A plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame credits the greatest slugger in Negro League history, Josh Gibson, with “almost 800 home runs,” earning him his popular nickname the “Black Babe Ruth.” Some people even suggest it is more fitting to call Babe Ruth the “White Josh Gibson.”
Born in Buena Vista, Ga. on Dec. 21, 1911, Gibson planted his roots in America’s pastime in 1929 when he began playing for the Crawford Colored Giants, a semi-pro team in Pittsburgh. Word spread of the catcher’s uncanny ability to hit monster home runs. Gibson made his professional baseball debut with the Homestead Grays in July 1931. In that year, he helped lead the team to a championship.
The next season, Gibson joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the other Negro League ball club in Pittsburgh, where he won three home run titles in five years. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gibson led the Negro National League in home runs for 10 consecutive years and accumulated a lifetime batting average of .373 – one of the top batting averages in Negro League history.
“You look for his weakness, and while you’re lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs,” Hall of Famer Satchel Paige said about Gibson.
On Aug. 27, 1939 in the annual East-West All Star Game at Yankee Stadium, Gibson hit a home run rumored to travel 580 feet. A combination of Gibson’s powerful swing as a hitter and arm strength as a catcher made him a menace to pitchers and baserunners around the Negro Leagues.
Despite Gibson’s incredible talents as a professional athlete, he never played in a Major League Baseball game due to the sport’s unwritten racial barrier. However, in 1972 Gibson would join the greats and become the second player from the Negro Leagues to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame – the first being his teammate, Satchel Paige.
Gibson’s life ended from a stroke on Jan. 20, 1947, but the legacy he left as a power-hitting catcher can still be experienced at the Heinz History Center’s Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum where you can see a life-like figure of him the Hall of Famer.
Ryan Hreczkosiej is a volunteer intern with the Communications department at the Heinz History Center.