In honor of Black History Month, The Athletes Hub will highlight and recognize African-American athletes who made significant contributions to their respective sport and paved the way for other black athletes to succeed where they previously weren’t allowed to.
Baseball is America’s National Pastime. It is a sport that has been there when Americans needed it. However, there was a time when baseball wasn’t as inclusive as it is today, despite one of Baseball’s earliest players, Moses Fleetwood Walker, being black.
Before Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, black baseball players were barred from playing in the Major Leagues. They often played ball in the Negro Baseball League, a league that was predominantly black. This league was often viewed as “less” than the Majors, however, it produced a few legends.
Enter the story of catcher Josh Gibson.
Despite not having an education above a ninth grade level, Gibson became one of Baseball’s all time great players. Although his official career statistics aren’t exactly known, due to the Negro Leagues not keeping complete game statistics, baseball historians often consider Gibson to be one of the best power hitters in the history of the entire sport. Throughout his 17-year career, including vs. semi-pro teams, it is believed he hit somewhere between 800-1000 home runs. His batting average is said to be somewhere between .350 and .384 (The Pro Baseball Hall of Fame has it listed as .359), yet the remarkable career of Josh Gibson failed to accomplish one thing:
He was never able to play in the major leagues.
Gibson’s career started by a bit of happenstance. Already well known around the Pittsburgh area, the Homestead Grays invited Gibson to replace catcher Buck Ewing on July 25, 1930 while Gibson was attending the game. Ewing had injured his hand, and the Grays were in need of someone behind the plate.
“If someone had told me Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them,” Cleveland Buckeyes center fielder Sam Jethroe once said. Another Cleveland Buckeyes alum sang Gibson’s praises. Former pitcher and manager Alonzo Boone had this to say about the future Hall of Famer:
“Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I’ve ever seen. Anything he touched was hit hard. He could power outside pitches to right field. Shortstops would move to left field when Josh came to the plate.“
Gibson’s most legendary feats seem to have occurred at Yankee Stadium. In 1967, The Sporting News claimed Gibson had belted a 580-foot homer that landed two feet from the top of the bleacher wall. Another claim credits Gibson of uncorking one over the left field wall and out of the stadium entirely.
In 1947, Gibson passed away at the young age of 35 due to a stroke. He was the second Negro League player inducted into the Hall of Fame, as he was enshrined in 1972.
The career of Gibson helped prove to many major league owners that black athletes can play. In 1947, the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, and later that year, Larry Doby broke through with the Cleveland Indians. The color barrier was broken, and black stars like Reggie Jackson, Tim Raines, Dave Winfield, and Frank Thomas emerged.
We honor Gibson for the work he did to help, albeit indirectly, break Baseball’s color barrier and allow black athletes a chance to shine. We also honor Gibson for the individual achievements, including leading the Homestead Grays to consecutive Negro World Series titles in 1943 and 1944.
Photo Credit: AP