PITTSBURGH -- Sean Gibson had plans Wednesday afternoon. He was going to join general manager Ben Cherington and several other Pirates officials out in the community, handing out holiday gifts on behalf of Pirates Charities and the Josh Gibson Foundation. Then a winter snowstorm blanketed the city in nearly 10 inches of snow, the fifth-largest December snowfall event in Pittsburgh’s recorded history.
So instead, Gibson spent the entire day inside, on the phone. Fortunately, he had plenty of good news to talk about.
On Wednesday morning, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred bestowed Major League status upon seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and ’48, which he called a “long overdue recognition.” That announcement was particularly meaningful for Gibson, the great-grandson of Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson, and the families of approximately 3,400 players who were denied the opportunity to play in the American League and National League due to racial segregation.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Sean Gibson said Thursday afternoon.
All those players, along with their statistics and records, are now an official part of Major League history. That includes Josh Gibson, a Hall of Famer known as the “Black Babe Ruth” whose plaque in Cooperstown describes him as the Negro Leagues’ “greatest slugger.” Soon, he should take his rightful place high atop many of the Majors’ statistical leaderboards.
“Those guys always felt they were Major League baseball players,” Sean Gibson said. “If Josh was alive right now, don’t get me wrong, he’d be excited about it. But these guys played the game of baseball just like the white players did and did it just as well as the white players. Now that Major League Baseball is officially going to recognize the league, believe me, it’s a great honor. But these guys already felt they were Major League baseball players because they played the game just like they did. Just unfortunately, they could not play against the white baseball players because of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
“For Josh, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell -- all those guys will be recognized as well. It’s going to take away from some other great baseball players, but as somebody told me today, that’s what records are for. Records are meant to be broken. That’s what Josh is going to do. He’s definitely going to shake up the MLB stats because of his greatness playing in the Negro Leagues.”
It's yet to be determined exactly which records Josh Gibson’s incredible career statistics will change, as MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau have just begun the review process. He likely won’t become the all-time home run leader despite the “almost 800 home runs” he hit over 17 years in the Negro Leagues and independent ball, according to his Hall of Fame plaque, because only his Negro National League numbers will be considered.
But Gibson could realistically become the Majors’ new single-season batting average leader; he hit .466 for the Homestead Grays in 1943. He finished his Negro Leagues career with a .361 average, which would rank second all-time behind Ty Cobb’s .367 mark. His .442 career on-base percentage would rank in the top 10, and his 200 OPS+ would be the second-best ever behind only Ruth's 206.
Cherington said he learned about Negro Leagues players like Gibson as a kid, but his understanding of their talent and greatness on the field was reinforced while working with the Red Sox after conversations with influential baseball historian and statistician Bill James. He echoed Sean Gibson’s comments that this acknowledgement was overdue, because those who played in the Negro Leagues were among the best in the world at what they did.
“I remember [James] telling stories about Josh Gibson, and in his belief, had he played for the Yankees or the Red Sox at the time in his prime, he would’ve been the best player in the league based on his analysis,” Cherington said. “It’s great to see this kind of recognition is happening. As Sean said before, declaring the Negro League as a Major League for record-keeping purposes is great and probably should have happened a while ago. But it was a Major League, you know? It was always a Major League.”
Gibson caught for both of Pittsburgh’s Negro League teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, and his grave is located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood’s Allegheny Cemetery. He died on Jan. 20, 1947, three months before Jackie Robinson made history with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Sean Gibson, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is now doing his part to keep his family’s legacy alive in this city. He runs the Josh Gibson Foundation to provide athletic, academic and mentoring programs for children in the city. Still overwhelmed with calls and interview requests on Thursday, Gibson teamed up with Cherington and a few other members of the Pirates’ front office to deliver carloads of holiday gifts from a local family’s wish list.
“The city has embraced Josh. I can say one thing about the city of Pittsburgh: They love sports,” Gibson said earlier this offseason. “Whether it’s the Steelers, Penguins or the Pirates, and they recognize the Negro Leagues as well, especially Josh Gibson. We really appreciate that.”
Now, there is another area in which Gibson is looking for support from Pittsburgh: the renaming of MLB’s Most Valuable Player Awards in honor of Josh Gibson.
In October, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted to remove the name of Landis, the Commissioner who kept baseball segregated from 1920-44, from its MVP plaques. There could be a new namesake chosen next year, and Sean Gibson would like to see it be his great-grandfather. On Thursday, he wore a T-shirt featuring the name of his campaign: JG20MVP.
“Our story about Josh Gibson is more redemption. It’s about poetic justice,” Gibson said. “Here we have Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who denied African Americans an opportunity to play baseball. How great, or ironic, would it be to have someone he denied replace his name -- someone like Josh Gibson?”
The Pirates offered their endorsement, with team spokesman Brian Warecki saying in a statement, “The Pirates are enthusiastically supporting the idea of renaming the MVP Award after Josh Gibson, as he was one of the greatest players to ever play the game of baseball. We would applaud such action in order to ensure that future generations are educated on his lasting impact on our game.”
Sean Gibson said such a change would not simply be a way to remember Josh Gibson, however. It would be a tribute representing the names and legacies of the thousands of players who were officially recognized on Wednesday as the Major League players they always were.
“It’s not just about Josh Gibson. It’s about all the great players who were denied from 1920 to 1944 the opportunity to play in the Majors,” Sean Gibson said. “So if this award comes to [be named after] Josh Gibson, believe me, I’ll be celebrating with a lot of other family members who were denied the opportunity for their relatives to be in the Major Leagues.”