Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The kid tapped his bat on Yankee Stadium’s home plate and tugged at the sleeves of his gray visi­tors’ uniform, revealing biceps “built like sledge ham­mers.” Before him, the stadi­um’s left field roof, with its famous gingerbread lattice facing, soared one hundred and eighteen feet into the air some four hundred feet from home plate. The scene was the World Series of 1930, and the young man, not yet nine­teen years old, was about to blast one of the longest shots ever hit in the House that Ruth Built.

The kid was Joshua “Josh” Gibson, who only a few weeks earlier had been blasting Herculean drives out of sandlots in Pittsburgh. For his Yankee Stadium debut, he was wearing the flannels of western Pennsylvania’s Homestead Grays of the old Negro League, one of the most powerful teams – no matter the color – in baseball history. On the mound, “Broadway” Connie Rector of the New York Lincoln Giants let Gibson, the rookie, fidget. Rector, with a record of twenty wins and two losses for the previous sea­son, deliberately threw one of the slowest balls in the game. “It crawled up there,” one old-timer muttered. Any power would have to be supplied by the batter himself.

Rector delivered, and Gibson swung and pulled a drive into the stadium’s notorious “Death Valley” in left-center field. What happened in the ensuing moments will never be known for sure – no individual who actually saw the ball Josh Gibson hit is known to be living. Two eye-witnesses, now deceased, claimed it sailed between the roof and the third deck and banged back to earth against the back of the bullpen, which then angled between the grandstand and the bleachers. Two feet higher, and it would have been the only fair ball ever known to leave Yankee Stadium completely! A third witness, Homestead Grays’ Hall of Famer William “Judy” Johnson, insisted that the ball went “over the roof­ – over everything” and flew out of the park. Gibson’s only comment about the incident was made eight years later dur­ing a newspaper interview. “I hit the ball on a line into the bullpen in left field,” he told a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier. He called it one of the two longest shots he’d ever hit in his life.

But did the ball fly over the roof or not? Ballistic experts believe it would have been almost impossible to launch a fly ball high enough to clear the roof on the way down and strike the bullpen wall. Nevertheless, Gibson’s drive trav­eled five hundred and five feet, according to stadium dia­grams, making it probably the longest home run in history made by a teenager.

Only one week earlier, at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, Gibson may have hit one even harder, the first ball ever hit over the center field fence four hundred and fifty-seven feet away. Others have done it since – Oscar Charleston of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, and Dick Stuart of the Pittsburgh Pirates – but in 1946 Josh Gibson became the only baseball player to do it a second time.

In his seventeen year career, Josh Gibson set records in parks all over the country. “Anytime you saw all the limbs of the trees knocked down, you knew Josh Gibson had been there,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel used to say. Few individuals today real­ize that Gibson was not just a slugger. He was also one of the most consistent hit­ters in history. His lifetime batting average of .362 was the second highest in “blackball” history. In 1943, he batted more than .500!

Joshua Gibson was born on December 21, 1911, in Buena Vista, Georgia, just outside Columbus. It was, per­haps, the unluckiest time for a black player to enter the world of sports. For one thing, it meant that he would play almost his entire career during the Great Depression, the nation’s most devastating economic catastrophe of this centu­ry. It also meant that he would endure years of racial dis­crimination – from which sports were not immune. The majority of American fans missed seeing one of the nation’s most amazing athletes of the twentieth century.

In 1923, Gibson’s father had moved the family north to Pittsburgh, which the ballplayer would later say was the best thing that had happened to him. They lived on “the Hill,” and he attended vocational school until he was fifteen years old. He then joined the Little Crawfords as a third baseman, digging grounders out of the rocky infields and blasting home runs half-way up the hillside.

In those days the Homestead Grays were the finest black team in the country. Moody, mighty John Beckwith played everywhere in the field and was one of the most fierce­ – and fearsome – sluggers in the annals of baseball. In 1921, at the age of nineteen, he became the first player ever to hit one over the wall at Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds. “Smokey Joe” Williams, the lanky half-black, half­-Commanche Texan could still fog the ball. He had a lifetime record of 20-7 against barnstorming major leaguers, includ­ing Walter Johnson and Grover Alexander. In 1952, Williams was voted the greatest black pitcher of all time, outpointing Leroy “Satchel” Paige by a single vote.

