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Josh Gibson: A Legend in Every Sense of the Word

Josh Gibson is a legend in every sense of the word. An online dictionary defines a legend as "One that inspires legends or achieves legendary fame." Gibson a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame never played in the Major Leagues. He has a legendary nickname, "the Black Babe Ruth", and his Hall-of-Fame plaque describes him in a legendary sense; "(Gibson is) considered (the) greatest slugger in Negro Baseball Leagues. (A) power-hitting catcher who hit almost 800 home runs… during his 17-year career." The story of Gibson’s professional baseball debut is a legend, as he supposedly came down from the stands to replace the Homestead Grays’ injured catcher Buck Ewing, and never turned back. Gibson’s death was even tragic, as he lived the last four years of his life with a brain tumor, and then died of a stroke at age 35 (in 1947) before his career was truly over, and just before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. His life was legendary but the stories that built the legend that is Gibson’s life all are due to his otherworldly baseball ability.

Gibson was arguably the best catcher to play the game of baseball; his power was (and still is) so unique at that position. Legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck was quoted as saying that "Josh Gibson was, at the minimum, two Yogi Berras." That’s serious praise from a baseball executive who witnessed both players compete, especially because Berra ranks the fifth all-time among catchers based on rWAR (61.9). Veeck was known to exaggerate; however, so his opinion that Gibson was at least twice as good as Berra should be taken with a grain of salt. But what if Veeck was serious… and in fact correct; what if Josh Gibson would’ve been a 120 WAR player, if he had been given the chance to play his career in the Major Leagues? That WAR would rank Gibson as the 13th greatest position player of all-time sandwiched right in between Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig; that’s pretty incredible. Unfortunately for the longest time Gibson’s credentials were based upon word-of-mouth (literally legends), and some scattered statistics that weren’t backed by very much actual fact. However, just recently Baseball-Reference has released Negro League statistics; that are backed by research done by BR and MLB. These newly released statistics have given me a chance to consider just how dominate Gibson truly was.

Gibson played 15 seasons professionally in America, 12 in the Negro National League (NNL) and 3 seasons prior to those while playing for the Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords who were still independent organizations. In his 15 American seasons only statistics for 1987 PA are recorded. His confirmed career statistics are ridiculous especially when you consider the small sample for each season (132.5 PA per season) and that the statistics range from his age 18-34 seasons. Gibson’s career stat line is .350/.401/.624 with 107 home runs; his career OPS and wOBA are 1.026 and .431 respectively. Also he hit a home run once every 18.5 PA’s, as well as, an extra base hit every 8 PA’s. Interestingly, Gibson did not play his entire professional career in America. He spent two seasons during his prime, 1940 and ’41 (his age 28 and 29 seasons), in the Mexican league. He recorded 541 PA there, and he posted a monster line of .393/.495/.802 with 44 home runs. The inclusion of Gibson’s Mexican statistics make his career numbers that much more impressive, .358/.421/.659 and 151 home runs.

The reasons why Gibson only averaged 132 PA per season, much below the 500 PA necessary to qualify for Major League awards, are that the Negro Leagues only had enough money to play around 60 games per season, and not all of those game records are available. These factors, as well as, zero park factor data (some Negro League stadiums didn’t even have fences), and no real way of calculating the difference in competition between the MLB and NNL, make it tough to project how good Gibson may have been in one full major league season, or given the opportunity a 15-20 year career of full MLB campaigns. His 2528 career (recorded and including Mexico) PA work out to about 5 full major league seasons, under the assumption that he would have 3.1 PA per game. Thus, on average over the course of his 17 year career Gibson projects to have hit 30 home runs, with the same career batting line of .358/.421/.659 per season.

One of the more interesting aspects of Gibson’s statistics is that he remained so consistently dominant over his entire career. When he was 23 Gibson had an OPS of 1.069 with 8 home runs (in 161 PA), and when he was 32 his OPS was 1.066 with 9 home runs (in 135 PA). These numbers show the catcher was dominant in both his pre-prime and post-prime seasons. But this fact was not the most remarkable thing about the numbers BR released.

In his age 31-34 seasons (1943-46) a decline is very visible, (’43 1.351 OPS and 12 HR’s, ’46 .871 OPS and 5 HR’s) which is to be expected from a player entering their mid-thirties. But the case with Gibson is completely different, because he was in a coma at the beginning of ’43 and lived/played at a high level with a brain tumor for the rest of his career, before a stroke and the tumor caught up to the slugger in ’47. How many players in baseball history have been in a pre-Spring Training coma because of a tumor, and ended up hitting .486 with an OPS of 1.351 that season? Not a soul besides Gibson. The craziest part about this aspect of Gibson’s story is that it is in no way shape or form a legend. The statistics are legitimate proof of this heroic feat.

The statistics show that Gibson was a dominant force at the plate, even when his health was deteriorating, but is the "Black Babe Ruth" nickname legitimate or is a comparison to arguably baseball’s greatest hitter too high of praise? Ruth has a higher career batting line than Gibson, .342/.474/.690, and Ruth has hundreds of more documented home runs. However, as stated on his HOF plaque, Gibson may have hit more than Ruth. But the real reason for the comparison between the players is clear. They both hit home runs at a higher rate than anyone else in their league, and they also flat out were dominant during their careers.

Gibson qualified for the Negro National League leader board 12 times. In those 12 seasons he finished in the top-5 (1st four times) in OPS ten times and in the top-2 (1st nine times) in home runs eleven times. Only in 1938 did Gibson fail to dominant and I’m not particularly sure what happened. His power seemed to disappear for the 91 at-bats recorded, as he did not hit home run, also he failed to walk and only had 4 extra base hits in those 91 at-bats. Aside from that outlier of a "season" (91 AB’s is hardly a season), Gibson was just as dominant as Ruth was during the 18 seasons he was primarily a hitter. In those 18 seasons (1918-35) Ruth lead the majors in OPS eleven times and was in the top-4 fifteen times. He also hit the most homeruns eleven times and finished in the top-4 in home runs sixteen times. So while their numbers may not line up exactly, it’s safe to say Gibson was as dominant a hitter in his league, as Ruth was during his time in the majors.

The jury may still be out on Josh Gibson’s legacy. Some may feel he’s "the Black Babe Ruth", the greatest catcher of all-time, or possibly the greatest hitter to never play in the majors. There may never be a conclusive opinion about how great Gibson truly was, because there’s a good chance we never get a full picture of his numbers or what they really meant in the league and time he played in. But quite frankly, that’s not what this post is about, this post is about Josh Gibson, the legend, and my oh my is he a legend.

All statistics and historical information provided by Baseball-Reference.