We love Honus Wagner not because he was the best, but because he was the best and he knew it and still he remained humble. Then there’s the fighter Billy Conn. Conn’s story is a bit more complicated. He made a disastrous mistake in the biggest fight of his life, then shrugged it off, buried his beloved mother, married his sweetheart and got on with his life. Character and toughness we appreciate. Brash arrogance? Not so much. A-Rod is not our type of guy.
Josh Gibson is, though. He’s a perfect match for Pittsburgh. Those who played with and observed Gibson in the Negro Leagues said he was jovial, easy-going, confident and, quite possibly, the best slugger in baseball history. He walked to the plate knowing he could hit the ball farther than anyone, but he never flaunted it.
Making comparisons with hitters like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron is difficult because we simply don’t have enough statistics from all those Negro League games. Cooperstown maintains Gibson hit nearly 800 home runs. Who knows? Often, his homers were monsters. We read one account of a 575-foot blast at a ballpark in Monessen. The town’s mayor stopped the game and insisted on a measurement.
In 1937 the Sporting News reported that Gibson hit a 580-foot homer at Yankee Stadium. It was during a Negro League game, though, so if you go to Google you’ll learn that baseball’s longest home run is Babe Ruth’s 575-foot shot in Detroit in 1921.
Let’s consider for a moment that Gibson often played after enduring overnight bus rides that covered as much as 800 miles (Josh’s own words in a 1942 newspaper story) and staying in dumpy hotels. No cushy train rides and posh digs in the Negro Leagues.
Here’s another example of Gibson’s toughness: A brain tumor put the man in a coma in 1942. When Gibson awoke, he returned to baseball and, despite persistent headaches, captured batting and home run titles for four more years.
In a perfect world, Gibson would have played major league baseball in a Pirates uniform. Even in a flawed world it may have happened if two career baseball men been able to come to an agreement.
Former Pirates president Bill Benswanger once told PG Sports Editor Al Abrams that he tried in 1942 to buy Gibson’s talents from Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey. “Of course, Posey and I never got down to the serious stage of talking business about Gibson because Cum always shook me off on the matter,” Branswanger said.
Posey feared the sale would lead other African-American players to sign with the majors and bleed too much talent from the Negro Leagues. That’s what Abrams reported.
Benswanger made some noise about staging tryouts for African-American players in 1942. Of course, Gibson’s name was brought up. Benswanger’s heart may have been in the right place, but he was no Branch Rickey. The tryouts never materialized. But, oh, what if?
Gibson died on Jan. 20, 1947. He was 35 — and yes, that’s way too young. Three months later, Jackie Robinson made his historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.