He told Gibson as much, bless his heart, and both of them would sit there laughing, woofing, each promising to inflict unspeakable cruelty on the other. When these icons went head-to-head, in 1942, the showdown entered the mythos. It was mostly Satch's doing. That cunning rogue was pitching for Kansas City, and, according to legend, when he was one out from beating the Grays, he ignored the runner on third and walked the next two hitters for the express purpose of facing his old teammate. Gibson was so stunned that he watched three straight strikes, the last one on the fastball Satch called "a bee at your knee."
Satch acted as if that gave him bragging rights till the end of time. Josh never said much about it, but he did sidle up to Monte Irvin not long afterward and confide, "Satch is crazy." Publicly, that was all Gibson's pride would allow. Privately, it may have needed balm. Why else would one of the few newspaper clippings he kept be about the day that he went 4 for 4 against Satch at Wrigley Field? Gibson did the same against lots of pitchers, but this was special, this was the great Paige. While he was on base that day, Gibson might even have taunted his fellow legend by hooting, "If you could cook, I'd marry you." If he didn't say it that time, he said it later, or so the story goes. He always did enjoy beating Satch like a rented mule.
It was strange having Josh around that winter. In the past he had headed south on the first thing smoking as soon as the Negro leagues' season was done, not to return until winter was melting. But after he had taken his last swing for the Grays in 1946 and gone to Latin America, illness made him retreat to the row house on Pittsburgh's Bedford Avenue, where his mother-in-law was raising his kids. Once he was there, nothing could get him to leave.
Sam Bankhead, his teammate, drinking buddy and best friend, thought it was just a matter of time before Gibson caved in to the old lures of Caribbean rum, dark-eyed women and December sunshine. "You ain't going back, Josh?" Bankhead kept asking, teasingly at first, then with more and more dismay as he realized that no, Josh wasn't going back. He was getting ready to die.
He had puffed up to 235 pounds, his knees were shot, and the rest of his once-proud body was sending distress signals. He had high blood pressure and a brain tumor that periodically leveled him with headaches. He drank too much, and there was talk that he had found another escape route in drugs. He had woman problems and psychiatric problems. It was no kind of shape for a legend to be in as he turned 35.
How odd—and unfortunate—that even today there are those who want to blame Gibson's demise on the ascension of Jackie Robinson. It's so easy, so poetic to say Gibson died of a broken heart when he realized that baseball's color line would be broken without him in the spring of '47. "That," Early insists, "has been romanticized way out of proportion."
Josh Jr. agrees, and so do most of the Negro leaguers who remember his father best. Talk to them for five minutes, and without prompting, they'll bring up their chagrin at the 1996 HBO movie Soul of the Game, which portrays Josh, Satch and Jackie as friends and rivals. "My father didn't even know Jackie Robinson," insists Josh Jr. The inaccuracy is compounded when the movie shows the elder Gibson belittling Robinson as a "house nigger."
"I asked the producers where they got their information," O'Neil says, "and they said, Ernie Banks's son. I said, ' Ernie Banks's son? He wasn't even born yet.' "
If Gibson was crushed by anything beyond his own demons, it wasn't bitterness but disappointment. For too many years his hopes had been raised by the praise of big league managers who coveted his talent, then dashed by the cowardice of team owners afraid to be the first to challenge the game's racist status quo. When Leo Durocher, the Dodgers' manager, dared muse in the early '40s about the joy of writing Gibson's name on his lineup card, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis dressed him down. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators also backed off when confronted by the bushy-browed Landis, who preached that there was white baseball and there was black baseball, and never would they meet. The teams got the message, and so did Gibson. "Finally," Riley says, "I think he just said, The hell with it."
Gibson's beverage of choice changed from beer to hard liquor. "Sometimes you could smell him from the night before," Don Newcombe remembers. "It was coming out his pores."