As we continue our Negro League player profiles this week, today we chronicle the life and career of one of the greater power hitters of all time: Homestead Grays’ catcher, Josh Gibson.
Gibson’s story in professional baseball started by accident. A young kid who ended up playing with the Crawford Colored Giants, a semi-professional team based in Pittsburgh, his power quickly became the talk of the town despite him still being a teenager.
One day, while sitting in the stands at a Homestead Grays’ game, Grays’ backstop Buck Ewing injured his hand leaving the team short on someone to catch for the day. In classic old-timey baseball fashion, someone who recognized Gibson yelled up to him in the grandstand and asked him to come down and serve as the club’s catcher for the day.
Over the course of a 16-year career before an untimely death at the young age of 35, Gibson played in the Negro League, the Dominical League, and the Mexican League. He cemented his status as one of the greatest hitters to take the field by hitting for immense power and incredible average.
With most black baseball players’ stats obscured by lost records, incomplete game info, and a general lack of statistical tracking for the league at the time, we’re not able to accurately see how much better Gibson was compared to his contemporaries. The stats we are able to confirm do however tell a story of an immensely talented hitter.
Credited as a 12 time All Star, Gibson led the Grays to back-to-back Negro League championships in 1943 and 1944. The tall-tales of Gibson are enshrined on his Hall of Fame plaque. He is the third Negro League player elected to the Hall, following in the footsteps of Satchel Paige. Gibson is credited with hitting over 800 home runs in his career, a combination of his slugging prowess in the Negro Leagues and other professional leagues in the Dominical Republic, Cuba, and Mexico.
His career is honored in multiple cities outside of Cooperstown, as he’s celebrated in Pittsburgh for his impact on professional baseball in the city, and he earned induction into the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City.
Gibson tragically suffered from a brain tumor in his early and mid-30s; he finally succumbed to his health problems in 1947. A segregated society robbed him of the right to play with his white contemporaries, and fate robbed him of his latter-stage career, and perhaps that opportunity to eventually follow in Jackie Robinson’s footsteps. Jackie of course broke the color barrier in the spring of 1947, about 100 days after Gibson’s death.