Annie “Lois” Carter recalls moments seven decades ago when she was just a kid and her uncle Josh Gibson would climb the steps of the family’s apartment on Strauss Street and walk into the kitchen, which occupied the entire second floor. Josh could be gone for weeks or even months, barnstorming with the Homestead Grays or the Pittsburgh Crawfords, or maybe playing ball in Cuba or Mexico or Puerto Rico. Then, suddenly, there he’d be, back home on the North Side.
His presence in the neighborhood always generated a buzz: “Josh is home, Josh is home.” Neighbors and friends would crowd into the kitchen, a radio filling the room with music. Duke Ellington, maybe, or Erskine Hawkins or the Ink Spots.
Then the big man and his little niece would together shuffle across the floor. Josh was a bearish, muscular man, but he was light on his feet, a good dancer.
“Don’t look down at your feet,” Josh would instruct Annie. The two swayed past the refrigerator, the stove, the sink.
Others in the room would be laughing, drinking, some clapping along to the tune. People had a good time.
No one could play baseball like Josh Gibson. He had the power of Babe Ruth, but without all the strikeouts (his overall batting average in the Negro leagues is listed at .366). As a catcher, he was quick and possessed a powerful arm that sent the ball hissing to second base. Then there is one of many tragedies that shaped Josh’s life: He reached his prime a decade before blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues. By the time Jackie Robinson made his big league debut, Josh Gibson was three months dead.
Josh came to Pittsburgh from Buena Vista, Ga., in the early 1920s. His father, Mark, was a sharecropper who had migrated north a few years earlier, found work in a steel mill and then sent for his family. As a teenager, Josh was strong enough to work in the mills after school. He studied to be an electrician but gave it up when he discovered a special talent for clobbering baseballs.
He played for an amateur team sponsored by Gimbels department store (which hired him as an elevator operator), then for the Pittsburgh Crawfords. In July 1930, he joined the Homestead Grays and became a professional. It was heady stuff for an 18-year-old.
Then came tragedy. On Aug. 11, Josh received news that his wife Helen, eight months pregnant with twins, had gone into premature labor. Josh rushed to Magee Hospital to find Helen in agony and deathly ill. She died as she gave birth to twins Josh Jr. and Helen.
The children went to live with Helen’s parents, while Josh threw himself into baseball. On Sep. 27, he blasted a homerun into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium, a shot of between 430 and 460 feet. Some witnesses claim it traveled 500 feet or more. Newspapers lost their habit of misspelling his name as “Gipson.”
Josh’s career spanned 17 seasons and his Hall of Fame plaque says he hit more than 800 home runs, though it’s impossible to know the exact number, since he played for so many different teams and leagues in which records were incomplete.
During that time, in the 1930s and 40s, Negro league ball was a big deal in the black community, and Grays games at Forbes Field were special occasions for Annie and her four sisters. “We would run all over, playing catch, getting stuff to eat,” Annie said. “Sitting on the dugout, right in front.” The girls wore matching yellow and white dresses, so they could be easily located by their mother, Josh’s younger sister.
“When the game was over, we’d be the last ones out of the stadium, waiting for Josh to shower and get dressed,” Annie said. “Then he’d take us up to the Crawford Grill because that’s where they’d all hang out.” The kids sat in a booth and snacked on potato chips and sodas while the adults had a good time.
Josh’s life and career ended too quickly. Annie said he often complained of headaches and family members believe he suffered from a brain tumor. Years of continual play and drinking also could have played a role in his failing health.
On a cold Sunday in January 1947, Josh lost consciousness while watching a movie at the Garden Theatre. He was taken to his mother’s apartment on Strauss Street, where he’d once danced with his niece. When he woke, he requested that his brother Jerry bring his baseball trophies to his bedside. And early on Monday morning, Jan. 20, Josh Gibson died.
Seventy years later, his story of baseball glory and personal tragedy continues to resonate. He’d probably be surprised and thrilled to learn that his life is being chronicled in an opera premiering this month at the Benedum. “The Summer King” is not just any opera. It’s the first world premiere in Pittsburgh Opera’s 78-year history.
— Steve Mellon