Josh Gibson's slide into sadness

Part man, part myth, 'The Black Babe Ruth' is ranked among baseball's greatest players. He also caught his share of misery.

July 11, 1999|By Gregory Clay

THE BASEBALL SEASON is in full swing, and as we embrace and salute Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, two of the greatest single-season home-run hitters in the major leagues, we also must remember that long-forgotten slugger from the Negro Leagues: Josh Gibson.

Let's begin this remembrance with Buck O'Neil, the resident raconteur of Negro League baseball history. O'Neil, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs, remembers a poignant incident from 1942. "A guy named Lick Carlisle singled," O'Neil recalled, "then he was thrown out trying to steal second base."

Afterward, a disappointed Carlisle sauntered back to the dugout. As he returned, he sheepishly spoke to Gibson. O'Neil picks up the story again. Said O'Neil, "Carlisle told Josh, 'Man, I should have been in scoring position with a steal.' Then, Gibson told Carlisle, 'Man, when I come to the plate, I'm in scoring position.'"

That's Josh, affectionately known among Negro League players as "the Black Babe Ruth" and a fun-loving guy who was the Master of the Monster Mash. O'Neil, 86, played against Gibson from 1937 to 1946. Added O'Neil, "When you watch Mark McGwire hit a home run, you're watching Josh Gibson."

Gibson is part man, part myth. He's part Horatio Alger (from humble beginnings) and, unfortunately, part Jimi Hendrix (Gibson ended his career with severe substance-abuse problems before dying in 1947 at age 35). And Gibson is an integral focal point of apocryphal legend and lore. That's the precipitating factor here. Where does the man end and the myth begin, and how do you filter through the legend and lore to gain a grip on reality?

The reality centers around numbers. Some historians say Gibson hit 800 home runs in his career; others say 942. In fact, one figure, quoted in a book titled "Black Diamond" by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack Jr., puts the number at an astronomical 972. Because of these discrepancies, we must rely on basic memory and anecdotal recall of Negro League baseball history.

Baseball is a sport ruled and governed by statistics. This game's epicenter is numbers, numerals, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, logarithms, mathematics, algebra. That's why we have such a difficult task getting a handle on Gibson's career. By all accounts, we know that he was a great player, but the math equations simply give us monumental problems -- and questions -- when Gibson is the subject.

When they say, "Go figure," take it literally.

Case in point: John B Holway, author of "The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues," recently wrote in a contribution to the Washington Post: "The legend also says Gibson slugged 75, or even 85, home runs in one year, 942 in his career. He did not. His highest totals were 22 in 1943 and 209 for his career, because the Negro Leagues averaged only 40 or 50 league games a year. (The rest were against semipro teams.)"

O'Neil, however, vehemently disagrees. "Don't you believe it," said O'Neil, referring to the 209 figure. "People who say that Josh hit that number of home runs are only counting those games that had reporters there. Josh played more than 15 years; he hit more home runs than that. Remember, the writers didn't follow our games the way they followed the white players in the major leagues. The black-owned newspapers covered us when we came to their towns.

"When we played in New York City, the New York Amsterdam News covered our games. But if we played the New York Black Yankees in Albany, we didn't get the coverage. Look, we still played a Negro League game there."

Suppose Gibson actually hit, say, 500 home runs during his career in the Negro Leagues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, who's to say that he did not hit 1,000? Therein lies the ambiguity, not to mention dichotomy, of Josh Gibson.

Regardless, after famed pitcher Satchel Paige was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1971, the first player so honored for his Negro League achievements, Gibson was elected in 1972. "He was a great ballplayer," said Connie Johnson, 76, a former pitcher in the Negro Leagues. "He could throw, he could run and he could hit; very few catchers have great arms, and very few can run."

Gibson was a taut 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 214. "I tell you who Josh Gibson was built like?" O'Neil offered. "Bo Jackson."

So, he was Babe Ruth without the extra girth and fat, at least for most of his career. A scaled-down version, but just as strong. "I don't think there's any question that Josh Gibson was one of the greatest hitters of all time -- white or black," said Robert W. Peterson, 72, author of the book "Only the Ball Was White." "I have talked to black and white players about him. Some of the black players, in particular, say he was, indeed, the finest hitter they ever saw.

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