Josh Gibson: The Greatest Hitter Ever?
One of the great things about baseball is its history and potential for great debate. Who is the best team ever? The best pitcher ever? The greatest hitter ever? The sport has an abundance of statistical information which continues to cultivated even to this day. When making an assertion about a player and a team, there’s usually plenty of context in which to paint the accomplishment and compare through the eras.
One area that is a bit more challenging is assessing Negro League players. Previously the lack of reliable statistical information and the inconsistency of league operations had meant relying on mostly anecdotal information when determining the value of a player. Through the recent research, particularly done by the Baseball Hall of Fame and Seamheads.com, we’re getting more of that hard data, and are able to put more context to the players, and compare them to their contemporaries.
That’s where Josh Gibson comes into play.
Gibson is almost a mythical figure, sometimes dubbed “the Black Babe Ruth”. His hitting prowess is legendary, with stories of 700-foot home runs and eighty home run seasons. Some accounts stated that he had over one thousand career homers,
Of course much of the information and competition couldn’t be verified. The legends and the eyewitness accounts were compelling enough though to get him voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the second African-American to be so honored after the great Satchel Paige.
So, how good was Josh Gibson?
Let’s look at some of the recently mined stats. We know that at age 18, he led the Homestead Grays, a team with three Hall of Famers, with a 1.110 OPS. As a 19 year old, he slugged .563 for the 1931 Grays, a team recognized as one of the greatest in Negro League history. In 1932 he signed with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, who are sometimes compared to the Yankees for their ability to attract star power. He subsequently led the Crawfords to Negro National League II championships in 1933, 1935 and 1936.
Gibson moved back to Homestead in 1937 and teamed with first baseman Buck Leonard (“the Black Lou Gehrig”) and added league championships in 1937, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. Homestead took the Negro League World Series crowns in 1943 and 1944
Throughout this time, Josh (only needed to call him by his first name around knowledgeable fans of the time) was recognized as one of the true stars of the Negro Leagues, and was voted to the East-West game, the Negro League’s all-star game, nine times.
Clearly he was an elite player. Seamheads research indicates that Gibson led all Negro League position players in WAR eight times. By comparison, of all Major League Baseball players, only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays led their league in WAR more often. Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract stated – “Gibson was probably the greatest catcher in baseball history and had he played in the majors would have hit over 500 homers in his career” – Mike Piazza currently holds the record for the position with 396.
John Holway in his book Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers stated that Gibson had a .424 career average against white MLB players, mostly attained on barnstorming tours and winter season games.
Gibson’s career slash line of .365/.449/.690 (.372/.456/.717 in league play) compares well with Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, etc. even if one assumes that the numbers are a bit inflated due to inconsistent competition.
After looking at the stats, I go back to the anecdotal reports – I don’t disregard them. He had a catcher’s body – 6’-1”, 213 pounds per Seamheads – yet had a grace about him. Most of the sources I accessed stated that he had an easy righthanded swing, and the ball just jumped off of his bat.
By 1946 when Jackie Robinson was playing for the Montreal Royals, Gibson was 34 years old and struggling with health issues. He still was among the top players in the Negro Leagues, but younger players like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, both of whom would play in the majors, had overtaken Gibson as the best players.
Sadly, before Robinson took the field in Brooklyn in April of 1947 Gibson was dead, having suffered a massive stroke in January at the too young age of 35.
“There is a catcher that any big league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.” – Walter Johnson