On this last day of the regular baseball season (time flies), please enjoy this profile on a lesser-known player who never had his chance to shine in the Major Leagues.
Even if you’re not the least bit into baseball, it’s almost impossible that you don’t know about Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player. Robinson’s courage in the face of the cruelest racism was symbolic both for desegregating baseball and for African Americans in general.
One of the reasons Robinson was chosen first from the Negro Leagues was not that he was necessarily the best player, but that he promised he would not react to the racist taunts, as bad as they could be. While Robinson was known to fight back against the racism he experienced particularly while he was in the Army, he showed the Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, that he would not fight back, no matter how bad the taunting got. Robinson carried a huge burden on his shoulders, since he was the first. It is likely that if things hadn’t gone well with him, if he hadn’t been on his “best behavior” even in the face of awful treatment, it would have further delayed other black players from being signed into the majors, as horrible as that sounds. And for that we all continue to owe him a huge debt of gratitude, whether we are baseball fans or not.
But unless you’re more than a casual fan or historian of baseball, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of arguably the best player ever to play in the Negro Leagues. His name was Josh Gibson, and legend has it that he was so good, he was called the “black Babe Ruth.” But sadly, due to the exclusionary practices of baseball during his time and his untimely death, he never had his own Jackie Robinson moment–a chance to prove himself in the major leagues.
I could have chosen many other players from the Negro League days for this profile. But Josh Gibson is both lesser known than he should be and had the potential to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Of course it’s hard to say what would have happened once he was in the major leagues, but if given the chance, he could have been on the level of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and other legendary black players who did get a chance. And no knock on Robinson, who was a solid player, but it appears to be generally agreed that Gibson was the greatest of them all. So it is for all those reasons that I’ve chosen him as my next Groundbreaker.
Wading through the history of the Negro Leagues, which existed from approximately the 1920s to the early 1960s, is both fascinating and saddening–so much unrecognized talent. It is likely that many of the players in the league “could have rewritten the record books if they had been given the chance to play in the majors” (see Nelson, We Are The Ship), which is perhaps exactly why they were kept out of the all-white majors for so long. Gibson is not as well known as he should be, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many players who were just as skilled and talented as he was (maybe even more so), but we may never know their names. Profiling Gibson is just a beginning to the incredible world that was the Negro Leagues.
While there are many gaps in the life and career of Josh Gibson, there is at least some information available to us. Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1911, and grew up in Pittsburgh. He got his start as a professional player with the Homestead Grays, a Negro League team based in Pittsburgh, in 1930 when he was asked to fill in from the stands for an injured catcher. He played his entire career as a catcher, but was particularly known for his powerful hitting. He had strong, muscular arms and could hit baseballs out of stadiums–at least that was the rumor. Legend has it that not only was he called the “black Babe Ruth,” but the actual Babe Ruth was called “the white Josh Gibson” by black fans of the Negro Leagues. As with the details of his life, no one is quite certain of his stats either, since there was unreliable record-keeping of Negro League players. But his Hall of Fame plaque reports that he hit “almost 800 home runs” and had a .359 batting average in combined league and independent play, over 17 years.
Ironically, or perhaps in a cruel twist of fate, Gibson died in January 1947, just before Robinson was called up to the Dodgers. He was only 35 years old. Gibson had been diagnosed with a brain tumor after falling into a coma in 1943. He chose not to have the tumor removed, suffering from headaches from the next four years. He eventually died of a stroke four years later, possibly due to a drug problem. It’s hard not to wonder: did he live his life with a heavy heart, knowing he would never make it to the major leagues and get the recognition that everyone agreed he deserved?
My intention in writing about Gibson, as it is with any of the others I choose to profile, like Pauli Murray last week, is in no way to minimize the accomplishments or the courage of the people who did become mainstream. I couldn’t feel any stronger about that than with the comparison of Gibson and Robinson; in fact, I don’t even mean it to be a comparison, but rather a tale of two men who both deserved better: while Robinson is rightfully lauded as the man who broke the color barrier and dealt with all the nastiness that went along with that, he should have just been able to play like any white player. On a bigger scale, while the Negro Leagues were a unique and remarkable group of American players, they shouldn’t have had to exist in the first place. But if it weren’t for players with the level of talent like Gibson, major league teams would not have been forced to reckon with their discriminatory practices and eventually sign some of the greatest players known in America.
What is also ironic (and unfortunate) about Robinson’s feat of bravery is that once he crossed the color line, the Negro Leagues were never the same. Once one black player was in the majors, the interest level in the Negro Leagues just about disappeared (Nelson, We Are The Ship). It would be a long road before every team had at least one black player signed–the last team to do it was the Boston Red Sox in 1959, twelve years after Robinson was first signed. A total of 58 out of more than 200 players from the Negro Leagues ended up on a major league team–less than a dismal 30%. And while some deserving players from the Negro Leagues eventually got their chance, Gibson never did due to his tragically early death.
Though he died so early, it’s still hard not to wonder: what could have happened if Gibson had made it? Would he have been the home run champion, like Hank Aaron was for many years? Sadly, we will never know. He did get some recognition long after his death, like being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 by the Negro Leagues Committee. He’s even had an opera written about him that recently premiered in Pittsburgh.
At the same time, however, one must wonder if he would have had a chance even if he did live. He was once quoted as saying, after hearing about the abuse Robinson had to suffer at the hands of the white fans, “‘Man, if they did that to me, I would’ve punched them in the mouth!’ And everybody said, ‘See! That’s why you didn’t go!’” (Nelson, We Are The Ship) Sadly, as talented as everyone agreed he was, it’s quite possible that no team would have been willing to take a chance on him due to his self-admitted and rightful anger at people who saw him as less than human. This is why I believe it is so important to make sure players like him are recognized–because not only was it unfair that they were already forced to form their own league, they then could only join the majors if they exhibited the “proper behavior,” meaning taking abuse from white fans. This is very relatable to what is going on with NFL players and kneeling today. So while Robinson took a huge first step, there was then, and still is now, a long way to go.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Josh Gibson and the Negro Leagues interesting or inspiring (or infuriating) and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is not an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.
- We Are The Ship, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson: a beautifully illustrated book that goes more in-depth about the Negro Leagues, telling about even more players who never had the chance they should have had.
- Page for Josh Gibson on the National Baseball Hall of Fame website: https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/gibson-josh
- “Ranking the Greatest Negro League Players Who Never Played in MLB: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2079543-ranking-the-greatest-negro-league-players-who-never-played-in-mlb#slide4
- Josh Gibson Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josh_Gibson
- Negro Leagues Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negro_league_baseball