Josh Gibson's slide into sadness; Part man, part myth, 'The Black Babe Ruth' is ranked among baseball's greatest players. He also caught his share of misery.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE BASEBALL SEASON is in full swing, and as we embrace and salute Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, two of the greatest single-season home-run hitters in the major leagues, we also must remember that long-forgotten slugger from the Negro Leagues: Josh Gibson.

Let's begin this remembrance with Buck O'Neil, the resident raconteur of Negro League baseball history. O'Neil, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs, remembers a poignant incident from 1942. "A guy named Lick Carlisle singled," O'Neil recalled, "then he was thrown out trying to steal second base."

Afterward, a disappointed Carlisle sauntered back to the dugout. As he returned, he sheepishly spoke to Gibson. O'Neil picks up the story again. Said O'Neil, "Carlisle told Josh, 'Man, I should have been in scoring position with a steal.' Then, Gibson told Carlisle, 'Man, when I come to the plate, I'm in scoring position.'"

That's Josh, affectionately known among Negro League players as "the Black Babe Ruth" and a fun-loving guy who was the Master of the Monster Mash. O'Neil, 86, played against Gibson from 1937 to 1946. Added O'Neil, "When you watch Mark McGwire hit a home run, you're watching Josh Gibson."

Gibson is part man, part myth. He's part Horatio Alger (from humble beginnings) and, unfortunately, part Jimi Hendrix (Gibson ended his career with severe substance-abuse problems before dying in 1947 at age 35). And Gibson is an integral focal point of apocryphal legend and lore. That's the precipitating factor here. Where does the man end and the myth begin, and how do you filter through the legend and lore to gain a grip on reality?

The reality centers around numbers. Some historians say Gibson hit 800 home runs in his career; others say 942. In fact, one figure, quoted in a book titled "Black Diamond" by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick McKissack Jr., puts the number at an astronomical 972. Because of these discrepancies, we must rely on basic memory and anecdotal recall of Negro League baseball history.

Baseball is a sport ruled and governed by statistics. This game's epicenter is numbers, numerals, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, logarithms, mathematics, algebra. That's why we have such a difficult task getting a handle on Gibson's career. By all accounts, we know that he was a great player, but the math equations simply give us monumental problems -- and questions -- when Gibson is the subject.

When they say, "Go figure," take it literally.

Case in point: John B Holway, author of "The Complete Book of the Negro Leagues," recently wrote in a contribution to the Washington Post: "The legend also says Gibson slugged 75, or even 85, home runs in one year, 942 in his career. He did not. His highest totals were 22 in 1943 and 209 for his career, because the Negro Leagues averaged only 40 or 50 league games a year. (The rest were against semipro teams.)"

O'Neil, however, vehemently disagrees. "Don't you believe it," said O'Neil, referring to the 209 figure. "People who say that Josh hit that number of home runs are only counting those games that had reporters there. Josh played more than 15 years; he hit more home runs than that. Remember, the writers didn't follow our games the way they followed the white players in the major leagues. The black-owned newspapers covered us when we came to their towns.

"When we played in New York City, the New York Amsterdam News covered our games. But if we played the New York Black Yankees in Albany, we didn't get the coverage. Look, we still played a Negro League game there."

Suppose Gibson actually hit, say, 500 home runs during his career in the Negro Leagues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, who's to say that he did not hit 1,000? Therein lies the ambiguity, not to mention dichotomy, of Josh Gibson.

Regardless, after famed pitcher Satchel Paige was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1971, the first player so honored for his Negro League achievements, Gibson was elected in 1972. "He was a great ballplayer," said Connie Johnson, 76, a former pitcher in the Negro Leagues. "He could throw, he could run and he could hit; very few catchers have great arms, and very few can run."

Gibson was a taut 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 214. "I tell you who Josh Gibson was built like?" O'Neil offered. "Bo Jackson."

