Tuesday, 15 September 2015


Josh Gibson (US Public Domain)
While Satchel Paige was the perpetual showman, Josh Gibson stuck to the basics of playing baseball. He was the most powerful slugger in the Negro Leagues, the “Black Babe Ruth.” His homers were soaring rockets that broke the sound barrier. He hit for average too and was an excellent catcher, a 12-time All-Star in Negro League East-West Games.

According to undocumented sources, Gibson could have hit a total of 800 homers (including 89 in one season and 75 in another) against Negro League, exhibition, and semi-pro competition spread over a 17-year career.  In the late-1930’s, Washington Senator pitching great, Walter Johnson, said about the 6-foot-one, 215-pound Gibson: “There is a catcher that any big-league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey isn’t as good a catcher. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”

Not jumping contracts anywhere close to the way and amount of times that Paige did, Gibson played professionally for the Homestead Grays in 1930-1931, the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1932-1936, back to the Grays in 1937, along with his trip with Satchel Paige to the Dominican Republic to help dictator Trujillo out, the Mexican League in 1940-41, back to the Homestead Grays  (also called the Washington Grays or the Washington-Homestead Grays because they played their home games at Washington’s Griffith Stadium) from 1942-1946. In between, he played a dozen years of winter ball in the Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico.

Gibson’s homers were legendary. He once hit a speaker on the right-center field roof at Comiskey Park…a 460-foot shot to left-center field in Yankee Stadium…a 458-footer to center field at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh...another one at Yankee Stadium to the rear wall of the left-field bullpen, about 500 feet away...an upper deck rocket to center field at the Polo Grounds, New York…a 500-footer at Sportsman’s Park, St Louis…an over-the-roof blast at Shibe Park, Philadelphia…a 485-foot homer to the top of the left-centerfield bleachers at Griffith Stadium…and a 512-foot blast in an exhibition game in Monessen, Pennsylvania that was measured upon orders by the town’s mayor. There’s more. He hit dozens of homers at Griffith Stadium, Washington, over the distant left-field wall which was 407 feet down the line. In 1943, Gibson hit 11 homers to that side of the stadium in one season--more than the entire American League combined, which included the hometown Washington Senators.

In a 1967 Sporting News article, Gibson supposedly crushed a ball to the back wall of the Yankee Stadium center-field bleachers, about 580 feet from home plate, two feet from being the first fair ball hit out of the legendary park. Then, the cream of the crop, although some people debate it: Author Robert Peterson in Only the Ball Was White relates a story told by Jack Marshall of the Chicago American Giants, who claimed that in 1934, Gibson cleared the third deck of the Yankee Stadium left-field facade, a towering drive that went over and out! But did it really happen? No one else can document it. So, we can leave that one, but there were plenty of others.

Josh Gibson was born December 21, 1911, outside Atlanta, Georgia, in a village called Buena Vista. In 1923, his father, Mark, left for the steel town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where his family had relatives and better job opportunities. Securing a labor job with US Steel, Mark sent for his wife, Josh, and two siblings. They settled down in Pleasant Valley, a black neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s North Side. It was the best thing that happened to the Gibson family, and they never looked back.
As a teenager, Gibson took to swimming, where he won a number of medals: and baseball, where he was usually chosen first in sandlot games. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade to work as an electrician’s apprentice in a manufacturing plant. But baseball was his first love and soon to be his vocation.

At 18, Gibson became a regular with the Homestead Grays in 1930 when he was called from the stands in the middle of a game against the Kansas City Monarchs to replace an injured catcher who had split his finger when he missed a pitch. Gibson worked hard at catching over the years, and he played some outfield. Was he a great catcher? Some Negro League players felt he wasn’t, that he was in the lineup for his hitting. He had an above-average arm, but had trouble lining up high pop-ups around home plate. However, Walter Johnson and later National League All-Star catcher Roy Campanella, who played 10 years in the Negro Leagues before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, touted Gibson’s catching skills. “He was not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw,” Campanella said.

Gibson was a hero in three countries: the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. It was in league play and the barnstorming trail with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords that he secured his legend before heading south. He earned $6,000 a season with Vera Cruz in the Mexican League, after jumping from the Homestead Grays, where he was paid $2,000 less. In 1941, he won the batting title and was voted the MVP in the integrated Puerto Rican League. Next to Satchel Paige, Gibson was the highest paid player in Negro League ball. During the early 1940’s, where he peaked at $6,000 a season, he brought in another $3,000 or so from winter ball. Both players were making a better salary than the MLB average, but nothing close to stars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
1953 Bowman card of Monte Irvin
(US Public Domain)

There is a story at that same time--1943--that both Gibson and his Homestead Grays slugging teammate, first baseman Buck Leonard, were asked to meet with Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith in his office at Griffith Stadium. Griffith, on many occasions, would look out his window and see Leonard and Gibson smashing the ball a country mile, while his weak-hitting Senators floundered year after year. All three talked, but nothing came of it. Leonard said later: “He talked to us about Negro baseball and about the trouble there would be if he took us into the big leagues. But he never did make us an offer.” The same type of meeting occurred on another occasion at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, in the office of the Pirates’ owner Bill Benswanger with the same two players. Nothing came of that, either. No owner wanted to hire blacks for fear of a backlash from the rest of the league. But it must have been tempting for these two lowly clubs badly in need of wins and higher attendance.