Young African Americans dreamed of playing for the Homestead Grays much the way white youths dreamed of growing up to be a Yankee. In 1929, the dream came true for seventeen year old Josh Gibson. Both Homestead Grays catchers injured their fingers, and team manager Vic Harris’ brother commandeered a taxi cab to a neighborhood play­ground to race back with Gibson to catch one game. On Friday, July 25, of the following year Gibson was in the stands at Forbes Field to watch the first night game in Pittsburgh’s history as the visiting Kansas City Monarchs set up portable lights, which they had been hauling from stadium to stadium all summer.

“Forbes Field was packed,” remembered Johnson. “The Monarchs had this big bus, took all the seats out, and put in a big dynamo. I couldn’t see the outfielders out there. If the ball went up above the lights, you had to watch out it didn’t hit you in the head.” In the dim light, pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams could not even see his catcher’s fingers. Missing the sign, Williams split the catcher’s finger with a pitch, and Gibson was called out of the stands to catch.

“I never saw a man get hit so much,” Johnson laughed, “in the chest, knee, mask. But he finished the game. I felt sorry for the poor boy.”

“How’d I look?” the kid asked Johnson afterwards.

“You looked bad,” Johnson answered honestly. “But if you want to continue playing baseball, we’ll sign you.”

A month later Gibson’s young wife Helen died giving birth to twins. Gibson placed the babies in the care of his in­-laws and set out with the Homestead Grays on a barn­storming tour with the Kansas City Monarchs. He desper­ately needed the money.

Gibson struggled defensively. He had a strong arm, but the players teased him and called him “Boxer” because he caught as if he were wearing boxing gloves. His hitting wasn’t much better; he batted only .242 on the tour. His only home run occurred in St. Louis. He “hit the ball four hundred and some feet,” St. Louis outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell marveled. “Bring him up close so we can look at him,” Bell had said, and then blinked. “He is just a boy!”

The Homestead Grays returned triumphant from the West and then challenged the Lincoln Giants in the series for the eastern black baseball crown as Josh Gibson sudden­ly sprang to life. He batted .368 with three home runs in the nine games and black newspapers began calling him “Samson Gibson.” The following season, 1931, he hit a hearty .361, with six homers in thirty-two league games, a pace that would have produced thirty-one homers if Gibson had been playing the normal major league season of one hundred and fifty-four games. Not bad for a teenager play­ing his home games in Forbes Field, the toughest home run park in the National League with a left field foul line three hundred and sixty-five feet away.

Because some game box scores have been lost, sports his­torians and enthusiasts will never really know how many games Gibson played. Most of his games were played against semi-professional (and white) teams in the tri-state area of western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. One report, albeit unconfirmed, claims Gibson hit a total of sev­enty-five home runs that season.

Josh Gibson stood flat-footed, took almost no stride, and used a short, quick stroke. When the Yankees’ Babe Ruth or Jimmie Foxx of the Athletics swung and missed, they often ended up on the ground, their legs crossed like corkscrews. Not Gibson, though, who may have been the first of the modern wrist-hitters. “He didn’t have Ruth’s eight-foot cut,” said Ric Roberts of the Pittsburgh Courier. “His bat blurred through the strike zone like a swarm of bees.”

Gibson was one of the best curve-ball hitters of all time, and players swore he could reach out with one hand and hit an outside curve over the right-field fence. He was hitting the cheaper Wilson Sporting Goods ball, unlike the Spalding and Reach balls used in the white majors. “If he’d had a good ball,” moaned catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, “he’d have killed somebody!” Gibson also faced bean balls, cut balls, spit balls, and mud balls. Anything was legal in the Negro leagues, unlike the white leagues which had rules prohibiting such pitchers’ tricks.

To fans and fellow players alike, Gibson appeared to be happy-go-lucky, just a big kid. “Oh, he was jolly all the time!” William “Judy” Johnson remembered. “You had to love him.” After a game, while older teammates usually embarked on a night of drinking and carousing, Gibson and a friend, outfielder Ted Page, would go out for ice cream. They would often find a game of “one ol’ cat” with some kids. According to Johnson, Gibson “played just as hard with those kids as he had in the two games that afternoon.”

That fall Josh faced a white big league pitcher for the first time, right-hander George Uhle (11 and 12, with the seventh-place Detroit Tigers). Gibson drove out two homers and two singles in six times at bat as the Homestead Grays crushed the big league all-stars, 18-0.

