More and more frequently, Josh Gibson is getting at least part of his due. Three decades after his shockingly early death, recognition is being granted to the man widely regarded as the greatest hitter of the Negro leagues. In 1972 Gibson was voted into the Hall of Fame by the special committee on black baseball; now he is the subject of a biography.
Written by William Brashler, Josh Gibson, A Life in the Negro Leagues (Harper & Row, $9.95) is a sympathetic and well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfactory piece of work. Brashler's interest in pre-Jackie Robinson black baseball is commendable (he is also the author of a novel about it, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings), but his study of Gibson is inept. It opens on a peculiar note, a preface in which Brashler gratuitously dwells on his own baseball memories (they have little to do with Gibson), and ends with several unrelated chapters about other black ballplayers. In between, we get a fair amount about Gibson, but not enough.
That is too bad, for his story is at once fascinating and sad. By all accounts Gibson was a prodigious hitter, but he was born too soon (in 1911) and was well past his prime when organized baseball finally desegregated. However great his accomplishments, they are mostly lost in the statistical void of the Negro winter leagues in which he played from 1930 to 1946. Because few reliable records were kept, for evidence of his prowess we must necessarily rely on the words of those who saw him.
And what persuasive words they are. Gibson is described as a batter who hit some 800 home runs in 17 years, a catcher of strength and rounded skills, a man almost universally respected by his fellow players. Walter Johnson, who saw Gibson play (after his own career was over), summed him up: "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. Bill Dickey isn't as good a catcher. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow."
But he was, and so while Babe Ruth, the hitter with whom he is most often compared, drew a salary of $80,000 and the adulation of the nation, Gibson in his best years got only $1,500 a month and very little acclaim. The two teams for which he played, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, may be minor legends now, but only black fans and a few knowledgeable whites followed them in the days when Gibson was hitting his epic homers.
In the last years of his life, Gibson went into a steep decline. He drank too much, he may have fooled around with drugs and he pushed his body further than it could go. He was only 35 when he died, of chronic hypertension and other ailments, in January 1947—the year Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers.
It is tempting to portray Gibson as a martyr, and to his credit, Brashler declines to do so. But though he gives us Gibson without tears, his portrait is nonetheless curiously flat and Gibson the man rarely comes through. Until a better book than this one comes along, the best writing about Gibson is still to be found in Robert W. Peterson's pioneering study of black baseball, Only the Ball Was White.