JOSH GIBSON, WORLD’S GREATEST HITTER
John B Holway
If Josh Gibson had played in the American league, Babe Ruth’s home run record might not have lasted a dozen years. In 1939 against top Negro League teams, Josh smashed 23 in only 117 at bats. That’s 98 per 550! Babe’s record was 60 in 540 AB. Josh’s target was 408 feet down the line in Washington; Babe’s was 296 feet in New York.
And remember: Babe would not have hit 60 in an integrated league, where Bullet Rogan, Smoky Joe Williams, Satchel Paige, and Bill Foster would have replaced the weakest white pitchers. Ruth hit seven against one man, Tom Zachary. If Tom had lost his job to one of the blacks above, Babe might have ended up with 53. (And who knows? The black Mule Suttles might have hit 54.)
He was 18 years old at the time.
A week later Josh hit the first ball ever over the centerfield fence at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, a 457-foot blast. It’s been done only four other times – by Negro Leaguer Oscar Charleston, Mickey Mantle, Dick Stuart, and Gibson himself.
When Ted Williams was a rookie in 1939, on his first trip around the American League, the old-timers pointed out: “See up there? Josh Gibson hit one there. . . . See over there? Gibson hit one over that.”
Ted wanted to be the greatest hitter ever. He came close, but I think Josh is first.
And, laughs Double Duty Radcliff, “We weren’t using a regulation big league ball. If we did, Josh would have killed somebody!”
How good were the Negro leagues? In almost 50 years of playing the best white stars, the blacks won just over half the games. And the whites weren’t loafing; they were embarrassed to lose before a park full of fans, black or white. I have newspaper box scores of three games Lefty Grove lost to black teams. When I asked him about them, he looked me in the eye and said, “I never pitched against black teams.”
Gibson was far more than a slugger. He was Ruth and Ty Cobb, rolled into one. His lifetime batting average of .366 puts him at the top of all Negro league batters. He went over .400 four times, with a high of .466.
One Gibson blow in Puerto Rico was estimated at 525-575 feet, against the wind. In 1938 he blasted one a measured 536 feet in Monessen Pennsylvania. Five days earlier he smashed four in one game.
In 1943 Gibson slammed ten balls into the distant Washington bleachers in 40 games. The entire American League, which shared the park, hit only one out there in 77 games.
Had Josh played in Ebbetts Field, the Polo Grounds, etc, his totals would have been even higher. The insert shows Ebbetts fitting neatly into Griffith Stadium (right). Fenway – the dark line in leftfield – might have hurt him. He was a line-drive hitter and would have drilled bullets through the wall instead of homers over it.
If they pitched him outside, Gibson was so strong he could one-hand curves over the right field fence.
Some stories about him are myths, such as 962 homers, lifetime. However, Josh averaged 45 homers per 550 at bats; Hank Aaron, 33. If Gibson had as many at bats as Aaron (12,364), he would have hit 989 home runs.
Another myth – 84 homers in 1931. Researcher Phil Dixon found every game he played that year, including semipro games. The total: 34 homers. Fifteen of them came against major black teams, putting Gibson, still only 19, second among league sluggers that season.
In 17 years his teams won 12 pennants. This editor credits him with seven MVPs.
Josh played 18 games against Dizzy Dean, Johnny Vander Meer and other big leaguers, who held him to .333 and only two homers. Dean said he gave up a third one to Josh, but proof has not yet been found. I don’t know why Gibson’s homers were so low, but .333 is better than any white catcher.
Defensively, Josh had a good arm and called several pitching gems by Smoky Joe Williams and Ray Brown (on the left). Brown won more games than Paige and lost less; he and Josh may have been the greatest battery in history. (Gibson and Paige were teammates a couple years in Pittsburgh, but Bill Perkins caught Satchel.)
Actually, Josh was a much better hitter when he wasn’t catching. Researchers Scott Simkus and Gary Ashwill divided Gibson’s 1933 games between catching and other positions:
hr/550 ab ba
catcher 29 .365
1b,3b,lf 66 .493
Suppose he had never played catcher. What would his life-time batting totals have been?
Outfielder Ted Page of the Craws (no relation to Satchel) said that as a kid, Josh didn’t follow the older guys to bars after the games. Instead, he and Page bought ice cream cones and played pick-up games with kids.
On the buses, while the others were sleeping, Josh waited until they entered a tunnel, then he blew into a paper bag and smashed it with a bang. The others shot three feet above their seats as he laughed crazily.
Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith used to sit on the bench and ask, “You gonna hit a homer for me today, Josh?”
“I’ll try, Mr. Griffith,” he said.
But there’s a sad side to his story also. Teammates found him sitting on a windowsill mumbling, “Talk to me, Joe. Why don’t you talk to me? Huh, Joe? Huh?” They pulled him inside and realized he was talking to Joe DiMaggio.
In 1942, newspapers reported a move to open the white big league doors. “That’s a lot of BS,” the old-timers sneered, but Josh only said, “Aw, they wouldn’t joke about a serious thing like that.”
Griffith called him and teammate Buck Leonard into his office. Imagine Josh, Buck, Brown, and Cool Papa Bell, with white Senators Bobo Newsom, Dutch Leonard, Mickey Vernon, and George Case. It would have cost Griffith pennies, and they might have challenged the Yankees. Instead, he just said, “If I take you, it will break up your league.”
They never heard from him again.
The once happy-go-lucky kid turned to drugs. He was in and out of a mental institution “like a drunken monkey,” Leonard said. His average fell to .323.
I saw Josh and Satch face each other before a packed house in Washington in 1945. I crowded against the rail to watch them each warm up before the game and remember Josh throwing his head back to laugh. But, alas, he didn’t hit a homer for me.
(I think Jackie Robinson played for Kansas City that night, but his name wouldn’t have meant anything to me if he had, and there were no scorecards or a box score.)
See my earlier post of their epic showdown in the 1942 black World Series. Click on “Josh vs Satch” under “Archives” on our cover page.
Drugs cost Gibson a shot with Paige on the Cleveland Indians in 1948.
In the winter of ’47 Page bumped into him on a windy street corner. They wrestled and punched arms, and Josh returned home with a headache. He called for all his trophies and died with them in his arms.
If he didn’t die of a broken heart, friends say, he died with one.
With Ray Dandridge With Mrs Joe Louis In Puerto Rico
b.12/21/11 Buena Vista GA, d. 1/23/47 Pittsburgh, BR TR 6’2 217
Hall of Fame 1972
G AB H 2B 3B HR HR% BA SB psn
1930 HOM Grays 21 71 24 2 0 5 36 .338 1 c
1931 38 161 44 12 5 10 34 .270 0 c,of
1932 PIT a 97 347 114 23* 8 14* 23 .329 1 c,of
1933 88 338 120 22 11 25* 38 .355 2 c,1b
1934 PIT,HOM – 314 97 16* 4 20* 25 .309 2 c
1935 W 64 242 92 11 2 22 50 .380 7 #
1936 W 55 183 71 6 3 16 48* .388 2 c,rf
1937 HOM W – 187 86 7 6* 24* 59 .460* 1 c
1938 HOM,MEM b 34 127 55 4 2 17 34 .438 1 @
1939 WAS, Hom W 36 117 41 4 4 23* 108* .350 3 c
1940 Mx 4 12 2 0 0 1 46 .167 1
1942 WAS 59 186 60 8 1 12* 35 .323 3 c
1943 W 81 298 139 34 13 24 44* .466* 4
1944 W 77 248 89 7 12* 18* 40* .359 1 c
1945 30 103 35 3 4 6* 25* .340 0 c
1946 W 55 146 59 11* 4 14* 53* .404 0 c
– 3080 1128 1706 79 251*45* .366* 29
Baseball Reference 1855 666 109 40 115 34 .359 22
Compiled by John B Holway. Colored numbers in italics are courtesy of the Hall of Fame (130, ’34), Gary Ashwill (1932), and Scott Simkus (1943).
HR% is home runs per 550 at bats
An appendicitis operation in spring
mx spent most of season in Mexico
W Fleet Walker Award (MVP)
* led league
You can still see Gibson’s statue at Nationals Park in Washington
To order a copy, click on “Purchase Books” on the website or click on the book.
New Hall of Fame Committee
It’s the Pre-Integration Era Committee, which has just considered its first ten candidates.
All of them were white!
What’s going on here?
Baseball has refused to consider any more blacks from that era. It made a welcome effort in 2006 by naming 17. Then it firmly closed its doors again. It has now opened a door – but again it hung a large “WHITES ONLY” sign on it.
The ten nominees included such “immortals” as Doc Adams (!?), Bill Dahlen, and Harry Stovey.
