Ninety-seven-year-old Double Duty Radcliffe—nicknamed by Damon Runyon after he pitched one game of a doubleheader and caught the other—is still telling people about an old lady who thought she was safe watching Gibson from the rocking chair on her front porch. "Wasn't no fence in this particular park," Radcliffe recalls. "Someplace in Pennsylvania, I think it was. She's way out there in centerfield rockin' away when Josh hits one. And...and...." Radcliffe erupts in laughter made raspy by a lifetime of cigars. "Josh made that old lady jump."
But of all the stories inspired by Gibson's homers, one resonates most memorably about his life and times. It comes from an article his son, Josh Jr., clipped out of the Pittsburgh Press years ago. In it the retiring mayor of suburban Dormont talked of the day in 1933 that he saw Josh hit a home run out of the local ballpark, over a flagpole and across a street, 470 feet if it was an inch. There were 500 people in the stands, but when they passed the hat, $66 was the best they could come up with in the heart of the Depression. The umpires and ball-chasers got paid first, and the two teams had to divvy up the $44 that remained. Josh's share was $1.67
It was a life on the run, and in the days when he could get away with ignoring real-world complications, he thrived on it. Didn't matter how many whistle-stops he rolled into in the dead of night, or how many bug-infested hotels he slept in, or how many times he was turned away in restaurants by the same white people who cheered his slugging. Josh was going to be Josh: a muscle-stuffed scamp who teased opposing batters by throwing dirt on their shoes and who menaced pitchers by rolling up his sleeves to show off his biceps.
He never said much, but talking wasn't his game. Hitting was. When he had finished another day's work at the plate, he would climb back onto the bus that was his cocoon. It seemed as if nothing could touch him there. All he had to do to keep his teammates happy was lean out the window when they passed another ball club's bus and say what he always said: "Same team won today is gonna win tomorrow." Hell, it even kept the other ball club happy. This wasn't just anybody needling them. It was Josh Gibson.
They called him "the black Babe Ruth," but he was more than that. He was a 1,000-watt celebrity in the parallel universe that spawned him, and his star shone brightest whenever he rolled into one of the big cities on the Negro leagues' endless caravan: New York or D.C. or sweet home Pittsburgh. He would hit the jazz clubs then, places that were to black players what Toots Shor's was to the Yankees, and he would rub shoulders with Lena Home, Duke Ellington and the Mills Brothers as if they were old friends. After a while maybe they were, because they let Gibson get up and sing with the band, sing something smoky or swinging in that rich voice of his.
Pittsburgh's hot club was the Crawford Grille, up on what the locals still know as the Hill. Gus Greenlee ran it with the money he made in the numbers racket, and when he branched out into the Negro National League, he bought Gibson. And Paige. And fearsome, hard-hitting Oscar Charleston. They were the engine that drove the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the '30s, and surely they would have lasted far longer if Greenlee hadn't run afoul of the IRS. Then, in 1937, Gibson went back to the Homestead Grays, back where he had started and where he would finish.
There was heartbreak at both ends of his journey, though the focus usually falls on his premature death, at 35. Overlooked too often is what he faced 17 years earlier, when he was just a kid with a big future in baseball and a pregnant girlfriend who became his wife. The former Helen Mason was 17 when she gave birth to twins, then died before she could hold them in her arms.
From that day forward Gibson didn't stop running until he, too, was in his grave. Fatherhood scarcely slowed him. Indeed, it might have done just the opposite. Says James A. Riley, director of research for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City: "Every time he saw those kids, he thought of his wife." The thought, if you accept Riley's theory, was more than Gibson could bear.
His wife's family fought to change his rambling ways. They were strong Baptists who had been lured out of the South by the clang of Pittsburgh's steel mills, just the way Gibson's family had. The Masons weren't about to stand by while Gibson chose a mere game over the son who bore his name and the daughter who bore Helen's. "There was incredible bitterness," says Ken Solarz, the Hollywood screenwriter who sent a love letter to the Negro leagues with his 1979 documentary Only the Ball Was White. "Can you imagine what it was like when his wife's family told him he had to quit baseball and raise those children? It must have been devastating." It was also ineffective.
Josh Jr., 69 and twice the recipient of a kidney transplant, approaches the issue gingerly, conceding only that he was raised by his maternal grandmother and that growing up he didn't see much of his father. "They used to say the Negro leagues never dropped the ball," Josh Jr. says, "so my father, he was always off playing somewhere." Big Josh spent his summers Stateside, coming back to Pittsburgh every two weeks or so. In the winters he set sail for Latin America and the paydays to be had there. When he returned, it was always with gifts. "Good leather stuff for me and my sister," Josh Jr. says. An empty, groping moment passes. "And we were glad to see him."