So, he was Babe Ruth without the extra girth and fat, at least for most of his career. A scaled-down version, but just as strong. "I don't think there's any question that Josh Gibson was one of the greatest hitters of all time -- white or black," said Robert W. Peterson, 72, author of the book "Only the Ball Was White." "I have talked to black and white players about him. Some of the black players, in particular, say he was, indeed, the finest hitter they ever saw.

"He rates a favorable comparison with anybody you can name -- including Ruth or Gehrig or Aaron or DiMaggio. He's certainly one of the 10 greatest hitters of all time. Some will say he's in the top three, but I'm not quite ready to go that far. That comparison is hard to make because you do not have the statistics to totally back it up with."

O'Neil advanced Gibson's ability and prowess by two rungs on the ladder of stature. "When you say Josh Gibson," O'Neil said, "he could hit .400 like Ted Williams, and he had the power like Babe Ruth."

There are the Gibson tales of feat, steep in verisimilitude, in which fact wholly intersects with fiction. According to "Black Diamond," Gibson "hit a ball while playing a game in Pittsburgh so hard, so high and so far, it vanished. The next day, when he was playing in Philadelphia, a startled outfielder caught a ball that fell out of the sky, inexplicably. The umpire, seeing what had happened, called Gibson out -- 'yesterday in Pittsburgh!'" We know Gibson hit the ball far, but not that far.

He's not David Copperfield, either. Negro League history is famous for exaggerations of apocryphal proportions; that's part of its allure, its ambience.

Gibson, whose life was a saga of triumph and sadness, was born in a small town near Atlanta, Ga. He didn't learn to play baseball until his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was 12 years old. The migration northward was triggered by the Jim Crow segregation of the racially oppressive South. Such a move was not uncommon for many black folk in the South of that era.

When Gibson reached the ninth grade, he figured that baseball should be his calling. So he abandoned school to play for semipro teams. His position was catcher, and he quickly earned a reputation as a solid hitter.

During his late teens, Gibson married his childhood sweetheart, Helen Mason. Passionately in love, they were inseparable. When his wife became pregnant with twins and later developed kidney problems, doctors told Helen's mother that Gibson's wife and children would not survive the birth. When Gibson arrived at the hospital at the last moment, he demanded that doctors to try to save his wife and abort the pregnancy.

But it was too late. The doctors had determined Helen Mason would not live. She died Aug. 11, 1930, as a son and a daughter were born. Gibson was inconsolable. The son, Josh Jr., later was quoted as saying, "I know that my father resented it that we lived and my mother died. He had to; that was his wife they were taking away from him. But I don't think he ever held it against me and my sister in later years. It just showed how much he loved my mother."

Still, Gibson was brokenhearted to the point that he did not give his children names. Their original birth certificates included no first names. They apparently were named for their parents -- Josh and Helen -- and were cared for by their grandparents as Josh just kept playing ball.

That year, Gibson gained his first career break in the national pastime. One day in 1930, when Gibson was 19, he was in the stands watching the Kansas City Monarchs play the Homestead Grays, who had scouted Gibson playing for semipro teams. The catcher for the Grays suffered a hand injury that was serious enough to warrant his exit from the game.

The Grays' other catcher was playing the outfield. The Grays' owner saw Gibson in the seats and asked him to play. Grays player Judy Johnson was quoted as saying, "We had to hold the game up until he went to the clubhouse and got a uniform. And that's what started him out with the Homestead Grays."

Classic lineup

Gibson didn't get a hit, but more importantly, at least on that night, he proved that he could master the catcher's position. He officially was a Homestead Gray, set to team with soon-to-be close friend and left-handed hitting star Buck Leonard, called the "Black Lou Gehrig," in an undeniably classic lineup for a team that captured nine consecutive pennants during one stretch.

According to "Black Diamond," catcher Roy Campanella, who played for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in the majors, once said Gibson was "not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw."

In 1932, Gibson was lured to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He then returned to the Grays in 1937, before playing in Mexico in 1940-41 and returning to the Grays in 1942. Wherever he played, Gibson -- who, like other Negro Leaguers, played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba -- continued to impress observers with his prowess. According to the book "When the Game Was Black and White," Gibson once hit a home run with one hand into the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium.

