King of Sluggers: Josh Gibson’s Legacy
A century has passed since the founding of the Negro Leagues, and the great-grandson of the game’s most feared yet forgotten hitter is fighting for the recognition of Pittsburgh’s Black baseball history.
He has a set of hands that could wrap around the trunk of a Southern Live Oak — the state tree of his native Georgia — and a pair of forearms that could snap one in half.
It’s sometime in the 1930s in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh when he steps up to the plate and bashes a baseball that clears the ivy-veiled outfield walls of Forbes Field and soars into oblivion. The following day his Pittsburgh Crawfords are playing in Philadelphia, and from out of nowhere, a baseball falls from the heavens and lands into the glove of a surprised center fielder. The umpire points to the twenty-something kid named Josh Gibson and shouts, Yer out — yesterday in Pittsburgh.
Gibson was perhaps the greatest slugger in the history of baseball. Newspapers across the country called him the Black Babe Ruth (though it may be more accurate to say Babe Ruth was the white Josh Gibson) for the folklore that followed him and his colossal home runs — and there were many to talk about. Some say up to 1,000 home runs — Ruth hit 714 — though nobody knows for sure.
On Sept. 27, 1930, the 18-year-old Gibson playing for the Homestead Grays allegedly hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium. It was “the longest home run ever hit in the House that Ruth Built,” biographer John Holway writes. Sean Gibson, his great-grandson, resolves from player testimonies that the ball did not go out, instead hitting the white fencing crowned atop Yankee Stadium. He admits to teasing Tom Stevens, the grandson of the Babe, boasting that his great-grandfather hit the longest home run in the “house” his grandfather supposedly built.
It wasn’t just a response to Major League Baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement” policy that racially segregated the sport. The Negro Leagues on its own was an African American enterprise showcasing the finest talent ever assembled on a baseball diamond. The epicenter of that talent was in Pittsburgh. And this year marks a century since its birth.
On the cobblestone roads of Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, across from the Crystal Barbershop, sat a jazz club called the Crawford Grill. It was a fixture of African American life and entertainment in Pittsburgh and an attraction for jazz legends and athletes, particularly during the 1940s. Upstairs in the apartments lived Gibson, who was said to have always offered hospitality to friends and even homeless people, often offering them a place to sleep. The third floor was dubbed Club Crawford, where Gus Greenlee, the owner of the club, headquartered his operations; Greenlee was immersed in the numbers racket, boxing and entertainment. He wasn’t much of a baseball man, rather one of opportunity.
In 1931, he took a chance on organizing a team called the Pittsburgh Crawfords with a lineup that included Satchel Paige, the ageless arm and showstopping star of the Negro Leagues who would call his fielders into the dugout and strike out the side. Then there was James “Cool Papa” Bell, who, according to Paige, was “so fast, he could switch off the light and be in bed before the room got dark!” Judy Johnson, a third baseman known for his craftiness and smarts on the diamond, often stole signs from the opposition and whistled a code in return to the catcher so he could throw out the runner before he ever had a chance to steal the base.
The catcher receiving those codes, of course, was Gibson.
Though his on-field exploits barnstorming across North America brought him superstardom in the Black community, he’d never see universal fame in his lifetime. He didn’t receive the fruits of celebrity life like his white contemporaries. There wasn’t a Josh Gibson baseball card to collect, and he never cameoed in a Hollywood movie –– in fact, there is very little footage of him at all.
His personal life did not always reflect his boyish smile and sense of humor, nor his celebrated achievements as the Negro League’s darling power hitter. His love and courtship of Helen Mason were cut short when she died giving birth to twins Josh Jr. and Helen, leaving Gibson a single father at 18 years old. In 1943, at 31 years old, he fell into a coma caused by a brain tumor, but when he regained consciousness he would refuse any treatment, and the option of having it surgically removed was out of the question due to the prospect of brain damage. In the next four years, he would live with chronic headaches and exhibit erratic behavior — heavy drinking, drug abuse and frequent visits to mental hospitals.
On the night of Jan. 20, 1947, the baseball great would not wake from his slumber. He passed away from a stroke at 35 years old — just months before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier. Wendell Smith, the preeminent sports writer of America’s leading Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, would eulogize, “The Great Umpire has silenced the mighty bat of one of baseball’s greatest sluggers of all time, Joshua (Josh) Gibson… The king of sluggers is dead…long live the king.”
With the integration of Black baseball players and Gibson’s death, the Negro Leagues began a spiral into obscurity and ultimately oblivion. Despite the many racial obstacles that lie ahead, Black people would soon play in the same uniform as whites. An entire world quietly drew its last breath, and its death would remain unnoticed for many years — just as the grave of Josh Gibson would remain unmarked for 28.