John Beckwith, (left), one of the most feared long-ball hitters of the 1920s. His lifetime .354 average is second only to Gibson.
William Bell, #3 on the life-time victories list.
Ed Bolden, founder of the Eastern Colored League, who built the Philadelphia Hilldales into one of ball hNip Winters – best Negro league record of all time: 28-5 (in an 85-game season), plus 3-1 in the World Series, in 1924.
Dick Lundy – one of the three top Negro league shortstops.
Some say the top.
Bill Byrd – one of the all-time top winners
George Scales – played three infield positions; among the leaders in batting and homers.
Leroy Matlock – won 21 straight games, including18-0 in one year.
Webster McDonald – boasted a 14-2 record vs white big leaguers.
Bill Holland – won 100 games (equivalent to 300 in the short Negro league season) though pitching ten years with a lAnd speaking of great careers before integration, why were the following left out?
Johnny Pesky. Also gave up three prime years to the Navy or he’d join Cece and Honus as the three best-hitting shortstops in history.
Dom DiMaggio. Greatest outfielder I ever saw, and that includes Joe. Give him his three war-time years back, and he had Richie Ashburn numbers.
The Nats Weren’t Listening
The Nationals traded away their second-best clutch-hitter as measured by TOGARs (Tying or Go Ahead Runs) – Yunel Escobar. I assume they didn’t read our post that only Bryce Harper scored or batted in more of them.
World Series Busts
While I am thankful that you mentioned my comment on Dick Sisler in the 1950 World Series, the insensitivity to belles lettres agonizes my sensitive soul. How dare you contend that the son of “Gorgeous George” “wasn’t famous enough” to merit inclusion on your list of World Series flops?
Oh, if only Ernest Hemingway were here, he would abandon Hugh Casey as his favorite boxing foe and happily pummel you into baseball oblivion! The Old Man and the Sea – which won Ernie the Nobel – enjoys special impact because of Dick. To suggest young Sisler lacks luster because of his dismal performance during the thrashing of “The Whiz Kids” by the Yankees is sacrilege. I am tempted to alert Frank DeFord and George Will, baseball authorities and prose stylists, who would bombard you linguistically.
But Christmas charity visits my soul, and I shall allow you to escape. Be warned, however: Insensitivity to belles lettres is unacceptable in a revered sport.
Happy New Year! May the Force be with you during the next twelve months!
Dr. Bob Reising
See a Great Movie
Concussion. Dr Bennet Omalu of Nigeria (Will Smith) cut open the cadaver of a 50-year old derelict, a former star of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It began a trail of medical sleuthing that led to overwhelming evidence that brain damage is the killer of many NFL players.
The NFL replied with a full-scale war against him.
Another great film, “Spotlight,” takes on the Catholic Church. But the NFL is even more powerful. One character remarks that Sunday used to belong to the church, it now it belongs to the NFL.
The story also echoes the bitter wars waged by big tobacco and big oil and coal against their critics.
The NFL eventually paid damages to 70 players who brought law suits based on Omalu’s research.
I think this film deserves the Oscar.
There’s a Big World
Outside the Stadium
America has the 6th and 7th Fleets, thousands of long-range bombers, hundreds of thousands of fighting men, and enough A-bombs to destroy our planet plus Mars and Venus. Talk about weapons of mass destruction.
Yet all that power could not protect us when one young woman and her husband, wielding rifles, killed 14 people. Many politicians dove under their desks, cowering with fear and shouting hysterically.
Does anyone know why ISIS wants to kill us? I don’t mean my opinion or your opinion. Have we ever asked them?
More than 50,000 Americans died in Viet Nam, and many, many more Vietnamese. Yet when I was there a few years ago, I walked around in perfect safety; nobody wanted to kill me, and I didn’t want to kill anybody.
I can say the same about China, Germany and Japan. All of them have been much more prosperous since the killing stopped than they had been before it began
So why did we do it?
In Vietnam we were told that if we didn’t stop communism, dominoes would fall all the way to India. Well, we didn’t stop it, and they didn’t fall.
A few years after the war, our Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, sat down with the Viet Nam secretary. “We thought you wanted to return us to France as a colony.” he said.
“We didn’t care about France,” McNamara said. “We thought you were a puppet of China.”
“Are you crazy? We hate China; we’ve been fighting them for a thousand years.”
Rows of white crosses in Arlington silently remind us of the stupidity of mutual mass murder before we know why we’re doing it.