January 20th, 1947: Negro League standout Josh Gibson, sometimes referred to as the ‘black Babe Ruth’, dies of a stroke at the of 35. The future Hall of Fame catcher will put to rest in an unmarked grave in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, one of the best players to ever put spikes on died before the he was able to play in the Major Leagues because of the “gentlemen’s agreement” that banned non-white players from participating in the MLB. Why is Josh Gibson a significant figure in baseball history? He is important since he is probably the best player to never play Major League Baseball.
Gibson suffered a stroke and died in the same year that Jackie Robinson defied all odds and broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unlike the MLB, the Negro Leagues felt that it was more profitable for the players to only play a few league games and having the opportunity to make extra money by barnstorming around the country, so their statistics are a little skewed, along with the fact that they didn’t compile complete statistics for games or seasons.
However, the few statistics that were kept during these barnstorming seasons were pretty impressive for Josh Gibson. For example, in 1933, Gibson played in 137 games and hit 55 home runs and compiled a .467 average. The next year, he hit 69 home runs. According to the Hall of Fame, Gibson has a .359 career batting average and approximately 800 home runs in his 17-year career; he also is rumored to have won nine home run titles and four batting titles as a player.
What was most impressive to me was a home run he hit at Yankee Stadium…he hit a ball so far that it was two feet from the top of the wall that circled the bleachers in center field, which is approximately 580 feet.
It’s unfortunate that we’ll never know exactly what Gibson did during his storied career because the Negro Leagues didn’t put together complete statistics or game summaries. Baseball is a game about numbers and statistics, and when we aren’t able to see some to evaluate a player, it puts us in a weird place. Either way, Josh Gibson was a legend during his time, and his legend will live on for many years to come.
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