70 games (by his count), and his singleness of purpose
suggested that he was sizing Gibson up as an opposing hitter even
when they were teammates. That was the only mystery Satch cared
He told Gibson as much, bless his heart, and both of them would
sit there laughing, woofing, each promising to inflict
unspeakable cruelty on the other. When these icons went
head-to-head, in 1942, the showdown entered the mythos. It was
mostly Satch's doing. That cunning rogue was pitching for Kansas
City, and, according to legend, when he was one out from beating
the Grays, he ignored the runner on third and walked the next two
hitters for the express purpose of facing his old teammate.
Gibson was so stunned that he watched three straight strikes, the
last one on the fastball Satch called "a bee at your knee."
Satch acted as if that gave him bragging rights till the end of
time. Josh never said much about it, but he did sidle up to Monte
Irvin not long afterward and confide, "Satch is crazy." Publicly,
that was all Gibson's pride would allow. Privately, it may have
needed balm. Why else would one of the few newspaper clippings he
kept be about the day that he went 4 for 4 against Satch at
Wrigley Field? Gibson did the same against lots of pitchers, but
this was special, this was the great Paige. While he was on base
that day, Gibson might even have taunted his fellow legend by
hooting, "If you could cook, I'd marry you." If he didn't say it
that time, he said it later, or so the story goes. He always did
enjoy beating Satch like a rented mule.
It was strange having Josh around that winter. In the past he had
headed south on the first thing smoking as soon as the Negro
leagues' season was done, not to return until winter was melting.
But after he had taken his last swing for the Grays in 1946 and
gone to Latin America, illness made him retreat to the row house
on Pittsburgh's Bedford Avenue, where his mother-in-law was
raising his kids. Once he was there, nothing could get him to
Sam Bankhead, his teammate, drinking buddy and best friend,
thought it was just a matter of time before Gibson caved in to
the old lures of Caribbean rum, dark-eyed women and December
sunshine. "You ain't going back, Josh?" Bankhead kept asking,
teasingly at first, then with more and more dismay as he realized
that no, Josh wasn't going back. He was getting ready to die.
He had puffed up to 235 pounds, his knees were shot, and the rest
of his once-proud body was sending distress signals. He had high
blood pressure and a brain tumor that periodically leveled him
with headaches. He drank too much, and there was talk that he had
found another escape route in drugs. He had woman problems and
psychiatric problems. It was no kind of shape for a legend to be
in as he turned 35.
How odd--and unfortunate--that even today there are those who want
to blame Gibson's demise on the ascension of Jackie Robinson.
It's so easy, so poetic to say Gibson died of a broken heart when
he realized that baseball's color line would be broken without
him in the spring of '47. "That," Early insists, "has been
romanticized way out of proportion."
Josh Jr. agrees, and so do most of the Negro leaguers who
remember his father best. Talk to them for five minutes, and
without prompting, they'll bring up their chagrin at the 1996 HBO
movie Soul of the Game, which portrays Josh, Satch and Jackie as
friends and rivals. "My father didn't even know Jackie Robinson,"
insists Josh Jr. The inaccuracy is compounded when the movie
shows the elder Gibson belittling Robinson as a "house nigger."
"I asked the producers where they got their information," O'Neil
says, "and they said, Ernie Banks's son. I said, 'Ernie Banks's
son? He wasn't even born yet.'"
If Gibson was crushed by anything beyond his own demons, it
wasn't bitterness but disappointment. For too many years his
hopes had been raised by the praise of big league managers who
coveted his talent, then dashed by the cowardice of team owners
afraid to be the first to challenge the game's racist status quo.
When Leo Durocher, the Dodgers' manager, dared muse in the early
'40s about the joy of writing Gibson's name on his lineup card,
commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis dressed him down. The
Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators also backed off when
confronted by the bushy-browed Landis, who preached that there
was white baseball and there was black baseball, and never would
they meet. The teams got the message, and so did Gibson.
"Finally," Riley says, "I think he just said, The hell with it."
Gibson's beverage of choice changed from beer to hard liquor.
"Sometimes you could smell him from the night before," Don
Newcombe remembers. "It was coming out his pores."
Radcliffe carries the same memory of Gibson. "He was smokin' that
reefer too," Duty says.
Many old-timers trace Gibson's problems to a D.C. mobster's wife
named Grace. Her husband was in the Army, and Gibson had drifted
apart from the woman who shared his bed in Pittsburgh. Things
just went from there, drugs and passion fueling Josh and Grace's
relationship until the mobster came home and reclaimed his lady.
Then Josh was back on his own, and it must have been a scary
place to be. There were stays at St. Elizabeth's, a mental
hospital in Washington that let him out only for games on
weekends. And there were myriad stories about his bizarre
behavior, beginning with the one about the teammate who found him
talking to a Joe DiMaggio who wasn't there.
