A strong and agile catcher at 6′ 1″, 215 pounds, Gibson was the Negro Leagues‘ greatest home run hitter and one of the most feared sluggers of any era. Called by many “the black Babe Ruth,” the serious, dour-faced Gibson used a short, compact stride and a massive upper body to crush line drive home runs in ballparks all over North and South America. His clouts overshadowed his defensive abilities — a good arm, quick feet, and a rock-solid presence behind the plate. But the seemingly invincible Gibson experienced a serious physical and emotional decline late in his career and died of a stroke at age 35.
Gibson was born on December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia. He moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side with his family ten years later when his father found work in the steel mills. As a youngster Josh was a natural athlete. Though stocky and thick-legged, he was a fast runner and won several awards in track meets. His first love was baseball, and by age 16 Gibson had made a name for himself as a sandlot player for several amateur teams.
Gibson’s build and quickness made him a superb catcher, but it was his bat that drew attention. In 1930, Gibson was 18 and playing for the Crawford Colored Giants, a semi-pro team loaded with young talent, when he caught the eye of Cum Posey, co-owner and manager of the powerful Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. The Grays were talent deep, but Posey needed a solid substitute catcher and told Gibson to be ready to join the Grays at any time.
Gibson’s first appearance with the Grays is a source of an oft-repeated myth, one of many told of Gibson’s feats. The myth is that during a Grays-Kansas City Monarchs night game, Gibson was in the stands eating hot dogs and was pressed into service when Buck Ewing, the Grays starting catcher, split a finger. The true account is that Ewing did split his finger, but it was in a game against a semipro team. Manager Posey sent a cab for Gibson who was playing across town for Crawford Colored Giants and a few innings later Josh was unceremoniously put into the Grays’ lineup.
Young Gibson could not have joined a better team. Beginning in 1928 when Posey aligned his team with the Negro National League, the Grays were the class of Negro Baseball. Posey’s teams were talented, disciplined, and consistent winners. Gibson’s raw talent and his willingness to learn from veteran players such as Ewing and Judy Johnson quickly transformed him into a marquee star.
Gibson batted for a phenomenal .461 average in his rookie year and was a key factor in the Grays’ win over New York’s Lincoln Giants in the playoffs for the Eastern Division championship. In one of the games played in Yankee Stadium he slammed a home run into the left field bullpen that traveled more than 500 feet. Fans for years after would claim it as one of the longest drives ever hit in that ballpark.
The lure of a fatter contract and the prospect of playing for what promised to be the best team in all of Negro baseball moved Gibson to sign with Gus Greenlee‘s Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932. Greenlee, a flamboyant Pittsburgh racketeer and restaurateur, assembled a team of stars including Gibson, Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, and Coach Oscar Charleston. For the next five years the Crawfords dominated Negro League play. Gibson slugged long home runs — 69 in 1934 — and recorded astoundingly high batting averages. In 137 games with the Crawfords in 1933 he batted .467 with 55 home runs.
Gibson’s slugging drew big crowds wherever the Crawfords appeared. Teammate Cool Papa Bell said Gibson would have hit more homers had not outfielders in parks without fences played him back 400 feet. Gibson’s clouts were so impressive that fact and myth soon became blurred. It was often claimed that he was the only batter ever hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. In fact, it never happened, but his 1930 homer against the Lincoln Giants was the longest ball he ever hit in Yankee Stadium. Late in his career he said his longest home run went out of Farmers Park in East Orange, New Jersey, and “over a two-story station outside the park.” His favorite homer den was New York’s Polo Grounds.
Like most stars of the Negro leagues, Gibson played winter ball for lucrative contracts in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central America. He was idolized by fans in Puerto Rico and considered his play there as the high point of his career. In 1937 he joined several black stars, including Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, in the Dominican Republic to play for a team owned by dictator Rafael Trujillo. In a tense, seven-week season Gibson hit .453 and lead Trujillo’s All-Stars to the championship.
Gibson rejoined Cum Posey and the Homestead Grays in 1936, the start of the Grays’ nine-year run of Negro League championships. He and hard-hitting first baseman Buck Leonard anchored one of the most consistently productive lineups in Negro League play. In 1937 Posey wrote that Gibson was “the best ballplayer, white or colored, that we have seen in all our years of following baseball.”
His murderous bat put him on nine East-West All-Star squads and ranked him second only to Satchel Paige as the best-known Negro League player. Though he was affable and generally well-liked by his teammates, Gibson was not a personality. He could not match Paige’s showmanship on or off the field. While sportswriters in Negro newspapers gave Gibson Bunyanesque qualities and created witty, but fictional exchanges between him and other players, Gibson was mostly quiet, businesslike, and not given to clever remarks or memorable quotes.
Thousands of innings behind the plate took a heavy physical toll on Gibson. Often his shoulder popped painfully out of joint and a teammate helped him jerk it back into place so he could continue playing. In his last years his knees ached and he labored to run the bases.
In the 1940s, while pacing the Homestead Grays, he experienced a severe mental and physical slide. In 1943 he was committed briefly to a mental hospital in Washington D. C. after suffering a nervous collapse. He was also plagued by high blood pressure, heavy drinking and suspected drug use. Though only in his early thirties, Gibson grew despondent, lost weight, and generally appeared tired and haggard.
Even his death on January 20, 1947 came to be clouded with myth. Gibson, it was said, believed he was going to die and gathered his family around his bedside. He even sent his brother out to gather up his trophies. While talking and laughing he supposedly raised his head, spoke incoherently, then laid down and died. The true story was not as sentimental or dramatic. Gibson suffered a stroke in a movie theater and was taken unconscious to his mother’s house where he died a few hours later.
Teammate and friend Jimmie Crutchfield often said that Gibson died of a broken heart at not having made the white major leagues. Gibson himself might have disagreed, though at times his depressed mental state threw him into fits of rage and rambling outbursts. Like most of his teammates, Gibson generally accepted his fate and did not speak out about the injustice of baseball’s color bar. That Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues only a few months after Gibson’s death was a sad coincidence of history.
Gibson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, the second Negro League player, after Satchel Paige, to be so honored.