Okay, so maybe I’m not finished talking about Negro League baseball, after all. I was thinking about that great hitter Josh Gibson who I discussed last week. Not only a fearsome homerun hitter but the best catcher that ever played the game and, yes, I’m including Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra.
And what a way to start his career. Here’s how it went.
In 1930, as the story goes, Gibson was a spectator at a game in which Homestead Grays catcher Buck Ewing sustained an injury after misjudging a pitch under the low lighting in a game against the Kansas City Monarchs. An 18-year-old Gibson, who by that time had established a reputation in semi-pro games, was asked to suit up as a replacement. With that, a great baseball career was launched. He hit 75 home runs in 1931. In 1933, he had 55 home runs and 239 RBI!
Barry Bonds even suggested he doesn't own the single-season standard, despite his 73 home runs in 2001.
"No, in my heart it belongs to Josh Gibson," Bonds said in July 2003, referring to Gibson's 84 homers in 1936. "Why doesn't that count? Why don't any of those statistics count? ... If Josh Gibson is the home run king, recognize it."
Major League pitcher Bob Feller once called Josh Gibson the most terrifying hitter he ever faced. Gibson was given the nickname “the Black Babe Ruth.” When Ruth was told that, he responded, “Yeah, you guys don’t realize it but that is an honor to ME.” Some fans took to calling Ruth “the white Josh Gibson.”
Satchel Paige, who spent a lot of time on the mound in the Negro Leagues, said, “Josh was the greatest hitter I ever pitched to.”
Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who split his career between the Negro Leagues and Major League, said that both Willie Mays (a former teammate) and Hank Aaron (a former opponent) “were no Josh Gibson.”
Hall of Fame Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, describing how Gibson pushed him to third base when they played together, said, “Everything I could do, Josh could do better.”
Legendary big league pitcher Walter Johnson, lamenting Gibson’s exclusion from white baseball, said of Gibson: “He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle.”
Gibson has lived up to the legend. We may never be able to find and chart all of his 800+ home runs. However, every year more of his actual results are being discovered and the picture being painted is of a player who earned every bit of the legend.
There was the time Gibson hit a line drive inches above pitcher Satchel Paige's head during a game at Yankee Stadium -- and the ball zoomed over the center-field wall. Or the time Gibson knocked a speaker off the roof at old Comiskey Park with a searing shot to right-center. Or the many times Gibson's blasts scattered kids perched in trees beyond the center-field fence at Griffith Stadium, a good 500 feet from home plate.
Once, when a Kansas City Monarchs player asked if a broken bat belonged to Gibson, he replied, "I don't break bats, I wear 'em out."
One day during the 1930s the Pittsburgh Crawfords were playing at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where their young catcher, Josh Gibson, hit the ball so high and so far that no one saw it come down. After scanning the sky carefully for a few minutes, the umpire deliberated and ruled it a home run. The next day, the Crawfords were playing in Philadelphia, when suddenly a ball dropped out of the heavens and was caught by the startled center fielder on the opposing club. Pointing to Gibson he shouted, "Yer out—yesterday in Pittsburgh!"
Not only did Josh hit the ball completely out of Yankee Stadium, as I mentioned last week, he was always hitting line-drive homers, not like Ruth’s moonshot homers. In one game, Gibson was at bat against Slim Jones. On one pitch, Jones fooled Josh so badly that Josh let one hand go from the bat. He still connected and drove the ball over the left-field wall. A one-handed homerun.
I would have given anything to see Josh and Satchel Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell play.
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