|Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on February 13, 2003
Ivan R. Dee publishers 2000
It was a hard life in the negro leagues, and Josh Gibson was a legend who lived, played and died there. One of many great players who was denied acknowledgment by Major League Baseball, Josh was called the “black Babe Ruth.” He was a man who lived for baseball, and sadly seemed to have little else in his life.
Without question, he was one of the best power hitters in negro baseball and would have been a star in the Major Leagues. In his career, he is said to have hit better than a thousand home runs. Even if halved because of lesser competition, this feat still would have measured him as one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Josh grew up in Pittsburgh - perhaps the premier city for negro baseball which hosted both the Crawford Giants, and the Homestead Grays. The Giants and Grays were the best teams of their leagues for several decades. He had the privilege of playing for both teams during his 17 years of playing pro baseball. Still, what he craved was a shot at the majors.
He was a quiet man, with little besides baseball to dominate his life. His life was plagued by tragedy with which he could not deal with. In 1930, when Josh was 18 and debuted with the Homestead Grays, his wife, only 17 herself, died due to complications at childbirth. She left Josh with twins - Helen and Josh Jr. - who Josh was unprepared and unable to care for as a ballplayer.
The children were raised by his wife’s family, and Josh was an absentee father who never developed a real relationship with his children. By 1942, before his children even reached their teens, Josh was becoming both physically and mentally ill. He died on January 20, 1947 without ever having a real relationship with his family.
He left his family with little. Presently, years after his posthumous induction to the Hall of Fame, they possess almost no property, memorabilia, or even memories of their famous relative. They now feel bitter and cheated concerning their relationship, or lack thereof, with Josh. It was not the legacy for which Josh would have liked to be remembered.
He was more than a just a legend. He was a man, ordinary in many respects, who lived hand-to-mouth much of the time, and spent his life doing nothing but trying to be the best ballplayer in the world. Josh never stopped wanting to play, and never stopped wanting to learn anything he already didn’t know about the game. His reputation was not based on showmanship, or playing to the audience in the ways of some other negro greats, but by his professionalism on the field.
He was always a slugger, at least until his illness progressed. In 1942, he started having serious problems. Josh started suffering from a condition (now believed to be hypertension, which ran in his family) that caused him headaches, dizziness, and disorientation. On New Years 1943, Josh lost consciousness and fell into a coma. He awoke several hours later, but he was a different man. Alcohol and hypertension contributed to induce violent outbursts, and soon after his coma, Josh was “flipping his wig” and becoming periodically delusional.
By 1944, when Josh was 32 and comparable sluggers like Ruth were at their best, Josh began to decline. His power vanished almost overnight and his body deteriorated. He still hit for power but there was nothing else left.
With the resurgence of interest in negro league baseball, Gibson was rediscovered and honored as he should have been - as a Hall of Famer. Most of the information on him came from other men who had played with him, their photos, memorabilia and memories.
In chasing Josh’s history, William Brashler discovers another cruel truth - there were no rewards, pensions, or fame for his colleagues when they retired. This includes even those players who later made the Hall of Fame. The poverty they lived in as players often followed them their entire lives. They retired from baseball with little more than their memories.
The player’s memories of Josh Gibson are good ones, and we hear tales of Josh and his teammates in the negro leagues. Most of all, they talk about the honor of playing baseball in that groundbreaking era, and of finally being recognized for what they did, and did well. They wouldnêt have traded those memories for anything.
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