But that's what greatness is: an exaggeration. Of talent, of charisma, of the acts that live long after the athletes we deem legendary have shuffled off this mortal coil. So it is with Gibson, who opened Irvin's eyes in 1937 by hitting a simple grounder so hard that it knocked the shortstop who caught it backward. Then there was the night in McKeesport, Pa., as Irvin's Newark Eagles played Gibson's Grays, when Gibson bashed a homer and the mayor stopped the game until the ball was found, because he'd never seen one hit that far. "I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron," Irvin says. "They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson."
This is different from Roy Campanella telling one and all that he couldn't carry Gibson's mitt. Or Walter Johnson arguing that Gibson was better than Bill Dickey in the days when Dickey was the benchmark for catchers. Or Dizzy Dean, a true son of the South, wishing his St. Louis Cardinals would sign Gibson—and Satchel Paige—so they could wrap up the pennant by the Fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time. Irvin, with his proclamation, leaves himself no wiggle room. He doesn't just count Gibson among the game's greats; he ranks him first.
To help make his case, Irvin paints a picture of a ninth-grade dropout from Pittsburgh who grew up to become John Henry in baseball flannels: 210 pounds of muscle sculpted on a 6'2" frame, with the speed of a sprinter and a throwing arm that cut down would-be base stealers with lightning bolts. There is no mention of the fact that Gibson was less than artistic behind the plate—"a boxer" for the way he jabbed at the ball, in the estimation of his otherwise admiring former teammate, Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe. Likewise, Irvin remains silent on Gibson's struggles with pop-ups. Dwelling on shortcomings doesn't burnish a legend, and Irvin knows it. Better to concentrate on Gibson at the plate. "You saw him hit," Irvin says, "and you took your hat off."
You might even use that hat to fan yourself, so overheated are the statistics Gibson left behind: a .354 batting average for his 17 years in the Negro leagues, .373 for two summers in Mexico, .353 for two winters in Cuba. "Lifetime .300 and a whole lot," croons Buck O'Neil, the old Kansas City Monarch with a gift for euphonious phrasing. "He come up there righthanded, kind of a wide stance, didn't take much of a stride. But great shoulders, great wrists. Hit that ball a long way all over."
Gibson's statistical pinnacle was the .517 average he parked in the middle of the Grays' 1943 lineup. It looks like a typo, but The Baseball Encyclopedia says .517 is really what the man hit. He did it using bats and balls that were inferior to the ones big leaguers used. More significant, he did it with people arguing that his average wouldn't be so fat if he had to hit against white pitchers. These same doubters, however, never would have dreamed of belittling the Babe's 60 homers or Ted Williams's .406 season or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak because they faced nary a pitcher of color. So maybe Gibson delivered his most important message by batting .412 against the big leaguers on autumn barnstorming tours that the black teams dominated. Says O'Neil: "He wanted to prove he wasn't inferior to anybody."
Gibson made his point with his batting average, then made it again by hitting so many home runs that only the blind and bigoted dared ignore him. If you embrace everything you hear, there were 962 homers—including 75 in 1931, 69 in 1934 and, brace yourself, 84 in 1936. But not even the greatest Gibson advocate will try to convince you that box scores are available to document all the homers with which Gibson is credited. Nor are you expected to believe that every pitcher to whom he laid waste was prime beef. There were too many games against semipros and independent teams, too many games played for the sole purpose of making enough money to get to the next backwater town and the next rocky diamond. That was life on the fringe, where black baseball existed.
Yet when Negro league teams went head-to-head, the competition matched that in the big leagues—and Gibson, predictably, was up to the challenge. Witness his 11 homers in 23 games in 1936, his seven in 12 games in '37 and his 17 in 29 games in '39. "If you factored in what he did in league games over the old 154-game schedule," says Negro leagues historian John B. Holway, "he would have broken Ruth's record at least three times."
It is doubtful that any of the old-timers at Scotty's barbershop knew that or would have put much stock in it if they had. Statistics were for kids and white people. The barbershop regulars wanted something more out of baseball, something they could feel the way they felt a Charlie Parker saxophone solo. "They were like African-Americans everywhere," Gerald Early says. "They connected to baseball in a different way from white Americans. They built stories, they built myths, and those tended to become the sole reality."
Thus the tale of how Gibson, alone among men, hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium. It would have been in September 1930, just months after he joined the Grays at age 18. They were playing the Lincoln Giants when he caught hold of a pitch thrown by the estimable Connie Rector and sent it soaring into never-never land. "I heard it bounced off the subway train," whispers Orlando Cepeda, sounding more like the awed child whose father played with Gibson in Puerto Rico than the slugger whose own plaque is in Cooperstown. Everybody has heard something about the homer—that's the problem. Nobody has ever found a shred of documentation, not even in a newspaper story about the game. The best guess is that the ball landed in the far reaches of the left-centerfield bullpen. Not that saying so will stop anyone from telling the story. Not that anyone will cease using it as a springboard to all the other home runs that fueled Gibson's mythology.
Some homers you can document, like the one he launched out of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a feat duplicated by only a select group that includes Ruth and Willie Stargell. Other shots are forever confined to folklore, like the one that supposedly knocked a public-address speaker off the grandstand roof in Washington's Griffith Stadium. "I didn't see it," confesses Don Newcombe, a workhorse righthander for the Newark Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers, "but that's what the other players said." Of course they did.