A large, heavily muscled man, Gibson was known as the Black Babe Ruth for his prodigious home run hitting. Since Negro league statistics were incomplete and often inflated by team owners, no one knows how many homers Gibson hit in his 18-year career. Folklorists have him belting as many as 962 altogether and 84 in a season, although they add the disclaimer that many of those homers were hit in exhibition games against semipro teams.
There is little question, however, that Gibson could hit for distance with the best. He is, for example, supposed to have hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium in 1934. One writer, recalling the wallop years later, said that it "rattled off the escarpments in front of the 161st Street Elevated Railway" some 680 feet from home plate. Gibson, a proud man but one not given to self-inflation, shot down this story, saying he lined one into the bullpen in centerfield, a mighty blow but far from superhuman.
Beyond his hitting prowess, Gibson was a swift and smart base runner and a gifted catcher. Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean, who pitched against Gibson on big league barnstorming tours, were unabashed admirers of the catcher, as was Walter Johnson, who watched Gibson play in Washington, D.C., where the Grays held many "home games" in the late 1930s and early '40s. There was no question in the minds of these baseball legends that Gibson would have had a historic major league career. Of course, he never had the chance. But in black baseball only the much more flamboyant Satchel Paige, Gibson's sometime battery mate, rivaled him in popularity.
Alas, Gibson was also a deeply troubled human being. The central tragedy of his life was the death of his wife, Helen, in childbirth when Josh was a newlywed 18-year-old. After Helen died, "that enthusiasm [Josh] had for life was gone," said his sister-in-law Rebecca Mason. Gibson left the rearing of the twins from his only marriage to his in-laws and sought escape from his loss in baseball, drink, women and, finally, drugs. His physical and mental deterioration was such that by the time he reached his early 30's, friends and teammates were scraping him out of gutters and packing him off to hospitals to dry out. Amazingly, through it all, Gibson continued to hit the ball out of the park.
In 1943 he suffered what was reported in the Negro press as a nervous breakdown. Family members said that his illness had been diagnosed as a brain tumor. But Ribowsky, who is also Paige's biographer and the author of a history of the Negro leagues, could find no medical record to substantiate this claim. Still, there was no doubt that Gibson was a sick man. And on the night of Jan. 19, 1947, the 35-year-old catcher was found unconscious in a Pittsburgh movie theater. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage the next day, barely three months before Jackie Robinson made his major league debut.
Wendell Smith, the respected sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, wrote at the time that exclusion from big league baseball had "sent the 'king' to his grave." Negro leagues veteran Wilmer Fields disagreed, telling Ribowsky, "Josh coulda played in the majors; he coulda contributed. But that's not what killed him. He had nothin' to feel shortchanged about."
In 1972 Gibson was elected to the Hall of Fame. Like his fellow Pittsburgher Wagner, he had achieved at least this measure of immortality.