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Birth of a Slugger: The Incomparable Josh Gibson

This is “Hooks” Tinker’s (third from the left) personal photograph featuring a very early image of his “discovery,” Josh Gibson (fifth from the left), from Josh’s first professional team, the 1928 Pittsburgh Crawfords.

His feats were so incredible as to be unbelievable. Fact or fiction, baseball’s most prolific slugger was often mired in legendary tales.  

This folk hero’s roots can be traced to rural Buena Vista, Georgia, about 20 miles east of Columbus. In 1911, Josh was born to sharecroppers Mark Gibson and Nancy Woodlock. In 1924, they took the 12-year-old to the steel mill city of Pittsburgh. They settled in Pleasant Valley on Pittsburgh’s north side, where young Josh excelled as a track star and a swimmer before becoming a diamond gem.

Four years later, Reverend Harold “Hooks” Tinker, Sr., a modest player and the first manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, spotted Josh as a 16-year-old kid on the sandlots of the Hill District. From 1927 to 1930, Tinker played center field for the semipro Crawfords, with added duties as team captain and manager. The son of a barber, mortician, and porter, Tinker shared his discovery of black baseball’s most celebrated hitter with Sport Collector’s Digest writer Brent Kelley.

“We played a white team on the north side of Pittsburgh and this kid was playing third base. Now you can believe this—Josh Gibson—I ain’t never seen nor heard of him. First thing, he was such a fine looking specimen for a young man. He was so adequately built for baseball and I noticed his movements in the beginning of the game. He made several plays at third base and the thing I noticed about him was his coolness. He threw out runners, he’d let them run a little while, then he’d cock his arm and throw; and he could really throw the ball. I said, ‘We could use this kid.’ 

“As the game progressed, he had a couple of hits, but in about the seventh inning he hit a ball out of sight, up over a mountain! They didn’t even think about going where that ball went. I said, ‘Look, this boy would make us just about what we need to be.’ I didn’t know he was a catcher. At the time, our catcher [Wyatt Turner] was the weakest hitter on our team.

“I asked [Gibson] would he like to play for a real baseball team and he said, ‘Yeah,’ so I said, ‘You come up Tuesday evening and you be playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords.’ And he showed up. Somebody had seen him play with a company team—elevator drivers from Gimbel Brothers—and they said he was catching that day they saw him and he looked good. So I asked him and he said, ‘Well, that’s what I am—a catcher.’ I said, ‘You’d never think it by looking at you play third base. From here on, you’ll be the catcher for the Crawfords.’ He was only 16. He was really built; he wasn’t nothing but muscle.”

Josh Gibson is standing in front of the Pittsburgh Crawfords’ bus in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1932 with Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston (to Josh’s right) and others.

Pastor Tinker later told historian Rob Ruck, “Josh was built like metal. There was no fat on him. If you ran into him, it was just like running into a wall. Yes, sir, that’s the way he was built. His muscles were hard. He was a sinewy type. He wasn’t big. He was big, muscular, but there wasn’t no fat on him. He was a powerful boy. He hit balls out on Bedford Avenue [Greenlee Field], and up in that hospital. He was the most tremendous hitter I’ve ever come across in baseball—I’m barring none.”

Indeed, Gibson was the ultimate hitter. Often mistakenly compared to Babe Ruth, Josh was more like Johnny Mize or Ted Kluszewski—power hitters who seldom struck out. Hitting with power, and a high average, Josh was a blue-collar banger without the glitz and glamour of his Major League counterparts. Gibson was simply known as Josh—no nicknames, no monikers, no labels, no tattoos, no earrings, no pixie dust—who bullwhipped pitchers with a mighty swing. Former Crawfords teammate Julius “Judy” Johnson once boasted, “If Josh Gibson had been in the big leagues in his prime, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron would still be chasing him for the home run record.”

Now playing in Santa Clara, this photo shows Josh with his friend and fellow catcher Raphael.

