The dissimilar lives of Pittsburgh's two greatest ballplayers of
the first half of this century are portrayed with varying
degrees of success in two new biographies. Honus Wagner, by
Dennis DeValeria and Jeanne Burke DeValeria (Henry Holt,
$27.50), has the virtue of diligent research and the defect of
ponderous detail. The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh
Gibson in the Shadows of the Game, by Mark Ribowsky (Simon &
Schuster, $23), is, because of the unreliability of available
statistics, a bit light on facts but heavy on emotion. Still,
read together, these two books offer a vivid picture of baseball
before World War II in the "Smoky City."
Wagner, who played for the Pirates from 1900 until his
retirement after the 1917 season, was so popular that he aroused
the jealous ire of Pittsburgh's great philanthropist Andrew
Carnegie. Smarting over a banner that proclaimed the shortstop
the GREATEST MAN IN OUR TOWN, Carnegie threatened in 1909 to
discontinue his generous contributions to the city's social and
cultural causes. This prompted a young sportswriter, Grantland
Rice, to compose the satirical verse
Oh, Andy, Andy, Andy--though you
stand upon the street
And shovel out a million unto every guy
Though you blow a half a billion, you will
never have the call,
As the greatest man in Pittsburgh while
H. Wagner hits the ball.
Unlike so many who played in baseball's Pleistocene epoch,
Wagner remained famous long after his passing. In 1991 one of
his baseball cards, printed without his permission for the 1910
season by the American Tobacco Company, sold at Sotheby's
auction house in New York City for $451,000, the highest price
ever paid for an item of sporting memorabilia. When the sale was
announced, the crowd at Sotheby's burst into cheers. Nearly 36
years after his death, Wagner still brought the house down.
He was a superb player, a member of the first group (along with
Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson) to be
elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And Ozzie Smith
notwithstanding, Wagner is regarded by baseball historians as
the game's greatest shortstop. At 5'11" and 200-plus pounds,
with legs so bowed that, according to one writer, they "take off
at the ankles in an outward and upward direction and join his
torso at the belt with some element of surprise," Wagner looked
more like a catcher--which was the only position he did not play
in a career of amazing versatility. In fact, in only three
seasons (1908, 1912 and 1913) did he play every game at short.
Wagner might more accurately be described as the game's best
But make no mistake, he could play shortstop. Agile and fast
despite his bulk, he had remarkable range, and his arm was as
strong as that of anyone who has ever thrown from deep in the
hole. His huge hands acted as shovels, as he put it, digging up
mounds of infield dirt along with the ball, which obliged his
first basemen to focus only on the roundest and whitest object
amid the debris hurled their way.
It is as a hitter, though, that Wagner is best remembered. He
won a record eight National League batting championships.
Playing in the so-called Dead Ball era, in which pitchers
dominated, he had a career average of .327, 72 points above the
league average. He had 3,418 hits, 643 doubles, 252 triples and
722 stolen bases. Unfortunately, the stat-happy DeValerias
supply an almost game-by-game account of Wagner's career, until
at last the reader, fighting for breath, cries out, "Enough!"
Away from the ball field Wagner led a fairly conventional life.
He married late, at 42, and became the dutiful father of two
daughters. He loved dogs and horses. He drank beer and played
cards. He involved himself in a variety of businesses, including
chicken farming, a sporting goods store, real estate, a brewery,
an auto dealership and a traveling circus. He coached for a time
at Carnegie Tech and then, in 1933, became a "lifetime" coach
for the Pirates. His principal responsibility seemed to lie in
regaling a younger generation of ballplayers with tall tales of
the good old days, when pitchers scuffed and spat on dead balls,
and base runners' spikes tore the pants of infielders. The
garrulous Wagner was perfectly cast as the team's resident
He died peacefully at 81 in December 1955, seven months after
his statue was unveiled at the entrance to old Forbes Field. The
statue has since been transplanted to a spot opposite gate C at
Three Rivers Stadium, so old Honus is still very much with us.