The Grays' Garnett Blair, who is said to have witnessed the feat, recounted that Gibson "was clowning around. ... He just held the bat with one hand, swung hard and knocked it up there. The crowd gasped. Josh, he just laughed his head off."

For all his on-field dramatics, Gibson's life became a mess off the field during the final three to four years of his career. Many followers of his career believe Gibson's life sank into an abyss when he met a woman from Washington, D.C., named Grace Fournier. She was a reputed alcoholic and drug addict, using everything from marijuana to heroin.

Both were said to be adulterers. Gibson was married to his second wife, Hattie, at the time of the affair. Fournier was married to a serviceman who was shipped to the South Pacific during World War II. Her husband allegedly had ties to the drug, prostitution and numbers rackets in the nation's capital.

The joke about Fournier, an attractive woman with a misleadingly chaste appearance, was that she never met a drink or drug that she did not like. We know Josh drank and drank some more.

However, "there was never any direct proof that Josh used drugs," said James A. Riley, a researcher and writer of Negro League history. "The speculation was that because this woman was using drugs, then Josh was doing it, too."

Riley was the chief researcher for the book "The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game" by Mark Ribowsky. Take notice of the word "Darkness" in the title. Riley, for one, believes that Ribowsky overplayed the negative aspects of Gibson's life. "The book emphasizes one side of his life -- the heavy drinking, the possible use of drugs," Riley said. "But it was only the last three or four years of his life that Josh's body -- and life -- broke down."

During that period, Gibson's behavior became increasingly erratic. He was boozing it up, experiencing awkward memory lapses and slurred speech. At least once, Gibson was confined to a sanitarium, even bound in a strait-jacket. He was said to be suicidal and suffered a nervous breakdown.

In 1943, he was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. "The doctors wanted to operate on him," Riley said. But Gibson declined for fear of being afflicted with permanent paralysis.

So Gibson kept playing, and he gained weight; the muscle turned into flab. Still, Gibson managed to hit .361 in 1946. In one game, Gibson faced pitcher James "Lefty" LaMarque of the Monarchs. "I'm a pitcher who had a breaking ball that went straight down over the plate; I threw it overhand," said LaMarque, 78, who never faced Gibson during the slugger's prime. "I had struck out Josh Gibson two times in the game. The third time, when he was at the plate, Satchel Paige said, 'Waste a pitch.'

"I threw him a ball about shoulder high and about six inches off the plate. And that was the last time I saw the ball."

Josh and Jackie

By the end of 1946, Gibson was nearing emaciation. His wanton substance abuse had taken a severe toll. He suffered from liver and kidney disease and bronchitis. Some have speculated that Gibson shriveled up because his broken heart over all-white major league baseball haunted him psychologically, leading to his destructive lifestyle. When it became clear that Jackie Robinson would be The Chosen to break the major leagues' color barrier, Gibson was said to have wondered, "What about me?"

Was there jealousy? No, says Riley. "Josh and Jackie did not know each other," Riley explained. "Best as I can determine, they were not acquaintances. Buck Leonard, who is a straight shooter, told me there was no jealousy or bitterness by Josh toward Robinson."

Nonetheless, in the end, Gibson was only a shell of his former self. On Jan. 19, 1947, Gibson was bothered by throbbing headaches. He ventured to a movie, thinking that the darkness of the theater would ease the gripping pain.

When the movie ended, the ushers found Gibson slumped in his seat. His attending physician was called. Later, at the home of Gibson's mother, Dr. Earl Simms injected him with a sedative, hoping Gibson would rest better. He awoke that night and asked one last request of his relatives:

"Josh apparently knew he was about to die," Riley said. "So he asked that all of his trophies be brought into the room."

Maybe the gathering of the trophies represented Gibson's last attempt at reclaiming past glory. It has been said that Gibson sat up afterward, chuckled and tried to speak, but he was totally unintelligible. Then he lay down again. "The Black Babe Ruth" was dead.

Gregory Clay writes for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Pub Date: 07/11/99

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