Another third baseman turned catcher, Sam Hairston, recalled his playing days against the mighty Gibson. “The first time I saw Josh was in 1944, when I was a young third baseman in the league. We were playing the Grays in Washington, DC. One time the game situation called for a possible bunt. And Josh was up. So I don’t know Josh from anybody else, so I breaks in for the bunt and Josh doesn’t swing. Instead he steps out of the [batter’s] box when he sees me. He hollers at the manager, ‘Hey what are you trying to do, get this kid killed?’ The manager looks at me and calls time and says, ‘Get back, get back, get waaayy back on the edge of the grass.’ I got back on the edge of the grass and Josh swings on the next pitch. I turned sideways and the ball went right across my chest to the left field fence on one hop. If I had of been playing in, I would have been killed.” 

As a member of the Homestead Grays, Josh carries his mighty bat.

Said catcher Bill “Ready” Cash of the Philadelphia Stars: “Josh weighed about 220. His arm was as big as a leg. When Josh would come up, the infield moved back.”

Added Hooks Tinker: “He was of grizzly bear stature, but had a teddy bear personality. You give him an ice cream cone and he was satisfied.”

During a 1936 contest, according to the New York Daily Worker, “Gibson slammed a ball clear over the center field wall in Forbes Field, Pittsburgh.” That blast has only been duplicated by three others: Mickey Mantle, Oscar Charleston, and Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart. The daily paper also claimed that he held the record for the longest balls hit out of Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium (a 550-foot shot into the center-field bleachers) and Griffith Stadium in Washington.

Griffith Stadium was home field to the Homestead Grays and the Washington Senators of the white league. Senators’ owner Clark Griffith said of Gibson: “He hits a ball for more distance with less effort than any player I ever saw.” In 1943, Josh gave joy rides to 10 baseballs out of the spacious stadium, more than all American League sluggers combined in 77 games. Perhaps Tinker’s Grand Canyon-esque claim of Gibson hitting a ball over a mountain wasn’t too farfetched.

These tall tales by Tinker, Griffith, and Hairston may have been the reason that Fox television decided to feature Gibson as an alien in their X-Files series in April 1999. Agents Scully and Mulder found out that he hit 61 home runs in 1947. Josh was unlike any slugging species before or after him. As the show noted, “The Truth is Out There!”

Gibson split his Negro League career wearing Crawford red and blue-steel Gray. Papers reported him winning home run titles in 10 seasons and a couple of batting titles, while calculations based on box scores, reveal an incredible .925 slugging percentage in 1943, followed by .644 the next season. However, selecting Gibson’s best season is like picking the Temptations’ greatest CD—there are just too many to choose from.  

Selecting Gibson’s best day in the batter’s box is a little easier. On five occasions, he had more than 10 total bases in a game. On August 19, 1934, and July 16, 1939, against the Philly Stars, and on May 31, 1943, against the Elite Giants he hit two homers each day, plus a few singles. He went 3-for-5 on July 31, 1937, against the Elite Giants, hitting three home runs for 12 total bases. Perhaps his best effort came on June 8, 1934, against the Cleveland Red Sox, when he banged out a double and three home runs in six at-bats for 14 total bases.

In addition, the media reported Gibson hitting four home runs in a 1938 game played in Zionsville, Pennsylvania, against the Memphis Red Sox. Unfortunately, the newspapers of this mining town failed to publish a box score, preventing calculation of total bases or slugging percentage for that historic day, and a ranking for record immortality.  

Not that it mattered to Gibson. As teammates recalled, Josh never entertained a serious moment, except for his Goliath assault on hurlers. The 6-foot-1 man-child loved the game with a belly-busting laugh, and teenage exuberance. Tinker’s discovery became the game’s most cherished star.

Please visit our Bats Exhibit where you will see Josh Gibson’s rare game-used bat along with those of other baseball stars of yesteryear.

 

 

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