Cepeda swears Gibson got arrested in Puerto Rico for running the
streets naked. Newcombe remembers how bad he and the other Newark
Eagles felt for laughing at a story imported from Latin America,
about how Gibson slid in with a double and started looking for
the potatoes he said he had planted under second base. "We wanted
to be proud of Josh Gibson," says Newcombe.
By the mid-'40s, however, Gibson may not have even been proud of
himself. The knees that had kept him out of World War II were so
bad that it hurt to watch him trying to crouch behind home plate.
Though he had won home run championships in 1944 and '45 and hit
.361 in '46, the power and menace of old were gone. So he took
refuge in the home where his children lived, and he even shared a
bed with Josh Jr. "I'd get up in the morning and go to school,"
his son recalls. "He'd get up and go wherever he wanted to."
On Jan. 20, 1947, almost a month to the day after his 35th
birthday and three months before Jackie Robinson played for the
Dodgers, Josh went to his mother's house, and it was there that
he died. Some say a stroke killed him, others a brain hemorrhage.
Or maybe it was just life.
Death didn't treat him any better, letting him lie in an unmarked
grave in Allegheny Cemetery for nearly three decades. Finally,
commissioner Bowie Kuhn joined with one of Gibson's Crawfords
teammates in 1975 to buy the headstone his family couldn't
afford. It hails him as a LEGENDARY BASEBALL PLAYER, but the
words seem too spare, too perfunctory. How much closer to the
truth Newcombe comes when he says, "It's too bad Josh didn't get
a chance to live the life he should have lived."
They don't talk about Josh Gibson much in barbershops anymore.
Too many years have passed, too many other great players have
come down the pike, too many other shooting stars have flamed
out. Even in Pittsburgh, the launching pad for his greatness, he
remains little more than an afterthought. Mario Lemieux has a
street named after him, and Roberto Clemente is honored by a park
and a bridge. For years, all Gibson had was a blue-and-gold
plaque designating the site where he played at Greenlee Field, up
on the Hill. The plaque isn't much bigger than a NO PARKING sign,
and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania didn't get
around to putting it up until 1996.
This year Gibson's likeness appeared on a downtown mural, but
even so, all he really has going for him is his son. "I got to
keep my father's name ringing," Josh Jr. says. From his
Pittsburgh home he travels anywhere he is invited: minor league
ball games, Negro leagues reunions, the Florida Marlins' Opening
Day ceremonies last year and, most of all, baseball card shows.
Alas, he doesn't have much to offer in the way of memorabilia,
no bats that big Josh used, no catcher's mitts, no spikes with
their toes curling.
"The only thing I have of my father's are old newspaper articles
he saved," Josh Jr. says. So he puts the articles in a display
case, signs autographs for $25 a shot and tells stories about the
father who died when he was 16 and left him with a name that has
proved as much a burden as a blessing.
"It wasn't easy trying to be Josh Gibson," his son says. For Josh
Jr. inherited his father's resonant voice and not much else in
the way of gifts. He lacked size, power and a flair for the
dramatic. The best thing he could do as a spindly third baseman
was run, and that ended after he left the Homestead Grays in 1950
for Canada's Provincial League. He broke an ankle stealing a base
and tried to keep playing by deadening the pain with novocaine.
When he could run no more, he limped home to a city job slinging
trash cans. The job lasted until one of his kidneys gave out 20
years ago, and his struggle intensified in 1985 when hypertension
cut short his twin sister's life.
But keeping his father's name alive has given Josh Jr. a reason
to soldier on. He travels with his grandson Sean, who, at 30,
looks like big Josh: same heft, same round face, same easy smile.
"He's learning the history," Josh Jr. says, "because he's going
to take over when I die."
The two started a Josh Gibson League for kids in Pittsburgh last
year, giving those youthful dreamers a place to learn about the
Negro leagues and rack up their own hits, runs and errors. A
place where they can hear Josh Jr. say, "The thing I don't like
particularly is that people call my father the black Babe Ruth.
I'd prefer it if they just called him Josh Gibson."
It is an understandable request, but the truth is, Gibson must be
remembered before he can be called anything. In that regard,
there is only so much reassurance Josh Jr. can offer himself. He
can tell the story of how Johnny Bench stopped him at a card show
and said he wished he'd seen big Josh play: one great catcher
paying homage to another. Or he can pass along the tales told by
the men who played with his father. Mainly it comes down to Josh
Jr. sitting at the table in his cramped dining room, pulling
something from an envelope and saying, "Here, I got to autograph
this for you."
It is a picture of big Josh with the Grays in his prime, his arms
thick, his smile shy, almost beguiling. Very carefully, Josh Jr.
writes his name in blue ink across his father's shoulder. When a
legend is on life support, you do what you have to.
His big league hopes were dashed by owners afraid to challenge
the racist status quo.