A plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame credits the greatest slugger in Negro Leagues history, Josh Gibson, with “almost 800 home runs.” August 7, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the hall of famer’s induction.
Born in Buena Vista, Georgia, on December 21, 1911, Josh’s father Mark moved to Pittsburgh’s Pleasant Valley (now Charles Street Valley) neighborhood then later sent for Josh and his family to join him as part of the Great Migration in the 1920s. By 1929, the teenager began playing for the Crawford Colored Giants, a semi-pro team in Pittsburgh. Word spread of the 6’1”, 215-pound catcher’s uncanny ability to hit monster home runs. Soon he’d star for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords in the only city which supported two Negro League teams. Gibson’s powerful swing and arm strength as a catcher combined to make him a menace to pitchers and baserunners around the Negro Leagues. Josh became a legend on Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Mexican teams as well.
As teammate Satchel Paige said, “You look for his weakness, and while you’re lookin’ for it, he’s liable to hit 45 home runs.”
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 (alongside teammate Buck Leonard) to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame – the first being Satchel Paige. Finally, in 2020, Major League Baseball retroactively decreed the Negro Leagues from the years 1920-1948 to be official major leagues. Many of Josh Gibson’s statistics have rewritten the record books. Currently there is also a movement to rename one of the two MVP awards (N.L. & A.L.) to be named the “Josh Gibson MVP Award.”
Gibson’s life tragically ended as a result of a stroke on January 20, 1947, at the age of 35, shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues’ color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Josh Gibson Foundation does a wonderful job promoting his legacy, partially through community youth programs. Learn more about Josh Gibson’s extraordinary life and celebrate his contributions to baseball at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum where you can see a life-like figure of the Hall of Famer.
Ryan Hreczkosiej was a former volunteer intern with the Communications department at the Heinz History Center. Craig Britcher is the assistant curator of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.