For the longest time, the Negro Leagues were more myth and legend than they were fact. Stories were told about players, teams, leagues, seasons, managers, and careers that painted many as legends more than they did baseball playing human beings. When it comes to players like Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, John Donaldson, Leon Day, and many more, the legends became the truth in the hearts and minds of any baseball fan who had an interest in the Negro Leagues. There has always been one man who held the crown of the most legendary of the legends. To this day he is revered and talked about with both excitement and wonder. The man who made some call Babe Ruth the white Josh Gibson.
To hear Buck O’Neil tell stories about Josh Gibson one would think he was talking about a god come to life. The way he made bat hitting ball sound like a tree falling over in the forest. How Gibson could hit any pitcher anywhere at any time he wanted. How Gibson was both nimble on his feet and as powerful as a bulldozer. It’s not just O’Neil though, Gibson became the legend of the Negro Leagues because everyone talked about Gibson in the same way that O’Neil talked about him. Eventually, him being the best ballplayer ever and better than Babe Ruth wasn’t just a legend, it was accepted fact.
More often than not the legend does not live up to the facts. With our own eyes, we see that even great players are are mere mortals, no matter the legends ascribed to them. That has never seemed to matter with Gibson, as the emergence of facts only elevated his legendary status to newer heights. The reason for that is simple: Gibson has lived up to the legend. We may never be able to find and chart all of his supposed 800+ home runs. However, every year more of his actual results are being discovered and the picture being painted is of a player who earned every bit of the legend.
Perhaps no season better exemplifies the legend of Josh Gibson than his 1943 campaign with the Homestead Grays. The Grays themselves are a legendary franchise and – full disclosure – my favorite Negro League franchise by a wide margin. In 1943 they were, as usual, a stacked team. The Grays went 78-23-1 that year, easily outpacing the rest of the Negro National League on their way to defeating the Birmingham Black Barons to capture the Negro World Series crown. Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Buck Leonard, and Jud Wilson would all go on to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Vic Harris, Howard Easterling, Johnny Wright, and a few more of the 1943 Grays players are worthy of more attention than they have ever received. However, standing among them all was the indomitable Josh Gibson, knocking down trees game after game.
The right-handed hitting and throwing catcher was the star of the Nergro Leagues in 1943 and really should have been in all of baseball. At the plate he made opposing pitchers scared to even throw a ball his way. Yet, they did and continually paid the price for their hubris. In 249 at-bats he slashed .466/.560/.867 for an OPS of 1.427 and an OPS+ of 290. Gibson was 190% better than the average NNL hitter in 1943, and the legend grows all the more believable. He hit 20 home runs, 9 triples, and stole 4 bases while also hitting 22 doubles and drawing 52 walks. He posted an insanely high wOBA of .622 (for comparison’s sake Mike Trout is rightfully considered to be the best player in baseball currently, and in the discussion for greatest of all-time, and his wOBA in 2018 was .447) and an ISO of .402. A quick search on Baseball-Reference with the minimum at-bats set to 200 reveals only 13 seasons in the history of the major leagues (excepting the Negro major leagues which regrettably have never been acknowledged by Major League Baseball as major leagues) with an ISO above .400. Every one of those seasons, with the exception of Sammy Sosa’s 2003, belongs to one of Ruth, Barry Bonds, or Mark McGwire.
Gibson could hit, but he could also field. There aren’t good advanced stats, or any stats really, for Gibson as a fielder simply due to fielding statistics during his playing days being fairly useless. However, we know from the stories that Gibson was good at blocking pitches and able to pounce on balls in play that most other catchers couldn’t. Running on him was dicey as he had a cannon for an arm that also happened to be as accurate as they come. There aren’t any caught stealing statistics for the NNL in 1943, but a quick scan of his career reveals years where he threw out handfuls of runners while allowing no actual stolen bases. He was also versatile and in 1943 he saw action at catcher and in both right and left field.
All told in 1943 Gibson put up an sWAR of 7.4, and that’s without counting the other 0.3 he added in various all-star games and the Negro World Series. 1943 is one of the only seasons Gibson played in where his statistics are almost all known. He has about ten seasons where enough of his statistics have been unearthed to provide an accurate account of those seasons. The accounts are always the same, in every year where there are enough known statistics Gibson is among the very best in baseball.
Not all legends get the ending they deserve, and Gibson is further proof of that. Before the 1943 season began, a tumor was discovered in Gibson’s brain. He would decline to have the tumor removed and played the next four years with said tumor causing recurrent headaches. It has been reported by former Negro League players that the debut of Jackie Robinson in MLB also took a toll on Gibson’s psyche. He was among the best baseball players in the world, and yet Gibson never got so much as an ounce of consideration by any MLB club. This led to drinking and drug use as Gibson struggled with being denied a chance to show the rest of the world what Negro League fans already knew about him. In January of 1947, Gibson suffered a stroke and was dead at the age of 35.
The legend of Josh Gibson lives on to this very day. His Hall of Fame plaque lists him as having hit over 800 home runs in Negro League and independent baseball. The year before he died he posted an OPS+ of 195, and that makes it all the easier to understand why Gibson’s stature only became greater after his death. He is one of the greatest baseball players to ever live, and his 1943 season with the Grays is the height of his deserved legend.Next post: Proposing an MLB Salary Floor
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