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All Time Lists: 20 Greatest Players of the Negro Leagues

Greatest Negro Leagues team in history? 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords. Standing: Benny Jones, L.D. Livingston, Satchel Paige*, Josh Gibson*, Ray Williams, Walter Cannady, Cy Perkins, Oscar Charleston*. Kneeling: Sam Streeter, Chester Williams, Harry Williams, Harry Kincannon, Henry Spearman, Jimmie Crutchfield, Bobby Williams, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. (*Hall of Fame)
Josh Gibson (Photo Credit: Harrison Studio)
Josh Gibson (Photo Credit: Harrison Studio)

Josh Gibson, Catcher

Joshua “Josh” Gibson (c. December 21, 1911 – January 20, 1947) was a Negro League catcher and considered to be one of the best hitters in all of baseball, including the Major Leagues. He was known during his heyday as the “Black Babe Ruth.” In fact, some who had seen both Gibson and Ruth play considered Ruth to be a “white Josh Gibson.”

Raised in Buena Vista, Georgia, he moved as a youth with his family to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was recruited there in 1928 by the then semi-pro Pittsburgh Crawfords and was on the team when it joined the professional Negro League. In 1930, he was stolen by the Homestead Grays, also in Pittsburgh, then the preeminent Negro league team.

During the era, the Negro Leagues often played barnstorming and semi-professional exhibition teams, so firm records are incomplete. For example, in 1934 Gibson hit 11 home runs in 52 games, but overall he hit 69 home runs that year. In 1933, he hit .457 with 55 home runs in 137 games. His lifetime batting average is said to be higher than .350, with some stating it was the best in Negro League history at .384. His plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame attests that he hit “almost 800 home runs in league and independent games in his 17-year career.”

A great power hitter, he slugged one ball during an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the center field bleachers, about 580 feet. He also reportedly hit another homer still rising over third base, and then all the way out of the stadium, the only time a baseball had be a fair ball all the way out of it. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into the left field bleachers that the entire American League combined.

Gibson developed a brain tumor in 1943 and fell into a coma. Although he recovered and continued to play well in 1945 and 1946, he died on a stroke in 1947. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 and honored by the U. S. Postal System in their series on Negro League stamps in 2009.

Had he not suffered the tumor, fate might have played a different role for Gibson. His friend, Larry Doby, felt that Gibson was the best player in the league at the time, was quoted as saying later “One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jack [Robinson] was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that’s one of the reasons why Josh died so early – he was heartbroken.”

Gibson was also honored posthumously as 18th on the list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, with a bronze statue inside the center field gate of the new Washington Nationals Park, and the renaming of the field at 2217 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh, as “John Gibson Field.” He was also portrayed by Mykelti Williamson in the made-for-cable film “Soul of the Game” and was the inspiration for the character of Leon Carter (played by James Earl Jones) in “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.”

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