Josh Gibson: A larger-than-life legend

December 21st, 2022

A version of this story originally ran in February 2020.

Josh Gibson left a lasting mark on baseball history.

An imposing presence both behind the plate and at it, Gibson is considered one of the most fearsome sluggers to ever grab a bat. A star in the Negro Leagues in the two decades before integration, Gibson terrorized pitchers wherever he went, including throughout Latin America during winter league play.

Many decades later, there is still much about Gibson that is not known, but his larger-than-life persona lives on in old stories, and the statistics culled from his years playing in a segregated world.

To mark Gibson's birthday, here are some key points to know about Gibson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

• In the course of baseball history, how many fans sitting in the stands have shouted that they could do better than the bum out there on the field, if only given the chance? Very few of them, if any, have ever been correct. But someone emerging from the crowd and becoming a star is perhaps not unprecedented.

In 1930, as the story goes, Gibson was a spectator at a game in which Homestead Grays catcher Buck Ewing sustained an injury. An 18-year-old Gibson, who by that time had established a reputation in semipro games, was asked to suit up as a replacement. With that, a great baseball career was launched.

• Gibson earned the moniker of “the Black Babe Ruth,” and like the Great Bambino, his prodigious wallops were the stuff of legend. That’s both in terms of the grandiosity of the stories, and in their questionable veracity. Did Ruth really call his shot? Did he really hit a ball 587 feet one spring day in Tampa, Fla.? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s fun to believe.

Gibson is even more shrouded in myth, given the fact that he played in the Negro Leagues, for which data is incomplete, with teams having played rambling schedules against a variety of competition. Many accounts exist of Gibson making the old Yankee Stadium seem small, supposedly hitting a ball 580 feet into the upper reaches of the bleachers, or knocking the ball out of the ballpark completely. There may have been some exaggeration involved in those tales, as there often are about events that predated modern TV broadcasts and record keeping. But there’s no question Gibson could demolish a baseball.

• One major difference between Ruth and Gibson: Everyone knows the exact number of big flies the Sultan of Swat swatted in his best season (60) and overall (714) in the Majors. Nobody knows how many Gibson launched in his sprawling baseball career. His Hall of Fame plaque posits that he “hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career,” though only a small percentage of those are official. Other estimates range lower or higher -- even up toward four digits -- but the true number is a mystery.

But we know plenty, thanks to the tireless work of researchers who have devoted themselves to piecing together the statistical record of the Negro Leagues, which were finally recognized with "Major League" status by MLB in 2020. We know, for example, that based on the confirmed data, Gibson led the Negro National League in homers 11 times -- nearly every season in which he played. His 239 big flies lead all players in the Seamheads Negro Leagues database, while his NNL rate of a homer every 13.1 at-bats would put him behind only Ruth, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds on the all-time list.

• The late Buck O’Neil was around the game his entire life, including as a player and manager in the Negro Leagues, and a coach and scout in the Majors. O’Neil famously said in interviews there was a certain sound -- of ball hitting lumber -- that he heard only a few times. The first came from Ruth. The second came from Gibson. And O’Neil didn’t hear it again until Bo Jackson came around in the 1980s.

"Outstanding hitter. The best hitter that I've ever seen," O'Neil told filmmaker Ken Burns. "He had the power of Ruth and the hitting ability of Ted Williams. That was Josh Gibson. Would have been outstanding [in the integrated Majors]. Would have rewritten the book as far as the home runs are concerned."

• O'Neil was far from the only one of Gibson’s peers who held the slugger in incredibly high regard. Satchel Paige, who spent a lot of time on the mound in both leagues, said, “Josh was the greatest hitter I ever pitched to.” Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who split his career between the leagues, said that Willie Mays and Hank Aaron -- a former teammate and opponent, respectively -- “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.”

• There was no shortage of tragedy in Gibson’s life, too, and not just due to segregation. Gibson’s young wife, Helen, died while giving birth to twins in 1930, just as Gibson’s baseball career was about to take off.

Gibson, who suffered from a brain tumor among other health issues, died of a stroke just about a month after his 35th birthday in 1947. Less than three months after his passing, Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color barrier and ushering in a new era in the sport. But Gibson, sadly, was not around to see it.