Gibson's much shorter life was more eventful, if infinitely
sadder. Born in rural Georgia on Dec. 21, 1911, Josh moved with
his family to Pittsburgh as a teenager and between stints in the
steel mills, apprenticed as an electrician. But his great skill
on the diamond soon attracted the interest of the city's
competing black professional teams, the Crawfords and the
Homestead Grays, and Gibson spent most of his career bouncing
between the two clubs.
A large, heavily muscled man, Gibson was known as the Black Babe
Ruth for his prodigious home run hitting. Since Negro league
statistics were incomplete and often inflated by team owners, no
one knows how many homers Gibson hit in his 18-year career.
Folklorists have him belting as many as 962 altogether and 84 in
a season, although they add the disclaimer that many of those
homers were hit in exhibition games against semipro teams.
There is little question, however, that Gibson could hit for
distance with the best. He is, for example, supposed to have hit
a ball out of Yankee Stadium in 1934. One writer, recalling the
wallop years later, said that it "rattled off the escarpments in
front of the 161st Street Elevated Railway" some 680 feet from
home plate. Gibson, a proud man but one not given to
self-inflation, shot down this story, saying he lined one into
the bullpen in centerfield, a mighty blow but far from superhuman.
Beyond his hitting prowess, Gibson was a swift and smart base
runner and a gifted catcher. Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean, who
pitched against Gibson on big league barnstorming tours, were
unabashed admirers of the catcher, as was Walter Johnson, who
watched Gibson play in Washington, D.C., where the Grays held
many "home games" in the late 1930s and early '40s. There was no
question in the minds of these baseball legends that Gibson
would have had a historic major league career. Of course, he
never had the chance. But in black baseball only the much more
flamboyant Satchel Paige, Gibson's sometime battery mate,
rivaled him in popularity.
Alas, Gibson was also a deeply troubled human being. The central
tragedy of his life was the death of his wife, Helen, in
childbirth when Josh was a newlywed 18-year-old. After Helen
died, "that enthusiasm [Josh] had for life was gone," said his
sister-in-law Rebecca Mason. Gibson left the rearing of the
twins from his only marriage to his in-laws and sought escape
from his loss in baseball, drink, women and, finally, drugs. His
physical and mental deterioration was such that by the time he
reached his early 30's, friends and teammates were scraping him
out of gutters and packing him off to hospitals to dry out.
Amazingly, through it all, Gibson continued to hit the ball out
of the park.
In 1943 he suffered what was reported in the Negro press as a
nervous breakdown. Family members said that his illness had been
diagnosed as a brain tumor. But Ribowsky, who is also Paige's
biographer and the author of a history of the Negro leagues,
could find no medical record to substantiate this claim. Still,
there was no doubt that Gibson was a sick man. And on the night
of Jan. 19, 1947, the 35-year-old catcher was found unconscious
in a Pittsburgh movie theater. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage
the next day, barely three months before Jackie Robinson made
his major league debut.
Wendell Smith, the respected sports editor of the Pittsburgh
Courier, an African-American newspaper, wrote at the time that
exclusion from big league baseball had "sent the 'king' to his
grave." Negro leagues veteran Wilmer Fields disagreed, telling
Ribowsky, "Josh coulda played in the majors; he coulda
contributed. But that's not what killed him. He had nothin' to
feel shortchanged about."
In 1972 Gibson was elected to the Hall of Fame. Like his fellow
Pittsburgher Wagner, he had achieved at least this measure of
B/W PHOTO: BROWN BROTHERS Wagner, who won eight National League batting crowns, was so popular that Carnegie was jealous. [Honus Wagner batting]
B/W PHOTO: NATIONAL BASEBALL LIBRARY & ARCHIVE Gibson may have slugged 84 homers one season and 962 in his career. [Josh Gibson]