Where History Meets Art - Stories Behind the Stuff

Josh Gibson The Black Babe Ruth

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Three months after Josh Gibson died of a stroke at age 35 in 1947 Jackie Robinson started on first base with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a breakthrough moment in baseball history.

“I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.”
— Monte Irvan, Hall of Famer

Gibson, nicknamed the black Babe Ruth because of his ferocious knack of slamming a ball out of the park never made it.  Segregation was the law of the land in his time.  

The Negro Leagues hosted some of the best players in baseball and blacks were reduced to playing in the shadow of white teams. 

Much of their greatness remains a mystery.

Legend has it that Josh Gibson who played for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords in this country smacked a baseball so hard and so high in a game it disappeared and then dropped out of the sky the next day. As the same two teams readied to play again the baseball came flying out of the sky. It was caught by a Philadelphia outfielder and the umpire supposedly yelled, “Josh, you’re out. In Pittsburgh, yesterday!”

Those are the kinds of stories surrounding the baseball superhero. 

Box scores from the era are hard to come by so much about these black players remains steeped in legend. They say Gibson hit a home run clear out of the park in Yankee Stadium, something not even The Babe had been able to pull off.

What is known is that Gibson hit one of the longest home runs ever hit in “the house that Ruth built.” He drove a ball into the leftfield bullpen, over 500 feet from home plate.     

It’s true, Gibson the right hand slugger, never made it to the major leagues but he did make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. 

During his 17-seasons the catcher hit an estimated 900 home runs. He also led the league in home runs for 10 consecutive years. While catching for the Grays his team won nine consecutive Negro League pennants.     

“He can do everything,” said Walter Johnson, one of the all all-time great pitchers. “He hits the ball a mile.  He catches so easy he may as well be in a rocking chair.  Throws like a rifle.”   

Gibson, born in Georgia moved with his family as a boy to Pittsburgh where his dad worked in the steel mills.  Even as a young man he had three things going for him. He was big, strong and fast.  In the end he would be called the greatest slugger in the Negro Leagues.

Well known teams included the Indianapolis Clowns, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs.

"I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron," Hall of Famer Monte Irvin once said. "They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson."

Black kids idolized Gibson.  When he showed up to play they would point to the remotest spot on the field and yell, “Josh, hit one over there.” 

And he often did.

On Oct. 19-20, Christie’s, featured the Golden age of Baseball on the block. Here are some current values for Negro League items offered in the sale.

Negro Leagues

Photograph; Josh Gibson; member of Homestead Grays; standing by himself; circa 1943; 7 inches by 9 ¼ inches; $10,625.

Lifetime Pass; Chicago American Giants; signed by greats like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, etc.; 3 ¾ inches by 2 ¼ inches; $13,750.

Team Photograph; Pittsburgh Crawfords; 1928; includes Josh Gibson; 10 inches by 6 inches; $17,500. 

Signed Contract; Josh Gibson; Puerto Rican League player contract; 1941; $25 weekly plus round-trip ticket from New York to Puerto Rico; $100,000.

Bat; Josh Gibson professional model; Spalding, Model Number 300; dating from 1935; 36 inches long; $319,500. 

 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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