In 1932, flamboyant Pittsburgh tavern owner and rack­eteer Gus Greenlee moved into the black baseball arena with money he had made on “the numbers,” an early (and illegal) version of today’s popular lottery games. Greenlee organized a new team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, named for his Crawford Grille, and bought almost the entire Homestead Grays team, including Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, and a skinny fastballer from Birmingham – later a baseball legend – Leroy “Satchel” Paige. Gibson was appar­ently tempted by a handsome raise of one hundred dollars a month. Thus was born probably the greatest battery in baseball history. Greenlee wasted little time in advertising that “Satchel” Paige would strike out the first nine men he faced, and Gibson would hit at least one home run. Gibson fell off to .286 at bat, but Paige enjoyed a good year, 14-8, against black opponents. The Crawfords boasted the best black team in the country-many enthusiasts compare them to the 1927 New York Yankees team, considered the all-time kings of white baseball. The Crawfords that fall played Stengel’s white All-Stars in a series of seven games and won five of them.

In 1933, Bell counted seventy-two homers for Gibson, eight of them in forty-six league games. One of the blasts came in the coal mining town of Monessen, Westmoreland County, where the ball struck a watchman’s shack under an apple tree beyond the center-field fence. The mayor was so amazed that he ordered a tape measure brought to the field and announced the distance as five hundred and twelve feet. In autumn of the following year, the Crawfords played a post-season barnstorming team organized by World Series hero “Dizzy” Dean of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals. In Philadelphia, Gibson drilled three hits, including a triple. In York, Gibson slammed two home runs as angry fans booed. Dean trotted by the Crawfords’ dugout, mopped his brow, and muttered, “‘Satch,’ if you ‘n Josh played with me and (brother) Paul on the Cardinals, we’d win the pennant by July fourth and go fishin’ the rest of the year.”

A riot broke out in Pittsburgh when Crawfords manager Vic Harris registered disagreement with an umpire’s call by pulling the umpire’s face mask and letting it snap back on his face. Sheer bedlam followed. Gibson managed a stran­glehold on Dean’s catcher, George Susce, a Pittsburgher. Ted Page and “Dizzy” Dean tried to pull Josh off, but he just shrugged them away. When they finally pulled him away, Page remembered, Gibson “was kind of scratched up and had lost his hat in the scuffle, but he had a big satisfied grin on his face like, ‘Well, that was a good one.'” It took Greenlee’s friend Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to keep them all out of jail.

That winter Gibson went to Puerto Rico and blasted anoth­er of his famous “five hundred footers” against the wind on a San Juan beach. Hall of Famer Johnny Mize of the St. Louis Cardinals witnessed the blow and said Gibson “jumped straight up in the air” when the ball went over the fence.

Josh Gibson began attracting even more attention – and acclaim. “That boy,” said Washington Senators pitching great Walter Johnson “is worth two hundred thousand dol­lars of anybody’s money. Too bad,” he added, “that this Gibson is a colored fellow.”

In 1935, Satchel Paige jumped the Crawfords to play semi­professional ball in North Dakota, but the Crawfords won the pennant without him. The following year Josh was bash­ing home runs at the rate of one every seven times at-bat, or a home run pace of 14.2 per one hundred times at-bat, higher than Babe Ruth’s major league record of 11.8 set in 1920! But that was the last year for the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

In 1936, Gus Greenlee’s political friends were ousted from office, and his stars – Paige, Gibson, and Bell – desert­ed him to accept an attractive offer from Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina. The night before the championship game police locked up the players to be sure they remained sober. On the day of the big game guards armed with sub-machine guns ringed the stands “like firing squads,” Paige wrote. The players were told to “win or else.” They did win and grabbed the next plane for home and safety.

Gibson returned to his old owner, Cumberland “Cum” Posey of the Homestead Grays, who bought his contract for twenty-five hundred dollars and traded two players, a swap hailed as “the biggest player deal in the history of Negro baseball.” One of the two players traded was Pepper Bassett, who entertained fans by catching in a rocking chair.

Josh Gibson “put new life into everybody,” says Grays first baseman Walter “Buck” Leonard, who now lives in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Leonard and Gibson would become the Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of black base­ball. The Homestead Grays, newly transplanted to Washington, D. C., won the first of nine straight pennants. No professional team in any sport has topped that mark, and only Sadaharu Oh’s Tokyo Giants, between 1965 and 1973, have matched it.

Gibson had one big factor going against him: the park itself. Washington’s Griffith Stadium was the only park in the majors worse for hitters than Forbes Field. Gibson’s left-­field target was four hundred and eight feet away, and his home run totals fell off to four in 1938. That summer New York Yankees outfielder Jake Powell created a sensation when he declared that he was a sheriff in the off-season “and enjoyed crackin’ niggers’ heads.” Although Powell later apologized, his remark was indicative of the general racial tension of the era.

