ROIDS IN VALHALLA: CAST YOUR BALLOT
Please cut and paste the following ballot. Vote Y for Yes, he probably used steroids or No, he probably didn’t.
Was this the greatest at bat in baseball history?
Satch vs Josh
By John B Holway
Most fans don’t know it, and probably can’t believe it, but Josh Gibson was, I am convinced, the greatest hitter of all time, black or white. He was Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb rolled into one man. Although two sluggers – Mule Suttles and Turkey Stearnes – hit more homers than he did, that’s because Josh died young. He walloped titanic homers and missed blasting one out of Yankee Stadium by two feet. He was 18 years old at the time. Twice he surpassed Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 in 540 at bats. In 1939 – and this is the truth – in the short Negro League season of 23 games, he averaged one homer per game or 108 per 550 at bats. And his target was 408 feet down the line – Babe’s was 296.
(In an integrated league Gibson would have had lower statistics of course, but so would Ruth as the best black pitchers replaced the weakest whites. Babe probably would not have hit 60 homers.)
Gibson also hit .400 several times, and ended with the highest lifetime batting average in blackball history, .356.
Here’s something else most fans don’t know and probably can’t believe: Satchel Paige was not the greatest pitcher in the Negro Leagues. Bullet Joe Rogan and Ray Brown won more games and lost less. And 12 hurlers gave up less runs per game. (The black leagues didn’t count earned runs.) However, Satch did lead everyone in strikeouts – twice as many as the next man, Rogan.
And everyone agrees: If there was one game you had to win, you’d want Satch to pitch it.
I saw these two face each other in Washington in 1945, probably the last living man to do so. I remember standing with a crowd of kids at the rail by the dugout to watch Satch warm up – he slung the ball side-arm. Across the field Josh was warming up his own pitcher, tossing his head to laugh now and then like a beardless black Santa. The only other thing I remember is that Satch pitched two or three innings, and Josh didn’t hit a homer. Did rookie Jackie Robinson play shortstop? His name meant nothing to me. Cool Papa Bell probably played center, but I hadn’t heard of him yet either.
In the 1930s Josh and Satch had been teammates on the Pittsburgh Crawfords before they went to different leagues – Paige to the Kansas City Monarchs, and Gibson to the Washington Homestead Grays. They were intense rivals.
Josh told a Pittsburgh Courier reporter: Why don’t you ask me how I think I’ll do when I face Satchel Paige? I look to get an even break, two out of four, if his manager don’t say, “Put him on.”
Paige remembered wryly:
He said, “One of these days I’m gonna be against you, and shame on you. I’m gonna have my family there,” and blab-blab-blab.
Halfway through the 1942 season, a flurry of excitement seized black fans and players. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phils reportedly offered a tryout to Roy Campanella and other Negro League stars. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith called Josh in to talk about a tryout. The older guys scoffed that it was a lot of bunk, but Josh replied, “Ah, they wouldn’t kid about an important thing like that.” But he never heard from Griffith again.
Paige, who was 38, never got even that far. If he and Josh had publicly protested the snubs, would they have made it difficult – perhaps impossible – for Jackie Robinson to get his offer three years later? Anyway, that was the beginning of Gibson’s alcohol problem that would kill him at the age of 35. Otherwise he probably would have gone to Cleveland with Satchel in 1948.
In June 1942 Paige and the Monarchs traveled to Washington, where they lost to the Grays 2-1 in 12 innings, though Gibson was 0-for-3. Satch came back a month later and lost another close one, 5-4; again Josh went 0-for-5. Paige ended the year with a 14-8 mark. Gibson led in homers again, though his batting average dipped to .323.
In September the two clashed again in the black World Series.
Game 1. Playing in a drizzle before 24,000 fans in Washington, Satchel wanted revenge for his earlier defeats. The Monarchs’ Buck O’Neil says Satch was a tenacious competitor in everything – baseball, cards, or pitching pennies:
Satchel wanted to pitch to Josh in a tough situation, so all the focus would be on them. He lived for these situations.
Josh led off the second.
Catcher Joe Greene:
Satchel came walking half-way in, said, “You been talkin’ ‘bout the way you hit me. Come on up here, you big so-and-so, see how you can hit my fast one.” Naturally, Josh was looking for a curve ball, but Satch blazed number-one, a, fastball, right down the middle. Josh looked at it.
Manager Frank Duncan said Paige taunted Gibson:
“Look at you. You’re not ready up there. Come on up to the plate. You can’t hit with your bat on your shoulder. Don’t be scared.
“I’m ready!” Josh said testily. “Throw it!”
Satchel said, “Get ready to hit; you can’t hit with your bat on your shoulder. I’m not gonna waste anything on you.”
He threw another fastball, and Josh looked at it for strike three, and the crowd just roared. They wanted to see those two tangle up.
Paige gave up two hits in five innings. He got a scare in the fourth, however. With two men on, Gibson smashed a 420-foot drive to left-center, where another great slugger, Willard Brown, pulled it down. (Brown would play briefly with the St Louis Browns in 1947.)
The Series resumed in Pittsburgh two days later. The night before the game, O’Neil said, Satch and Josh met at opposite ends of Pittsburgh’s Crawford Grille bar and traded taunts about what each was going to do to the other
Game 2. On another drizzly night the Monarchs’ Hilton Smith turned a 2-0 lead over to Paige in the seventh. Satch gave up a single, then yelled to Buck O’Neil at first base:
Heh, Nancy! I’m gonna put Harris on, I’m gonna put Easterling on. I’m gonna pitch to Josh!”
“You gotta be crazy!” O’Neil said.
Duncan bolted from the dugout. Owner JL Wilkinson vaulted over the rail onto the field. The whole team ran to the mound, waving and shouting.
Mr Wilkinson said, “are you losing your mind?! What in the world is going on here?” Frank Duncans – he didn’t know what to say. They said. “Don’t you know that’s Josh Gibson up there?”
I said, “I’ll get Josh out. He told me once in Porta Rica he was gonna have his family out to the park, and it was gonna be “Shame on me.” So I fixed it like that today.”
When I told them, they just laughed, said, “Well, this is your funeral.”
It took me 20 minutes to start the game again. The bases were drunk, and there was Josh up there.
He told Gibson:
“Now, I’m not gonna trick you. I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna give you a good fastball. I’m not gonna throw you smoke at the yoke [high], I’m gonna throw you bees at the knees.”
I wound up and stuck my foot way up in the air. It hid the ball and almost hid me too. Then I fired.
It was a knee-high strike.
“Now I’m gonna throw you another fastball. I’m not gonna trick you. Only it’s gonna be a little higher than the first one.”
Josh fouled the next two off.
One more to go. I knew it. Josh knew it. The crowd knew it. It was so tense you could feel everything jingling. . . . . He got back in, he was looking for a fastball.
I noticed Josh set his left foot closer to the plate, to hit that outside pitch. I told him: “You know you don’t hit like that. Get your foot back.”
The last one was a three-quarter side-arm curve ball, knee-high on the outside corner – strike three.
The last one was a three-quarter side-arm curve ball, knee-high on the outside corner.
Josh threw that bat of his 4,000 feet in the air and stomped off the field.
Satch himself boogeyed off the mound.
If this had happened in mainstream white baseball, it would have topped Ruth’s World Series called shot as the iconic crowning moment in baseball history.
(Next summer, at the black All Star Game, Josh smashed one off Satchel into the centerfield loudspeaker at Comiskey Park.)
And the white world never knew a thing about any of it..