Considered the best hitter to ever play baseball
in the Negro Leagues
; played catcher
for the Pittsburgh Crawfords
and Homestead Grays
in the 1930s and early 40s.
Born in Buena Vista, Georgia on December 21, 1911, and his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 20s. Gibson's baseball career reportedly began in 1930 when the starting catcher for the Homestead Grays (based in Pittsburgh) either injured his hand or refused to play in Forbes Field's poor lighting. The Homestead manager knew of Gibson, an excellent semipro player at the time, and called Gibson out of the stands to catch. He immediately led the team to the Negro World Series, where he became one of only four people to hit a ball out of Forbes Field on the fly.
Gibson played for the Grays during the 1931 season, but jumped to the Pittsburgh Crawfords the following season. The Crawfords of the mid-thirties, also featuring Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, were the most dominant team in the existence of the Negro Leagues. He returned to the Homestead Grays after the 1936 season, and spent the rest of his career there, aside from two years spent playing for more money in the Mexican Leagues.
Gibson led the Negro Leagues in home runs in nine out of his fifteen seasons, and led the league in batting average four times. He hit over 800 home runs and had a career average of well over .350, although many of his games were against lower-quality teams. Although he was a large man (6 foot 2 inches, 210 pounds), he was an excellent baserunner and by the end of his career was considered a very good defensive catcher.
In 1943, Gibson suffered a stroke, and returned to baseball against doctors' advice. However, he continued to be the top power hitter in the Negro Leagues, winning several more home run and batting titles. But he developed a drinking problem, and in the mid-forties, when Major League Baseball began looking for black players to integrate baseball, Gibson was never considered. Although Gibson was acknowledged as a great talent, he was perceived as too old and not as clean-cut as Jackie Robinson.
Gibson died suddenly on January 20, 1947, just a few months before Robinson began his career in the major leagues. A former teammate of Gibson's, Ted Page said: "Some people say Josh Gibson died of a brain hemorrhage. I say he died of a broken heart." In 1966, Ted Williams spoke out for Gibson's (and Satchel Paige's) election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1972, Gibson posthumously became the second Negro Leaguer to be elected to the Hall of Fame.