In his later years, after catching for decades, Gibson’s knees bothered him to the point where his running speed dropped significantly. He put on too much weight, and also hit the liquor hard and had, allegedly, found his way into marijuana, then hard drugs, including heroin. Over the winter of 1946-1947, he experienced headaches and blackouts. On January 20, 1947, following Jackie Robinson’s appearance with the Montreal Royals of the International League and months before his breaking the MLB color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson died of a stroke brought on by his apparent substance abuse. But many friends and family felt Gibson had died of a broken heart as a result of not making the majors.

How great was Josh Gibson? He could certainly hit, but his catching, as stated earlier, may be in question, according to some. In the majors, Gibson probably would’ve hit at least 500 homers, maybe 600, with a close to .300 batting average. In the same 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players that saw Paige taking the 19th slot, Gibson came in one better at 18. 

Gibson and Buck Leonard, who lived in the shadow of Gibson for many years with the Grays (somewhat the way Lou Gehrig did as Babe Ruth’s teammate with the New York Yankees), both made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame of Fame in 1972, the year after Satchel Paige. Leonard came in at Number 47 on the above 1999 Sporting News list. In his 1995 autobiography written by James A. Riley, Leonard said about his friend and teammate, Josh Gibson: “Nobody hit the ball as far as he did and as often as he did. They used to say our baseballs were more lively than major league balls but they weren’t. It was just that Josh hit the ball farther.” Leonard  also said: “He had more power than Jimmy Foxx.”

Summing it up, Monte Irvin, former Negro League and Major League star stated: “It’s too bad baseball couldn’t have integrated 15 years sooner because the fans really would have seen the cream of the crop…many of them were awesome.”

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


Exhibit card of Satchel Paige,
Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago
(US Public Domain)
In the “Good ol’ Days” when major league baseball did not permit blacks to play alongside whites because of the color of their skin, pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige and slugger Joshua “Josh” Gibson were the two biggest drawing cards in the Negro Leagues before the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson in 1947.

Leroy Paige was born in Mobile, Alabama on July 7, 1906, the seventh of eleven children. Growing up in Mobile, Paige fell in with the wrong kind of crowd and played a lot of hooky from school. He also received his nickname of “Satchel” at age seven while carrying luggage bags around the local railroad station. At 12, he was caught stealing a handful of toy rings and was sent to reform school for black boys at Mt. Meigs, Alabama. There, he got regular meals, a bed to sleep in, an education, and a chance to play baseball, which he excelled at, especially pitching.

Released from the school in 1923 after five years, the 17-year-old Paige went home to Mobile a 6-foot-three, 140-pound kid with size 13 feet. The next year, the right-hander joined the semi-pro Mobile Tigers. For the next two years, he also pitched for other semi-pro teams in the area, until the Chattanooga Black Lookouts of the Negro Southern League offered him $50 a month in 1926. Within a year, the “all-fastball” pitcher’s pay jumped to $200 a month, an excellent salary at the time.

In between playing for Chattanooga, he jumped ship--sometimes with permission, sometimes not--a couple times by playing for other teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans, before returning to Chattanooga. By the time he was sold to the Birmingham Black Barons in 1928 and given $275 a month, Paige’s reputation in the Negro Leagues began to grow substantially.  So did his ego. By 1930, he was attracting crowds of 8,000 or more, a hefty attendance given the time and place. He also jumped again, this time to the Baltimore Black Sox for a few weeks, before heading back to Birmingham.

In 1931, the Black Barons sold Paige to the Nashville Elite Giants, who moved to Cleveland, but disbanded in mid-season. Gus Greenlee, a black Pennsylvania numbers king putting a barnstorming team together called the Pittsburgh Crawfords, offered Paige $250 a month and he took it. Over the next few years, the Crawfords became the best black team in history. Paige went one step further by saying they were: “The best team I ever saw, black or white.”

In 1932, the Crawfords won 99 games and lost 36, with Paige winning 23 and losing 7. When he wasn’t throwing for the Crawfords, Greenlee rented Paige out to semi-pro clubs where the pitcher could make a few hundred bucks dazzling crowds with such antics as striking out the occasional batter while his three outfielders sat on the bench. On the Pittsburgh roster were some of the best Negro Leaguers to ever play the game: Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who could pitch and catch, Ted Page, Jimmie Crutchfield, Herbert “Rap” Dixon, William “Judy” Johnson, Oscar Charleston, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and Josh Gibson, with the latter four all in today’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

With his showboating high kick, blazing fastball, and pin-point control, Paige hurled his way to a 31-4 record for the mighty 1934 Crawfords, who were now playing regularly in the Negro National League. Leased out by Greenlee, Paige also found time to pitch three games (he won all three) for the bearded House of David team as it took the well-publicized Denver Post tournament in August, 1934. There, he played before crowds of 10,000-plus. Under a two-year contract he had signed that spring with the Crawfords, the now-married Paige asked for more money from his parent club. Greenlee refused and Paige finished out the season for an integrated semi-pro team in Bismarck, North Dakota, owned by car dealer Neil Churchill. Paige’s contract: $400 a month and a used Chrysler off Churchill’s lot.

