In this most unprecedented of baseball summers, Appalachian Power Park has remained mostly quiet. No ballgames, no seventh-inning stretches, no walk-off celebrations, no toast.
On Friday afternoon, though, Charleston’s gem of a ballpark was treated to a little bit of baseball history.
Through the efforts of the West Virginia Power and the Josh Gibson Foundation, plus a financial boost from the folks at AARP, Power Park hosted a special exhibit of artifacts and memorabilia honoring baseball’s Negro Leagues, the long-defunct professional baseball organizations that thrived before Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers integrated the Major Leagues in 1947.
The exhibit — featuring photographs, equipment and uniforms from Gibson’s Hall of Fame career as a Negro League catcher in the 1930s and ’40s — was originally scheduled to be a central part of the Power’s African American Heritage Night, one of many such events planned this summer across the minor-league landscape. It was lined up to run in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the Negro National League, the first bona fide professional organization of Black baseball clubs.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, wiped out the minor-league season and accompanying festivities all across the land. All, except, Friday’s exhibit at Power Park.
While dozens of other minor-league organizations pulled the plug on the showcase, the Power went into extra innings to keep it on the schedule, whether or not the games were played. It’s the only organization to keep its commitment to the exhibit.
Power power brokers Tim Wilcox (managing partner), Jeremy Taylor (general manager) and Rod Blackstone (“Director of Fun” by title, the team’s community and public relations director by job description and Power Park’s beloved “Toastman”) forged ahead with the idea, baseball or no baseball.
“We just started asking questions,” Blackstone said. “Could we still make this happen? What would it take?”
Well, first it took a promise that social-distancing protocol would be observed at the exhibit, and that required an OK from the mayor’s office and local health officials. It also required some financial assistance.
“AARP was willing and eager to help us make it happen,” Blackstone said. “We couldn’t have done this without their sponsorship.”
Sean Gibson, Josh Gibson’s great-grandson and executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, was on hand Friday to oversee the festivities and express his gratitude to Charleston’s Class A ballclub.
“They’re the only ones doing it. Everyone else postponed it until next year,” Sean Gibson said. “The West Virginia Power decided to keep it going and keep it in conjunction with the social-justice movement and everything else that’s going on in America right now.”
It’s mere coincidence that the Negro Leagues Centennial and a national social-justice movement — following in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis — came along at the same time, but the effect of that coincidence is clear.
“It’s had a positive effect,” Sean Gibson said. “A lot more African Americans are speaking up about this, and we’ve had several players like Andrew McCutchen doing [public service announcements] for us.”
The playing career of Josh Gibson, the main focus of Friday’s exhibit, was awe-inspiring. Debuting in 1930 as a catcher with the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays, he soon established himself as Black baseball’s greatest hitter, ranking alongside pitching legend Satchel Paige as the Negro Leagues’ primary attractions.
Statistically speaking, Negro League numbers are incomplete at best, dubious at worst. Depending on the source, and for a variety of reasons, you’ll find different statistical representations of Josh Gibson’s baseball career, ranging from superb to incredible.
Negro League games were mostly ignored in the “white” newspapers of the time and, given the dismal financial situation of the Depression Era, Black publications of the day often didn’t have the resources to compile and/or track down the box scores of the teams that were of great interest to their readers. Try as they might, baseball historians have found it impossible to provide authoritative numbers from the bygone era. For the most part, we’re left with the legends.
There’s no doubt, though, that Josh Gibson’s playing career was one of the most legendary of the Black stars.
It’s been written that he hit as many as 75 home runs in a single season, and more than 800 for his career. Those guesstimates include not just his Negro League games, but also his games played in barnstorming and exhibition games during the off days in the Negro League schedule, often against white Major Leaguers. They also could include his annual tours in winter ball south of the border, in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, South America and elsewhere, places where Black players earned extra money doing what they did best while facing just a fraction of the discrimination they encountered in the states.
How would Josh Gibson have fared if he was allowed to play in the Major Leagues? We can’t say for sure, but we have an inkling.
In “The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History,” author John Holway — generally regarded as the prime authority on Black baseball — notes that Gibson batted .375 (21 for 56) in his listing under the header “Batting vs. White Major Leaguers.”
Josh Gibson’s career numbers? Again, your mileage may vary. The Baseball Encyclopedia (MacMillan, 10th edition, published in 1996) shows him with a .362 career average with 146 home runs in 501 games, equal to approximately three major-league seasons. According to the numbers published in 2006 in “Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball,” by Lawrence D. Hogan, Gibson was a .359 career hitter with 115 homers in 510 games.
In 1946, at age 34, playing for the Grays in his final season, Josh Gibson hit .288 with seven home runs in 33 games (Hogan). Or he hit .379 with a league-leading 16 home runs in 49 games (MacMillan).
I guess it depends on who you ask.
Gibson’s great-grandson said the statistical record, incomplete, speculative or otherwise, really doesn’t matter.
“Josh played in a time when Black ballplayers were not accepted in the major leagues, but we know he was a great one,” Sean Gibson said. “A lot of people try to discredit his stats based on the teams he played against, but that wasn’t Josh’s choice. He just wanted to play baseball.”
And he did just that, with aplomb, right up until that final season in 1946.
Tragically, Josh Gibson died on Jan. 20, 1947, just 36 years old and less than three months before Robinson became the first Black player to cross the white lines on a major-league baseball diamond in the 20th century. The cause of death was listed as a brain hemorrhage, but contributing factors might have been Gibson’s alcohol and drug abuse detailed in Mark Ribowsky’s warts-and-all biography, “Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness,” published in 1996.
Wendell Smith, the Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter (and a West Virginia State College graduate) who championed Jackie Robinson’s rise to the major leagues, wrote of Gibson shortly after the slugger’s death. An excerpt, as listed in the final chapter of Ribowsky’s book:
“Had his color been another hue, Josh Gibson would have been a major leaguer, swinging at the slants of such greats as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Carl Hubbell and the other “million dollar gems” of the big leagues. But he had the unfortunate experience of being born a Negro and he paid a penalty for that carelessness throughout his baseball life.”
After the color line was broken in 1947, Negro Leaguers made an immediate and lasting impact on the major leagues, particularly in the National League. Robinson was the 1949 NL Most Valuable Player, and a string of Negro League alumni claimed the same distinction in the years to come — Roy Campanella (1951, 1953, 1955), Willie Mays (1954 and 1965), Don Newcombe (1956), Henry Aaron (1957), Ernie Banks (1958 and 1959).
If the greatest players in MLB in the years immediately following baseball’s integration learned the game in the shadows of the big leagues, does it not follow that the greatest pre-integration Negro Leaguers would’ve been similarly dominant in the majors, if only given the chance?
Josh Gibson received his eternal baseball reward in 1972 when he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was just the second Negro League legend — the first was Paige, a year earlier — to make his way to Cooperstown via the Hall’s then-nascent Negro League Committee. The announcement of Gibson’s selection to the Hall of Fame came on Feb. 8, 1972, and his induction date was Aug. 1 — less than three months before Jackie Robinson died, also too young, at age 53.
Yogi Berra was also part of that Hall of Fame class in 1972. Berra and Johnny Bench are usually Nos. 1 and 1A — pick the order as you will — when trying to determine who was the greatest catcher in baseball history.
If you ask me, I’d move Josh Gibson to the top of that list.