Over the past few months, you may have noticed on your collective social media walls people tipping their caps. This isn’t just former presidents, MLB all-stars, and other prominent VIPs giving you a friendly hello, but a campaign that began due to the absence of MLB games honoring and showing respect to the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues. Many amazing MLB players got their start in the Negro Leagues like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, & Willie Mays, while others would never get the opportunity. Most notably, arguably the greatest home run hitter of all time: Josh Gibson.
Conversation with Sean Gibson
I had a chance to catch up with Josh Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean Gibson. Sean is the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, which creates a safe haven where kids can focus on preparing for college, building successful careers, learning the game of baseball, and remembering the legacy of Josh Gibson. There are many unknowns about Josh and his 17 year career, especially his statistics, but we’re lucky to have Sean to give us the inside scoop on his great-grandfather.
Who is Josh Gibson?
Jason Barash: What was his upbringing like?
Sean Gibson: Josh was born in Georgia, just outside of Atlanta and was the oldest of 3 children. After his family found work in the Pittsburgh steel mills, they decided to call it home. Throughout his life, Josh turned to and excelled at various athletics such as swimming and track & field.
JB: How did Josh get his start in Negro League Baseball?
SG: Josh played sandlot baseball with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Hill District, a neighborhood in downtown Pittsburgh. At 16 years old, he already had made quite a name for himself as a power hitting catcher. One day he happened to be attending a Homestead Grays game just as a fan. At one point during the game, the Grays starting catcher got hurt and couldn’t continue. After spotting Gibson in the stands, the manager asked Josh to suit up and take his spot. From that day forward, the legend was born at such a young age.
JB: There are so many rumors about this: How many home runs did he actually hit?
SG: His Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown states he had almost 800 home runs. How many home runs is almost 800 home runs? 799! So that’s the answer I’m going with.
There are people who try to discredit his total by saying the record keeping wasn’t that great, maybe they were playing against semi pro teams or barnstorming. However, that was not the player’s choice, if they could have played in the majors they would have. They played where they were able to play and their numbers should not be disputed.
JB: And what was the longest home run?
He did not hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium, but he did hit the top tier. I like to joke with Babe Ruth’s great-grandson, Brent Stevens, and tell him Babe didn’t hit it that far and yet Yankee Stadium is called “the house that Ruth built.” It should be called “the house that Josh built” (laughs).
Legend has it, he hit one at Forbes Field that went into the Cathedral of Learning tower. Might be mythical but there’s truth to the power. People won’t make up stories about you if it weren’t somewhat true.
The Legend of Josh Gibson
JB: What is one of the best stories you have about the legend on the field?
SG: One time, the Philadelphia Stars were playing in Pittsburgh against the Grays. Josh hit a home run in that game but no one ever saw it land. The next day, they were playing in Philadelphia and a ball suddenly came down from the sky from the day before. The ball was caught and the umpire called Josh out.
On a personal note, my grandfather, Josh Gibson Jr. played in the Negro Leagues and after he retired they had autograph circuits with MLB players. There was a huge one in Manassass, Virginia, and I attended. All the players were hanging out afterwards and talking. Then Double Duty Radcliffe (known for his ability to pitch one game and catch the other) came up to me and said i resembled Josh. This was the first time he had told anyone this. It was such an honor.
JB: What is something many people don’t know about Josh off the field?
SG: You would think a big power hitter might be cocky and have a bad attitude, but he was quite the opposite. He was someone who was known for his generosity and his happy go lucky good sense of humor. He enjoyed life and enjoyed playing baseball. However, one tragic incident ultimately lead to his demise.
When his wife gave birth to the twins, my grandfather and great-aunt, Josh’s wife, Helen, passed away. When Josh got to the hospital he begged and pleaded with the doctor to save his wife but at that point it was too late. Josh struggled to raise twins and play baseball during such a racist time period in America. He wasn’t able to do it so Helen’s sisters took the twins and raised them for him.
The Color Barrier
JB: Josh passed away the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Was Josh being scouted by MLB teams in prior years?
SG: Not many people know this but the Homestead Grays actually played a good amount of their home games in Washington at the Senators’ field. It was the same team that played in Pittsburgh but they played some of their games in Washington. This gave the Senators management an opportunity to see and potentially sign players from the Negro Leagues. They certainly saw Josh play but still, no one took a chance on him. Josh had such a big impact on the city that there’s a statue of him right outside the park.
Additionally, with the Crawfords and Grays in Pittsburgh, there should have been Negro League players on the Pirates. There’s actually a telegram that went to Pirates management from these teams, saying we have ballplayers right here in Pittsburgh ready for the majors. It continued by saying if the Pirates signed these guys, they would have been a dynasty for a long time. Unfortunately, nobody took a chance.
After Josh died in 1947 Major League Baseball decided to take a chance on Jackie Robinson. Jackie was the perfect player for the opportunity. He was a veteran and an athlete who played 4 different sports. Though it’s scary to think if Jackie failed, how long would it have taken to select another player from the Negro Leagues? Not only did Jackie have a lot of pressure on himself to succeed but he had the pressure from the rest of the Negro Leagues and the African-American community. Once he proved himself in the Majors, he paved the way for other players like Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, & Satchel Page. This was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues.
JB: What is one thing you would want people to know about Josh, besides his power hitting ability?
SG: My grandfather Josh Gibson Jr. was a bat boy and was only 15 when his father died. I want people to know that when it comes to the Negro Leagues, we are celebrating the 100 year anniversary (Feb 13th 1920). All the things these men, like my grandfather & great-grandfather, endured dealing with racism and all they had to overcome. It’s been a long fight and here we are talking about the same things a hundred years later in 2020. I hope things change so my grandson won’t have to endure what any of my ancestors or I have.
Josh Gibson Foundation Campaigns
JB: How can people support this great organization?
SG: Due to the pandemic we were looking to celebrate the centennial this year however, all events have been postponed until 2021. For more info please visit joshgibson.org.
JB: What’s the focus of the JGF for 2020?
SG: One of the things the JGF is working on is a campaign to replace Kennesaw Mountain Landis on the MLB MVP award with Josh Gibson. Kennesaw Mountain Landis was the commissioner of baseball who actively barred African-Americans from the Major Leagues.
There are three individuals who are in the running to be placed on the award instead: Frank Robinson (won MVP in both leagues and first black manager), Branch Rickey (responsible for bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers), and Josh Gibson.
All of these men are worthy candidates but we believe Josh is most deserving of this honor for two reasons. The first of course is based on his MVP-like performance on the baseball field year after year. But more importantly, Josh was directly impacted by KML banning of African-Americans from the league. With Josh on the trophy, he could represent all the players that were denied. It would be poetic justice if this were to happen for Josh. The Baseball Writer’s Association will hold a vote later this year and will be impacted next season.
Keep The Memory Alive
It’s important to always remember these players who didn’t get a fair shot at playing Major League Baseball. Guys like Josh Gibson were certainly qualified based on their performance on the field but were held back just because of the color of their skin. While we’ve come leaps and bounds from the days of the Negro Leagues, there is still more to be done for complete equality. I’m glad to see important causes like the Josh Gibson Foundation carry on the legacy of a man known for his sheer power on the field, but his kind heart off of it. But we still can do more.
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