Greenlee, furious at Paige, used his power as league president to ban Paige for the 1935 season. So, he spent the entire year pitching for Bismarck, alongside some Negro League additions. The team went out and won the 1935 National Baseball semi-pro tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Throughout the 1930’s, Paige pitched many off-seasons in winter ball, mostly in California, as well as regular barnstorming tours against teams headed up by Dizzy Dean. In his prime, Paige pitched year round.
1949 Bowman card of Satchel Paige
(US Public Domain)

Paige returned to the Crawfords in 1936 for a $600 monthly contract, the highest in the league up to that time. In mid-season, he took time off to pitch for a Negro National League All-Star team that won the Denver Post tournament. In early 1937, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael L. Trujillo was being opposed for reelection in his country by an opponent who had imported a baseball team that was beating everybody on the island. Trujillo needed a better team to win the election and the first player he wanted was Paige. At spring training in New Orleans, Paige caved into the dictator’s agents who came to convince him to jump south. Paige took eight other Crawfords with him to the Dominican (leaving Greenlee furious again) where the team eventually won a round-robin tournament that kept Trujillo in office. Paige and the eight others came away with a reported $30,000 combined.

Returning to the Crawfords for 1938, Paige rejected a $450 monthly salary from Greenlee, who promptly sold him to the Newark Eagles. Paige refused to report and left to play for a team in Mexico City in the Mexican League. But, south of the border, he developed his first sore arm. By late summer, he could barely lift it. Back in the States, Paige was informed by a doctor that his pitching career was as good as over. He was only 32.

Due to Paige’s past habits for ignoring contracts, no one in Negro League ball wanted to hire the free wheeler for even a coaching job: that is, except Kansas City Monarchs owners J. L. Wilkinson and Tom Baird, who placed him on their B squad that toured the American Northwest and Western Canada under the name of Satchel Paige’s All-Stars, with Paige playing first base and lobbing pitches from the mound for an inning or two. Despite a shadow of his former self, Paige was still a drawing card.

Then, all of a sudden, by late-1938, Paige’s arm returned to him and the Monarchs called him up to the A squad where he was the team’s ace for the next ten years. By now, Paige was relying more on a mix of off-speed pitches and fastballs. Then, in mid-1948, the Cleveland Indians were making a run for the American League pennant and they needed some pitching insurance. The flamboyant owner Bill Veeck called on Paige, the master showman, who signed on his birthday. As a 42-year-old rookie, Paige drew 201,829 fans for his first three starts. Playing in 21 games down the stretch, he won 6 games to one loss and posted a 2.48 ERA in the Indians championship year.

His career winding down, Paige was released by Cleveland after the 1949 season, following Veeck’s selling of the club. Paige returned to barnstorming in 1950. However, Veeck, the new St. Louis Browns owner, brought Paige back in 1951, where he became an effective relief specialist incorporating a screwball and a knuckleball to his arsenal, only to be let go once again after Veeck sold the Browns in 1953. Then in 1956, Veeck did it once more. As part owner of the Miami Marlins of the AAA International League, he hired Paige to pitch, which he did until 1958 for $15,000 a year plus a percentage of the gate. After that, Paige was in and out of barnstorming and pro ball. In 1961, he made a year-ending appearance with Portland Beavers of the AAA Pacific Coast League for 25 innings (striking out 19, while posting a 2.88 ERA); then a three-inning stint in 1965 at age 59 in a regular season game with the Kansas City Athletics where he went through the Boston Red Sox batting order, giving up only one hit: a double to Carl Yastrzemski.  

His last organized professional game was June 21, 1966 for the Peninsula Grays of the Class A Carolina League, a two-inning affair. In 1967, he toured with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns for $1000 a month, plus bonuses for appearances in major league parks. The next year, Bill Veeck came to Paige’s rescue a fourth time, when he discovered that his old friend was a month shy of the minimum five years in the majors to receive an MLB pension. So, Veeck convinced writer Jimmy Breslin, who had connections with the Atlanta Braves, to ask a staff member on the team to do the right thing and hire Paige and place him on the active roster as a coach. They agreed and Paige received his pension.

In 1971, Satchel Paige was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: the first of the black stars elected by the Negro League Committee. For years, some players, coaches, managers and historians had been calling Paige the best pitcher ever, black or white. In his career, according to Paige himself, he threw over 2,500 games for at least 200 teams. He died of heart failure June 8, 1982 at his home in Kansas City, Missouri.

How good was Paige? If the color line was non-existent in his prime, he probably would’ve won 300 games, mixed in with some MVP and Cy Young Awards. He was selected number 19 on the 1999 Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. The best pitcher ever? That’s debatable, considering some of the iconic pitchers over the years, including four hurlers in the above Sporting News 100 who had beat him out: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Alexander, and Cy Young.

If not the best, let’s agree that Paige put on the best show.

Two weeks from today—Josh Gibson