Gibson Family Reflections on the Publication of Baseball Reference’s Negro Leagues Statistics
by Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson
The last 12 months have been a whirlwind for the descendants of those who played in the Negro Leagues and for the Gibson family in particular.
In the summer of 2020, a movement within the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) led to the removal of the name of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis from the American and National League MVP trophies. A growing number of past MVP winners and others in the game supported this initiative due to Landis’s central role in barring Black baseball players from MLB-affiliated baseball. Among those whose names have been suggested to replace Landis on the trophy were Branch Rickey, Frank Robinson, and Josh Gibson.
The Gibson family was honored by the suggestion that the trophy be named for Josh. Renaming the MVP Award in memory of Josh Gibson (who likely would have won a couple MVP awards himself, had he been in the major leagues) would do more than just honor a great baseball player. It would remind people of some of the many victims of Landis’ racism—the players who were denied their lifelong dreams of playing ball at the highest level. For all those who came before Jackie Robinson, the “Josh Gibson MVP Award” would be an act of redemption. And poetic justice.1
Then, last December, MLB announced it would add the Negro Leagues to its official records of “major leagues.” According to Commissioner Rob Manfred, “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as major leaguers within the official historical record.” Our family was struck by one phrase in Commissioner Manfred’s press release—"the long overdue recognition” that this announcement will lead to. Recognition is an interesting word. It means appreciate, respect, acknowledge. And these are good words. However, there are stronger words that resonate with us and remain our beacon for honoring the legacy of the Negro Leagues. Words like validation, redemption, justice. In a word, Negro League ballplayers already knew they were major leaguers. It is just that the rest of the world did not.
If you would ask me again on how I felt about MLB’s announcement, I would say, it’s a journey. The Negro Leagues were about a commitment to excellence within the Black community when it had no choice but to engage in segregated business, sports, and community building.
Fast forward to the work of Sports Reference and its Baseball Reference platform that will publish a comprehensive statistical picture of the Negro Leagues, their teams, and the players who competed. We are immensely grateful to Sean Forman and his colleagues who labored diligently in conjunction with Seamheads and the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) to build this platform. For those with little or no knowledge of the Negro Leagues and the era in which they played, the story must be told. We know there is more research to be done as we build on the significant work now in place. We appreciate Sports Reference for being a part of this process.
It is important to recognize the tireless of efforts of the families of Negro Leaguers who have kept the players front and center for many years. Some, like my family, established non-profits to honor their family’s Negro League player, but also to do good for the community, often with a focus on disadvantaged youth through the prism of sports and education. We are grateful to all who have supported our efforts and have made a difference in the lives of others. I know Josh and his counterparts are smiling down on us from heaven when they see our work, much of which has taken place out of the spotlight and media glare.
What about Josh, since it is his story that is one of the many that are lifted up by Sports Reference’s work?
Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, on December 21, 1911. The Gibson family moved north when Josh’s father found work in Pittsburgh’s steel mills. Josh grew up playing ball and gained the attention of local businessman and sports enthusiast Gus Greenlee, who signed Josh to his semipro team the Crawfords, a team that would emerge in the 1930s as one of the powerhouse squads in the Negro Leagues.
The story of Gibson’s 1930 debut for the Homestead Grays is one for the ages. Judy Johnson, manager of the Grays and eventual Hall of Famer himself, needed a catcher after his was injured in a game at Forbes Field against the storied Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson saw Gibson in the stands (he knew of his local sandlot play) and invited him to catch. According to Johnson, “Here we are, Forbes Field is packed. Josh Gibson was sitting in the stands, him and a bunch of boys who played sandlot baseball. I asked if he would catch. ‘Yes sir, Mr. Johnson!’ I had to hold up the game, let him go in the clubhouse and put on a suit.”
Gibson’s career would quickly take off. Over a seventeen-year career, his play for the Crawfords and Grays, along with stints in the Caribbean, would be punctuated by mammoth home runs, a high batting average (BA), and an out-of-this-world On-Base plus Slugging (OPS) percentage. According to Baseball Reference, his career figures were a .374 BA, .719 Slugging, and 1.177 OPS.
Gibson played on two of the best Negro League teams ever—the 1931 Homestead Grays and the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords—and then went on to anchor a Grays team that were League champions every year but one from 1937 to 1945, playing in four Negro League World Series, winning two.