Within the Hill District on Bedford Avenue is the Ammon Community Recreation Center. Behind the building is the field where Gibson launched his baseball career with the Crawfords. Up the road is the Macedonia Baptist Church, where he would marry Helen, and also where he would be laid to rest just 20 years later. The Ammon Community Recreation Center houses the Josh Gibson Foundation, and it is where Sean Gibson sits in his office under an array of black-and-white photographs of his great-grandfather. The resemblance is striking, so much so that a boy in his after-school program got confused and asked Sean for his autograph, mistaking him for the fabled slugger.
When he was young, Sean didn’t realize the magnitude of the impact that his great-grandfather left because he was family before he was folklore. That changed when Sean was 12 or 13 years old and attending Greenway Middle School; his friend found a book about Josh Gibson in the library. Sean rarely read books on the Negro Leagues, because he’d go right to the source: Josh Gibson Jr., a batboy who would travel year-round with his father as he barnstormed North America.
The Pittsburgh Pirates organization, unlike the rest of the league at the time, was forthcoming in confronting the injustices espoused by Major League Baseball. In 1988, Three Rivers Stadium celebrated the 40th anniversary of the last Negro League World Series. MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti stated, “We must never lose sight of our history. Insofar as it is ugly, never to repeat it, and insofar as it is glorious, to cherish it.” They would install championship banners to commemorate baseball’s forgotten dynasty. In 2006, the year PNC Park would host the MLB All-Star Game, the Pirates would go a step further to honor the city’s storied Negro League clubs by unveiling an exhibit called Legacy Square featuring seven statues of stars who played for the Grays and Crawfords.
In 2015, they were all gone.
Sean is summoned to PNC Park for a meeting supposedly about collaborating on a project, and the person who meets him at the elevator says, “I’m going to give you a head’s up. They’re taking the statues out.”
The Pirates explain that they want to build a bar and a big-screen TV on the concourse level where Legacy Square is located, and the statues were already creating too much of a crowd. Frustrated by their unwillingness to compromise, Sean demands that he be allowed to take the statues. The Pirates quickly agreed, “When can you pick them up?”
The ordeal attracts national attention because the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, a faction of the Society for American Baseball Research, is taking place in Pittsburgh that year. The organizers arrive at the left-field gate of PNC Park to find that the statues have been removed.
“From a historian’s perspective,” Josh Howard writes in a blog post for “Sport in American History,” “it seems most likely the Pittsburgh Pirates, emboldened by their recent success and new ownership, simply decided as an organization that they don’t need Pittsburgh’s black history anymore.”
Sean gets in touch with David Hunt, agent for then-Pirates Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen, and owner of Hunt Auctions in Exton, Pennsylvania. He tells him, “I don’t know what I got myself into, but I have eight [sic] bronze statues, and I don’t know what to do with them. I think I might have opened my mouth too soon. Do people buy bronze statues?”
“Sean, people buy anything,” Hunt says.
So, they send a truck to pick up the statues and take them to Cincinnati where the MLB All-Star Game is being played that year. The statues are appraised and altogether, they sell for $195,000 to Gary Cypres, owner of the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. But the money means nothing to Sean. The memory of the Negro Leagues is priceless.
The story of the Negro Leagues is in fact a story. There are rarely any artifacts to show for it. Craig Britcher, the assistant curator of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and lifelong baseball fan, believes there may only be two Homestead Grays uniforms in existence. And to make matters worse, he notes, “we’ve lost more and more Negro Leaguers. The oral history can be so captivating, and I really worry about the loss of the accumulated storytelling which has enlightened so many.”
Up the spiral staircase of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Britcher and a small crowd watches on as Sean, in his navy blue suit and bow tie, commences the centennial celebration of the Negro Leagues. The logo of the campaign is an illustration of Josh Gibson.
Wendell Smith, The Pittsburgh Courier
On East Eighth Avenue in Homestead, Melanie Root works as an archivist for Rivers of Steel in the Bost Building, famous for being the headquarters of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers during the 1892 Homestead Strike. A few floors up is the collection room, which is not open to the public. She approaches one of the four mobile shelves, and one by one carries four sizable boxes holding what was the life of Josh Gibson — compiled over the years by his son and then later donated by Sean.
There is a photograph of the giant staring down the barrel of his bat while a crowd of wide-eyed children forms, watching in awe. There is another of his son, an older man with tired, bloodshot eyes, holding in his hands the pinnacle of recognition, a replica Hall of Fame plaque of his father — the Great Umpire’s greatest creation, the King of Sluggers, Josh Gibson.