Gibson's power was legendary
The slugging catcher's teams were buoyed by his bat
His legend might stand as tall as Kilimanjaro, yet so much about catcher Josh Gibson and his life mirrored tall tales more than fact.
As one tale from the diamond goes, Gibson was playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords when he came to the plate in their half of the ninth inning. Trailing by one run, the Crawfords had a man on first with two outs.
The runner -- a fast, young ballplayer -- tried to steal second.
He didn't make it. Game over.
Afterward, Gibson walked over to the young ballplayer and politely asked him, "Son, what were you trying to do?"
The man said, "I was trying to get into scoring position."
Gibson looked at the man and said, "Son, I'm in scoring position when I step into the batter's box."
True or not, was that just confidence or was it more akin to cockiness?
It's hard for anybody to read much cockiness into the soft-spoken Gibson's brand of honesty. The truth spoke for Gibson. For unlike any other hitter in the storied history of "black baseball," nobody had the effect on the game that Gibson did.
"I'm sure a case could be made that Gibson could've been one of the top five players of all time -- at least one of the top 10 players of all time, period," said Dick Clark, a respected baseball historian and the author of The Negro Leagues Book.
The oral accounts of men and women who sat in ballparks and watched Gibson play seemed to echo Clark's perspective. Fans, rivals and teammates saw in the muscular Gibson, a coalminer's son, a ballplayer for the ages -- any age. He did things that, many people claimed, Babe Ruth never did.
"Josh was built like Joe Louis and could punch like Joe Louis. Only with a bat," Satchel Paige said before he died. "If Josh was livin' today, the Major League teams would be cuttin' hogs to get him."
His bat was his trademark. Few people disagree with that reality. His bat brought him notoriety; his bat turned any team he played for into a contender for greatness. Few disagree with that reality either.
To illustrate the point: MLB.com designed a project to pick the five greatest teams in the history of "black baseball." Baseball historians and Negro League experts were polled, and three of the five teams they picked featured Gibson: the 1931 Homestead Grays, the '35 Crawfords and the '43 Grays.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said Brian Carroll, a journalism professor at Berry College and an author of several books on the black press and the Negro Leagues. "That guy was dominant at his position."
Gibson's role on those teams was no different than his role was on other Negro League powerhouses. The list of five teams could easily have included Gibson-led Grays and Crawfords teams from six or seven different seasons, Carroll said.
For whatever team Gibson played on, he made it great.
"There's no one to compare Gibson to," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "So it doesn't surprise me that he had that kind of impact on the various teams he played for."
Take the '31 Grays, the team at the top of the list of great Negro League ballclubs. A season earlier, they had Hall of Famers up and down their roster, but their legendary play didn't reveal itself until they signed the 19-year-old Gibson for the next season. He proved a difference-maker from the start.
"On the Grays, it didn't matter if we got behind by four or five runs, because Josh would hit in 12 runs all by himself," said pitcher/catcher Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, a member of the '31 Grays and man with a career just a step below Hall of Fame quality. "Josh was some kind of hitter."
His rookie season in '31, Gibson reportedly slugged a Ruthian total of 75 homers. His power bolstered a batting order that included Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston, George Scales and Boojum Wilson, plus Radcliffe, Ted Page and Vic Harris.
Yet as great as the '31 Grays were, they might not have been much better, if better at all, than Gibson's 1935 Crawfords or his '43 Grays. Both of which are teams on the list of five greatest. His play for barnstorming teams and in Latin America and Cuba also fueled his legend.
And his play earned admirers, both white and black.
"That boy's worth $200,000 of anybody's money," said Hall of Famer Walter "Big Train" Johnson, who saw Gibson in games against Major League competition. "He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey isn't as good a catcher."
Better than Dickey, the Hall of Famer?
Kendrick thinks so.
He said no catcher in the game's history could match Gibson's all-around excellence. Gibson, a man whose calm exterior hid his internal chaos, could hit -- he could hit for average and for power, and he could run.
And Gibson's power, he said, rivaled that of Ruth's.
"Everybody I've heard talk about him said he had those amazing eyes," Kendrick said. "He had Barry Bonds-kind of eyes, and he just put the ball in play. He just put the ball in play with great power."
Kendrick said the late Buck O'Neil called Gibson the most complete hitter he'd seen, and in his 70-plus years of watching the game, O'Neil saw most of the greats, including Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx and Ted Williams. And just as the Babe made the Yankees great, Gibson did likewise for each team he took the field for. Put Gibson's bat in the middle of a team's starting lineup, and everybody in the batting order started to look a whole lot better.
Gibson died of a brain tumor Jan. 20, 1947, three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Gibson was 35.
"It's not a coincidence that there would be a common thread between many of those great teams, and that Gibson would be right there to be that common denominator," Kendrick said. "That doesn't surprise me at all."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.