Josh Gibson, Negro League superstar

Josh Gibson, Negro League

Josh Gibson was big and he was strong, “built like sheet metal. If you ran into him it was like you ran into a wall.” That brawn translated well to sports, baseball in particular, a sport in which some considered Josh the best hitter of his time. Maybe even the best ever. Some said he was the “black Babe Ruth.” Others said Babe was the “white Josh Gibson.” One baseball star simply said that Josh was “the greatest ballplayer I ever saw.”

Now, the fact that Josh was black shouldn’t matter. But it does. For Josh spent his entire career playing in the Negro League or baseball leagues abroad. He never got his chance to play in the Major Leagues. For his many accolades, all his home runs, including the rumored 580-foot home run he once hit in Yankee Stadium that landed just two feet from the top of the bleacher wall, a baseball coach summed it up by saying,

There is a catcher that any big league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is 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. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.” 

Still, regardless of which league he played in, Josh Gibson was something special.

Before his life of legendary feats, Josh grew up in Buena Vista, Georgia, until he was about twelve, and then he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At fifteen, he began working in the steel mines with his father to help support the family. Josh was already big, about 6’1″ and 200 pounds, and he had wide shoulders; he was a boy in years but a man who had earned the respect of those around him. 

In those early years, the sport Josh loved was swimming. But it was in baseball that a career began when he was sixteen years old. He grew quickly in the sport as he had so much talent, and his upbringing showed him the importance of being focused and working hard. Fame came soon – which Josh handled well. He was quiet, confident, humble. As one man described Josh: “Nobody could criticize his personality. Next to hitting, I think he liked eating ice cream more than anything else in the world.”

Yet, while he had fame, money, and a unique talent, Josh went through a life experience that left him with a broken heart. His wife, Helen, whom Josh loved dearly, died during childbirth in 1930. As described by one person observing Josh,

“I just thought that when Helen died, it looked like it took some of the energy out of him. That enthusiasm he had for life was gone. I don’t think he was ever the same.”

After Helen’s death, Josh turned his attention to baseball, where he continued to thrive. His legend grew. As one man remarked, “If someone had told me that Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them.” 

In 1943, Josh suffered a brain tumor. He survived. But then, in January 1947, Josh passed away after a stroke. Three months later, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern Major League Baseball history. 

In 1972, Josh’s remarkable career was posthumously honored with an induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Notes:

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  • Story updated on January 15, 2024.

Josh Gibson, Negro League superstar sources:

  • James Banks, The Pittsburgh Crawfords: The Lives and Times of Black Baseball’s Most Exciting Team (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, Publishers, 1991), 48.
  • Mark Ribowsky, Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 30.