The awkwardness of those words is amplified when the son recalls how he and his sister romped in a field across the street from the house where their father lived with his common-law wife. "We never knew her name," Josh Jr. says.
He thought things would change when he turned 11 and big Josh invited him to travel with the Grays as their batboy for two weeks. This was to be the bonding mechanism for father and son, a ritual that would continue for the next three summers. When Josh Jr. thinks back, however, his memories run mainly to his father's home runs, the art of living on $2 a day in meal money, and riding the team bus with the legend who begat him. They were supposed to sit together up front, Josh and Junior, but once the bus was on the road, the boy always found himself alone. His father had left him to play gin rummy in the back with the other Grays. It didn't matter where big Josh was; he couldn't stop running.
It's a different kind of crack of the bat. I'll tell you what, you listen to a .22 rifle, and then you listen to a .30-30. That's the difference right there.
If you insist on calling the story that follows apocryphal, keep in mind that Buck O'Neil has been dining out on it for years, and he isn't about to stop. It begins sometime in the 1920s with Buck lurking behind the outfield fence in Sarasota, Fla., fresh out of the celery fields where he usually toiled, and surrounded by kids as hungry as he was. They were there to track down the balls that sailed over the fence and sell them to tourists eager for spring-training souvenirs. Never mind that the Yankees had rolled into town with their Murderers' Row. This was strictly business.
And then it wasn't. As the longest ball of the day soared into view and the take-no-prisoners race for it began, young Buck stood stock-still, mesmerized by the crack of the bat. "Oh, a beautiful sound," he says more than 70 years later, as rhapsodic as if he'd been the first to hear Heifetz or Hendrix. In an instant Buck was climbing the nearest pine tree, going up the wooden slats that kids had nailed into it as steps so they could watch games without paying. "When I got to the top," he says, "I saw this guy with a big barrel chest and skinny legs and a beautiful swing." Dramatic pause. "It was Babe Ruth."
A decade or so later, O'Neil was the Kansas City Monarchs' first baseman, and the first time he suited up in Griffith Stadium to face the Grays, he heard it again. That wondrous sound. "So I ran out of the clubhouse, through the dugout and onto the field," O'Neil says. "There was this beautiful black sucker. Big chest, broad shoulders, about 34 inches in the waist. That was Josh Gibson. Hitting the ball, making it sound just like Babe Ruth. I'm standing there taking it all in when I hear people laughing, people applauding. I look around, trying to find out what's the matter, and one of my teammates says, 'Buck, you got nothing on but your jockey strap.' "
O'Neil returned to the clubhouse embarrassed but wiser, for he knew he had the perfect standard for assessing sluggers. They had to match the Babe's sound, and Josh's. If you think it's easily done, be advised that when O'Neil traveled to St. Louis last year, McGwire flunked the test.
Oh, there were some players back in the day—Cool Papa Bell and Mule Suttles, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day and Martin Dihigo. Legions of them when you get right down to it, men who make you want to weep for having missed out on seeing the Negro leagues. Yet the two names you always come back to in any discussion of that star-crossed age are the same ones that were on the billboards that shouted, SEE SATCHEL PAIGE STRIKE OUT THE 1ST NINE HITTERS. SEE JOSH GIBSON HIT TWO HOMERS!
Satch and Josh were as big as the type that promised these heroics, for both of them had moved beyond mere greatness into walking immortality. "Emblematic," Gerald Early calls them. "They represented the mythology of die Negro leagues." But when they played together on the Craw-fords, everyone had five years to study how different they were as human beings.
"Josh rode the team bus; Satch drove his own car," James A. Riley says. "Josh showed up at the park when he was supposed to; Satch might not show up at all. Satch was a modern ballplayer before there were modern ballplayers." Gibson was a mystery, no matter how good-natured and playful he was. He would win a game with a homer and have a beer with the guys afterward, but then, if there wasn't a bus to catch and another game waiting at the end of an all-night drive, he would be gone, off into a world all his own, a world he didn't share. Not that Satch ever noticed, as caught up as he was in his own magnitude. There were years when Satch won 70 games (by his count), and his singleness of purpose suggested that he was sizing Gibson up as an opposing hitter even when they were teammates. That was the only mystery Satch cared about.