Historical Markers
Josh Gibson Historical Marker
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Josh Gibson

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
2217 Bedford Ave. Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
September 23, 1996

Behind the Marker

                  "Josh Gibson was the greatest hitter who ever lived.
                   He couldn't play in those ballparks with the roof on 'em.
                   He would have hit 'em through the roof."                                                                   
- Satchel Paige

Granted, Satchel Paige, one of the most remarkable pitchers and personalities that baseball has ever seen, was prone to exaggerate, particularly when talking about his old pal Josh Gibson. But the legendary stories he told about Gibson really weren't that far off. Nor was Paige the only one who spread tales about one of baseball's greatest hitters.
Josh Gibson poses in his Homestead Grays uniform in 1945.
Josh Gibson poses in his Homestead Grays uniform in 1945.

It was said that Gibson once hit a baseball so far in Pittsburgh that it never came down until the next day in Philadelphia, when Gibson was at bat and a ball suddenly dropped from the heavens into one of the outfielder's gloves. Immediately, the umpire took charge. "You're out," he barked, "yesterday in Pittsburgh."

"There were a hundred legends about him," said markerRoy Campanella, his catching contemporary in the Negro National League. "Once you saw him play, you knew they were all true."

Just listen to old Senators ace Walter Johnson, a circumspect and staid observer, to be sure: "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. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle." Sounds like a prospect, except for one important detail. "Too bad this Gibson," sighed Johnson, "is a colored fellow."

The story of Josh Gibson reflects more than the hyperbole of baseball greatness. It illustrates the sport's twined curse of racism and segregation, a curse that hurt not only Gibson but baseball and the nation as a whole.

The son of a poor sharecropper, Joshua Gibson was born in 1911, near Atlanta, in Buena Vista, Georgia. Ten years later, his family moved north to Pittsburgh where his father found better work and and better pay for his father in a steel mill. "The greatest gift Dad gave me," he later said, "was to get me out of the South." Growing up, Josh thought he might become an electrician and work with his father in the mill. But for this kid, who was always big for his age and fast for his size and could hit and run with remarkable athletic ability, there was a better living waiting on the ball field.

By the time he was sixteen years old, Gibson had risen through the amateur ranks of the black teams on the Pittsburgh sandlots, and was catching for a semi-pro team sponsored by a local bath house. His fame was spreading.

Hall of Famer and third base player, Judy Johnson, who played for the markerHomestead Grays in 1930 recalled: "I had never seen him play but we had heard so much about him. Every time you'd look in the paper you'd see where he hit a ball 400 feet, 500 feet. So the fans started wondering why the Homestead Grays didn't pick him up." When the Grays' regular catcher went down with an injury that season, the Grays signed Gibson and the wondering stopped.

His numbers were staggering. Even though Negro League statistics tend to be unreliable composites of a player's performance, Gibson's scream out in both official league competition and barnstorming tours against sandlot and semi-pro teams. He hit .461 that first season, and just got better, powering the kind of tape-measure blasts that inspired Bunyonesque tales of baseball- diamond heroics. In 1931, he hit 75 home runs.
Here Josh Gibson, the 'Black Babe Ruth', famous Negro League baseball player, wearing a white home uniform covered with dirt, and catchers' gear, throws his mask up into the air.
Negro League baseball catcher Josh Gibson throwing mask into air

The next year, the promise of more money lured Gibson across town to the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he completed a superb lineup that boasted Hall of Famers Satchel Paige on the mound and Johnson at third. Gibson didn't disappoint his new team. His exploits continued to fill seats, and the myths about his prodigious hitting continued to grow.

Despite the legend, he never did hit the only fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. But his true accomplishments spoke loudly enough and he was dubbed "the black Babe Ruth." In 1933, he hit .467, drove in an unprecedented 239 runs and slugged 55 homers. The following season, he cracked 69 more. In 1937, he went back to the Homestead Grays, leading them to a string of nine Negro League titles.

Throughout his professional career, Gibson also played winter ball in Latin America and barnstormed against white major leaguers. And the major leagues paid attention. Indeed, in the early 1940s, Gibson held out some hope that either the Washington Senators or the Pittsburgh Pirates would sign him. Branch Rickey, the architect of baseball's integration, briefly considered tapping Gibson to be the first black ballplayer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. "For sheer talent alone," Rickey said, "Gibson would have been the obvious choice."

But there was a dark side to Gibson that no doubt robbed him of the chance to move into the major leagues. While he seemed easy-going and cheerful on the surface, Gibson's good spirits marked a troubled soul. He drank heavily. He had high blood pressure, but lived higher, as if he knew longevity never would be his strong suit. He was plagued by the myriad of injuries that come with catching thousands of games. And he was tortured, quite literally, by terrible headaches.

In 1943, after Gibson blacked out, doctors, though unable to establish a clear diagnosis, suggested surgery. Gibson refused. "He figured if they operated, he'd be like a vegetable," recalled his sister, Annie Mahaffey.

Yet Gibson soldiered on. He won the Negro National League batting titles in 1945 and 1946. He continued to boom home runs - more than 800 in his golden career. But anyone who watched could tell that something wasn't right. His weight soared, then plummeted. He seemed incoherent at times. His drinking continued, along with his headaches and blackouts.

In January 1947, Jackie Robinson fulfilled Gibson's dream of becoming the first African American to make it to the majors. That same year, Gibson, arguably the greatest black player of all, died at the age of thirty-five. The cause of death was listed as a stroke, but teammate Ted Page was convinced that bitterness and disappointment took their toll. "Josh wanted to be the one to break the color barrier. When the Dodgers signed Robinson, he knew it was over for him. He knew he wasn't going to make the big leagues," Page said. "They say a man can't die of a broken heart, and I guess that's true. But I tell you this: All of this sure lessened Josh's will to keep going, to keep fighting to stay alive."

Josh Gibson was buried in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery in an unmarked grave. In 1972, during a year of racial turbulence in America when even baseball was shamed by its segregated past, major league baseball enshrined Gibson in Cooperstown. And they placed a proper tombstone on his grave.
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