In a February 12, 1938, article in the Pittsburgh Courier—one of the premier African American newspapers of the day—Pittsburgh Pirates owner William E. Benswanger was quoted as saying, “If the question of admitting colored ballplayers into organized baseball becomes an issue, I would be heartily in favor of it. I think that colored people should have an opportunity in baseball just as they have an opportunity in music or anything else.” In response to a request for his assessment of Josh Gibson who played next door, Benswanger responded “Well I saw Gibson about two years ago and he certainly looked like big league timber to me.” The question remained, what would it take to make admitting Black ballplayers into “an issue?” Owners were complicit, if not cowed by Landis’s racism. The doormat Pirates could have benefited from signing some players from those 1938 Grays—Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Ray Brown among them—but Benswanger lacked the courage to blaze the trail a decade before Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers eventually did (not coincidentally after Landis’s passing).
Imagine for a moment if the National and American Leagues were integrated when Gibson began his career in the early 1930s. It is worth asking what difference it might have made and how Black ballplayers would have performed alongside White players. By comparison, from 1948 to 1962, the first fifteen years following Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, the National League awarded 11 of its 15 MVPs to Black ballplayers. (Half of the American League teams did not begin integrating their squads until September 1954 and trailed the senior circuit in the infusion of talent). It was not a question of skill; it was the matter of the lack of equal opportunity that had thwarted Black ballplayers from competition. The 1930s were a special time for the Negro Leagues and players like Buck Leonard, Jud Wilson, Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Mules Suttles, Leon Day, Hilton Smith—in addition to Paige and Gibson—would have helped anchor or round out many a team lineup.
In the storied history of Negro League Baseball, it was Josh Gibson who personified baseball superstardom the likes of which should have been performed for all to see alongside his 1930s and 1940s contemporaries: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. If the barriers between the races did not exist, Major League Baseball would have been all the richer for the competition, the storylines, and the sheer drama and pinnacle of play that the likes of Gibson would have brought to the national game. But like so much of American society in the first half of the twentieth century, MLB chose and countenanced division, separation, and justice for some, but not all. As recent incidents have shown, it is a price we continue to pay even now. But this is not a conversation about what might have been, but about redemption.
The convergence of Landis and Gibson is worth unpacking to explain why Josh’s name should replace Landis’s on the MVP trophy for a league in which he never played. Named Commissioner in 1919, Landis brought with him his legal background, an undying love for the game, and a bitter, relentless racism that would serve him well in thwarting any attempts by team owners to sign Black ballplayers and even banning teams from competing against them. When it came to the latter, Landis continually tried to prohibit or limit postseason barnstorming by major leaguers to control the sport’s product. These prohibitions became equally useful when it meant preventing Black ballplayers from competing on the field against their White counterparts, often besting them in the process, to the chagrin of segregationists.
Despite playing in the shadow of so-called “Organized Baseball”,2 Negro League stars such as Josh were so good such that White America paid them the “compliment” of comparisons with White baseball stars. Monikers like “Rube” Foster (earned from a pitching matchup when he beat Rube Marquard), “the Black Honus Wagner” (John Henry “Pop” Lloyd), “the Black Lou Gehrig” (Oscar Charleston), and yes, “the Black Babe Ruth” (Josh Gibson) all spoke to White America recognizing the greatness of these Black players.
Josh Gibson’s hitting and power was second to none and, coupled with his catching, he helped lead his teams to numerous first-place finishes. A 1972 Hall of Fame inductee (along with Buck Leonard, making for the second and third Negro Leaguers enshrined after Satchel Paige), Gibson was a true baseball superstar. His illness and then tragic death at the age of 35 stole from all of us what likely would have been one of the greatest baseball careers ever.
I used the word journey earlier. Breaking the baseball color barrier, the eventual, retrospective recognition of the premier talent from the Negro Leagues in the Hall of Fame, and overcoming the stigmas attached to race—this is our journey. “Long overdue recognition” of Negro League statistics by MLB is further proof that is bound to attract more attention than we could have hoped for. Shining a light on this history, as Sports Reference is now helping to do, well, that is priceless. That all being said, if we are never again to fall prey to the prejudices that checker our history, we must always retain an appreciation for what happened and what our better angels call on us to be.
- The MVP awards are nameless in the 2021 season and will be renamed at a later date. Back
- “Organized Baseball”—a term created to include the American and National Leagues and their associated minor leagues to the exclusion of the Negro Leagues, implying that Negro baseball was less “organized.” Back
About the Author
Sean Gibson is the great-grandson of Negro Leagues legend and 1972 National Baseball Hall of Fame player Josh Gibson. Sean has dedicated his life to the preservation of Josh’s legacy and is the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, a Pittsburgh-area non-profit organization. The JoshGibson Foundation was established in 1994 in an effort to keep the memory of Pittsburgh’s beloved JoshGibson and the entire Negro Leagues alive. The foundation partners with the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University by matching up college students with elementary and middle school youth for tutoring. With a strong focus on education, the foundation currently serves roughly 300 children and plans to increase those numbers by starting new programs yearly. The foundation also sponsors the Josh Gibson Baseball Academy.