Gibson bounced back in 1939 to slug seventeen home runs in only twenty-nine games. If he could have kept that pace up for 550 at-bats, a typical white season, he would have slammed one hundred and eight for the season! And he was playing mostly in Washington and Pittsburgh, his least favorite fields. Admirers often imagine what he might have accomplished if he had been playing in cozy Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn or in Boston’s diminutive Fenway Park.

Life in the Negro League required hard work and even harder traveling, especially for the Homestead Grays, who commuted two hundred and sixty-five miles by bus between Pittsburgh and Washington, D. C. Players slept in the crowded bus, gulping sandwiches and swilling sodas, and harmonizing melodies made famous by the Mills Brothers until they dozed off. If they were lucky enough to find a rooming house, they kept the lights on all night to keep bedbugs at bay.

In 1940 and 1941, Gibson joined many players in Mexico, where Jorge Pascual was offering great money for stars, hailed by Mexican fans as national heroes. There were no torturous bus rides and ramshackle dives for these black baseball players.

Josh Gibson returned to the United States in 1942. In the spring the Red Sox gave a tryout to a college football player named Jackie Robinson. “He stole everything but the play­ers’ jock straps,” one Boston official muttered. But Robinson never heard from the scouts again.

The Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, began agitat­ing to open the major leagues to blacks. Baseball commis­sioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis replied sternly that “there is no rule, subterranean or otherwise, against hiring Negro players.”

“Was the judge jiving?” asked the Pittsburgh Courier, which euphorically predicted “Negroes Will Soon Play in the Big Leagues.” A writer for the newspaper interviewed Pittsburgh Pirates coach Honus Wagner and outfielder Paul Waner, who said they had played against “countless” blacks who could have played in the big leagues. Courier editors privately told Bill Benswanger, owner of the Pirates, that he could have the entire Homestead Grays team, although they had forgotten to ask “Cum” Posey what he thought of their generous offer. “We will give any man a chance when asked,” Benswanger replied, but added that it was up to manager Frankie Frisch. It was all “a lot of bunk,” the players scoffed. A naive Josh Gibson could not believe the talk wasn’t sincere. “Aw,” he said, “I don’t think they’d joke about a thing like that.”

In the meantime, The Sporting News, the bible of baseball, warned that riots would erupt if the races were mixed on the field or in the stands, concluding that segregation was for the benefit of both races “and also for the game.” Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith called Gibson and Leonard into his office to discuss the agitation for bringing them onto his team. “Well, let me tell you some­thing,” Griffith concluded, “if we get you boys, it1s going to break up your league. Now what do you think of that?” The two shifted their weight. The room was quiet. Finally, Leonard broke the silence. “We’d be happy to play in the major leagues, and we believe that we could make the majors.” Gibson and Leonard never heard from Griffith or from Benswanger again. Paul Robeson, the great singer, actor, and athlete, pleaded with the owners to “have a heart,” but his words fell on deaf ears. The Pirates finished sixth that year, and it would be another eighteen years before the team would win another pennant. Griffith’s Senators would never win another.

Honus Wagner sighed. Gibson was “one of the best nat­ural hitters I’ve ever seen, but it’s too late for the big leagues now.” At thirty, the once light-hearted Gibson grew increasingly bitter. He began drinking. The players found him one night sitting on a window ledge high above the street, talking to himself. “Come on, Joe, talk to me. Why don’t you talk to me? Heh, Joe DiMaggio, it’s me. You know me. Why don’t you answer me? Huh, Joe? You ain’t gonna answer me?”

In September the Grays faced the Monarchs, the champi­ons of the West, in the black World Series. The game pitted Gibson against his former teammate “Satchel” Paige, who had anxiously awaited the match-up. Paige deliberately walked several hitters to make the bases loaded before Gibson, then struck him out on three straight sidearm curve balls at the knees and swaggered off the mound.

In 1943, Gibson was classified 4-F by the military because of bad knees and exempted from the draft. He was rushed to a hospital on New Year’s Day with a possible brain tumor but refused to permit an operation. His behavior grew erratic and frightening. Teammates discount­ed reports of Gibson’s drinking, but several secretly suspect­ed drug abuse. According to Leonard, Gibson acted “like a drunken monkey.” He was eventually committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D. C. Yet he had one of the greatest seasons any batter has ever enjoyed. He batted .517 in fifty-seven games and led the league in doubles, triples, and home runs! Ten of his home runs came in Washington, D. C., more than all the sluggers in the American League could hit in seventy-seven games there. Gibson’s slugging average was 1.411; Babe Ruth’s highest had only been .847.

