Baseball historians consider Gibson to be among the very best catchers and power hitters in the history of any league, including the Major Leagues, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Gibson was known as the "black Babe Ruth." (In fact, some fans at the time who saw both Gibson and Ruth play called Ruth "the white Josh Gibson.") He never played in Major League Baseball because, under their unwritten "gentleman's agreement" policy, they excluded non-whites during his lifetime.
Early lifeGibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, c. December 21, 1911. In 1923 Gibson moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father, Mark Gibson, found work at the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. Entering sixth grade in Pittsburgh, Gibson prepared to become an electrician, attending Allegheny Pre-Vocational School and Conroy Pre-Vocational School. His first experience playing baseball for an organized team came at age 16, when he played third base for an amateur team sponsored by Gimbels department store, where he found work as an elevator operator. Shortly thereafter he was recruited by the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which in 1928 was still a semi-professional team. The Crawfords, controlled by Gus Greenlee, was the top black semi-professional team in the Pittsburgh area and would advance to fully professional, major Negro league status by 1931.
In 1928 Gibson met Helen Mason, whom he married on March 7, 1929. When not playing baseball, Gibson continued to work at Gimbels, having given up on his plans to become an electrician to pursue a baseball career. In the summer of 1930 the 18-year-old Gibson was recruited by Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, which was the preeminent Negro league team in Pittsburgh; Gibson debuted with the Grays on July 31, 1930. On August 11 Gibson's wife, Helen, who was pregnant with twins, went into premature labor and died while giving birth to a twin son, Josh Gibson, Jr., and daughter, Helen, named after her mother. The children were raised by Helen's parents.
Baseball career and statisticsThe Negro leagues generally found it more profitable to schedule relatively few league games and allow the teams to earn extra money through barnstorming against semi-professional and other non-league teams. Thus, it is important to distinguish between records against all competition and records in league games only. For example, against all levels of competition Gibson hit 69 home runs in 1934; the same year in league games he hit 11 home runs in 52 games.
In 1933 he hit .467 with 55 home runs in 137 games against all levels of competition. His lifetime batting average is said to be higher than .350, with other sources putting it as high as .384, the best in Negro league history.
The Baseball Hall of Fame maintains he hit "almost 800" homers in his 17-year career against Negro league and independent baseball opposition. His lifetime batting average, according to the Hall's official data, was .359. It was reported that he won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Grays. It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro league game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium's distant left field bleachers than the entire American League.
There is no published season-by-season breakdown of Gibson's home run totals in all the games he played in various leagues and exhibitions.
The true statistical achievements of Negro league players may be impossible to know as the Negro leagues did not compile complete statistics or game summaries. Based on research of historical accounts performed for the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, Gibson hit 224 homers in 2,375 at-bats against top black teams, 2 in 56 at-bats against white major-league pitchers and 44 in 450 AB in the Mexican League. John Holway lists Gibson with the same home run totals and a .351 career average, plus 21 for 56 against white major-league pitchers. According to Holway, Gibson ranks third all-time in the Negro leagues in average among players with 2,000+ AB (trailing Jud Wilson by 3 points and John Beckwith by one). Holway lists him as being second to Mule Suttles in homers, though the all-time leader in HR/AB by a considerable margin - with a homer every 10.6 AB to one every 13.6 for runner-up Suttles.
Recent investigations into Negro league statistics, using box scores from newspapers from across the United States, have led to the estimate that, although as many as two thirds of Negro league team games were played against inferior competition (as traveling exhibition games), Gibson still hit between 150 and 200 home runs in official Negro league games. Though this number appears very conservative next to the statements of "almost 800" to 1000 home runs, this research also credits Gibson with a rate of one home run every 15.9 at bats, which compares favorably with the rates of the top nine home run hitters in Major League history. The commonly cited home run totals in excess of 800 are not indicative of his career total in "official" games because the Negro league season was significantly shorter than the Major League season; typically consisting of less than 60 games per year. The additional home runs cited were most likely accomplished in "unofficial" games against local and non-Negro league competition of varying strengths, including the oft-cited "barnstorming" competitions.
Despite the fact that statistical validation continues to prove difficult for Negro league players, the lack of verifiable figures has led to various amusing "Tall Tales" about immortals such as Gibson. A good example: In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hits one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappears from sight, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams are playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams have positioned themselves on the field, a ball comes falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, "You're out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!"
DeathIn early 1943 Josh Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After he regained consciousness, he refused the option of surgical removal and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. In 1944 Josh was hospitalized in Washington, DC, at Gallinger Hospital for mental observation.
He died of a stroke in Pittsburgh in 1947 at age 35 just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. Some believe the stroke was linked to drug problems that plagued him in his later years. He was buried at the Allegheny Cemetery in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville, where he lay in an unmarked grave until a small plaque was placed in 1975.
LegacyLarry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League a few months after Robinson broke it in the National League, stated at the time of Robinson's signing with a minor league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, "One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jack 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."
In 1972 Gibson's accomplishments were recognized, along with Buck Leonard's, and they became the second and third players, behind Satchel Paige, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for their outstanding careers in the Negro leagues. Gibson's Hall of Fame plaque claims "almost 800" home runs for his career.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 33-cent U.S. commemorative postage stamp which features a painting of Gibson and includes his name.
In 2000 he ranked 18th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking of five players to have played all or most of their careers in the Negro leagues. (The others were Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston.) That same year, he was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
In 2009 a statue of Gibson was installed inside the center field gate of Nationals Park along with ones of Frank Howard and Walter Johnson.
Ammon Field at 2217 Bedford Ave., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was renamed Josh Gibson Field in his honor and is the site of a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker.
His son, Josh Gibson, Jr., played baseball for the Homestead Grays. His son also was instrumental in the forming of the Josh Gibson Foundation.