With wartime prosperity, Negro League attendance soared. “Even the white folks were coming out,” Paige chor­tled. “They’d heard about Josh and me.” At the big East­West (or black all-star) game in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Gibson and Paige staged a two-man strike for more money. Players normally received fifty dollars each for the game, which was played before fifty thousand people. Paige and Gibson demanded two hundred dollars. The league boss “almost fell out of his chair,” Paige later chuckled, but the pair got their money, and the following year all players received one hundred and fifty dollars each.

In November 1944, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis died, and the following April a southern­er, Kentucky Senator A. B. “Happy” Chandler, was named to replace him. That day Courier reporter Ric Roberts raced to interview him. “Hell, yes,” Chandler said, “if a black boy can make it on Guadalcanal, he can make it in major league baseball!” It was the signal for which Brooklyn’s Branch Rickey had been waiting.

Who was Jackie Robinson?” Gibson and Paige demand­ed. “Why not us?” But the scouts flocked to watch the younger black players, the Monte Irvins, the Larry Dobys, and the Willie Mayses. In May 1945, just months after the electrifying news that Jackie Robinson had been signed to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract, the thirty-three year old Gibson appeared haggard and daunted. He was broken-hearted and bitter that the virtually unknown Robinson had been chosen and not himseli. Gibson was catching for the Washington, D. C., Homestead Grays, originally out of Homestead, Allegheny County. He had been in and out of mental hospi­tals for alcohol and suspected drug abuse, and he seemed to be roaring toward his death, less than two years away.

By 1946, all eyes were on the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal, where Robinson was capturing newspa­per headlines. Black fans turned their backs on their old heroes. “We couldn’t draw flies,” Leonard later said. Despite his frustration and anger, Josh Gibson, thirty-four and out of shape, enjoyed one of the greatest seasons of his life. In forty-nine games he pounded sixteen homers, at a pace of sixty-seven for a full big league season. Several of the balls flew more than five hundred feet, and one sped over the center-field wall at Pittsburgh. And, it seemed, no one cared.

That winter in Pittsburgh, in a bar on the Hill, Josh Gibson drank and brooded. His weight had fallen to one hundred and eighty pounds. One cold Saturday night he bumped into Ted Page on a windy street corner. They rassled playfully, and Gibson continued home where, sur­rounded by his trophies, he apparently suffered a massive stroke and died. He was buried in a numbered grave in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery. Twenty-eight years later Puerto Rican promoter Pedrin Zarilla and Page found it – covered with weeds. Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell led a campaign to buy a headstone.

In 1948, Josh Gibson would have been proud. The star athlete’s son and namesake, Josh Gibson, Jr., a Pittsburgh resident, broke another organized baseball color line that his father had died assaulting by becoming the first black to play in the Middle Atlantic League.

Now, years later, the cause of Gibson’s death remains a mystery and it’s still a subject of speculation. Did Josh Gibson die of a stroke, a drug overdose, a brain hemor­rhage? No one really knows. Some contend he drank him­self to death. Others believe he died of a brain tumor. Friend and former teammate Ted Page thought it was a bro­ken heart.

No matter the cause, defeat and death came much too early for Josh Gibson, the heartbreak kid.


For Further Reading

Bankes, James. The Pittsburgh Crawfords. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Publishers, 1991.

Brashler, William. Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

Fields, Wilmer. My Life in the Negro Leagues. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Corporation, 1992.

Holway, John B. Blackball Stars. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Corporation, 1988.

____. Black Diamonds. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Corporation, 1989.

____. Josh and Satch. Westport: Meckler Corporation, 1991.

____. Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. New York: Dodd, Mead Company, 1975.

Paige, Satchel. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Ribowski, Mark. Satchel Paige. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Riley, James. The Negro League Encyclopedia. New York: Carroll and Graff, 1994.


John B. Holway of Springfield, Virginia, saw his first Negro League baseball game in 1945, when Josh Gibson’s Washington Homestead Grays played host to the Kansas City Monarchs with Leroy “Satchel” Paige and Jackie Robinson. He first wrote about the Negro Leagues in a story about Gibson that appeared in the Washington Post Magazine in 1969. He followed that article with contributions to Look, American Heritage, and the New York Times, among others. He is the author of Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975), Blackball Stars (1988), Black Diamonds (1989), and Josh and Satch (1991). Blackball Stars won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of 1988. His other books include The Pitcher with John Thorn (1987) and The Last .400 Hitter (1991). He is currently work­ing on Black Wings, Red Tails, a history of an all-black fighter plane unit of World War II. Two decades ago the author inter­viewed Negro League veterans, nearly all of whom are now dead, which is the source for quotations used throughout this article.