Radcliffe carries the same memory of Gibson. "He was smokin' that reefer too," Duty says.
Many old-timers trace Gibson's problems to a D.C. mobster's wife named Grace. Her husband was in the Army, and Gibson had drifted apart from the woman who shared his bed in Pittsburgh. Things just went from there, drugs and passion fueling Josh and Grace's relationship until the mobster came home and reclaimed his lady. Then Josh was back on his own, and it must have been a scary place to be. There were stays at St. Elizabeth's, a mental hospital in Washington that let him out only for games on weekends. And there were myriad stories about his bizarre behavior, beginning with the one about the teammate who found him talking to a Joe DiMaggio who wasn't there.
Cepeda swears Gibson got arrested in Puerto Rico for running the streets naked. Newcombe remembers how bad he and the other Newark Eagles felt for laughing at a story imported from Latin America, about how Gibson slid in with a double and started looking for the potatoes he said he had planted under second base. "We wanted to be proud of Josh Gibson," says Newcombe.
By the mid-'40s, however, Gibson may not have even been proud of himself. The knees that had kept him out of World War II were so bad that it hurt to watch him trying to crouch behind home plate. Though he had won home run championships in 1944 and '45 and hit .361 in 46, the power and menace of old were gone. So he took refuge in the home where his children lived, and he even shared a bed with Josh Jr. "I'd get up in the morning and go to school," his son recalls. "He'd get up and go wherever he wanted to."
On Jan. 20,1947, almost a month to the day after his 35th birthday and three months before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers, Josh went to his mother's house, and it was there that he died. Some say a stroke killed him, others a brain hemorrhage. Or maybe it was just life.
Death didn't treat him any better, letting him lie in an unmarked grave in Allegheny Cemetery for nearly three decades. Finally, commissioner Bowie Kuhn joined with one of Gibson's Crawfords teammates in 1975 to buy the headstone his family couldn't afford. It hails him as a LEGENDARY BASEBALL PLAYER, but the words seem too spare, too perfunctory. How much closer to the truth Newcombe comes when he says, "It's too bad Josh didn't get a chance to live the life he should have lived."
They don't talk about Josh Gibson much in barbershops anymore. Too many years have passed, too many other great players have come down the pike, too many other shooting stars have flamed out. Even in Pittsburgh, the launching pad for his greatness, he remains little more than an afterthought. Mario Lemieux has a street named after him, and Roberto Clemente is honored by a park and a bridge. For years, all Gibson had was a blue-and-gold plaque designating the site where he played at Greenlee Field, up on the Hill. The plaque isn't much bigger than a NO PARKING sign, and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania didn't get around to putting it up until 1996.
This year Gibson's likeness appeared on a downtown mural, but even so, all he really has going for him is his son. "I got to keep my father's name ringing," Josh Jr. says. From his Pittsburgh home he travels anywhere he is invited: minor league ball games, Negro leagues reunions, the Florida Marlins' Opening Day ceremonies last year and, most of all, baseball card shows. Alas, he doesn't have much to offer in the way of memorabilia, no bats that big Josh used, no catcher's mitts, no spikes with their toes curling.
"The only thing I have of my father's are old newspaper articles he saved," Josh Jr. says. So he puts the articles in a display case, signs autographs for $25 a shot and tells stories about the father who died when he was 16 and left him with a name that has proved as much a burden as a blessing.
"It wasn't easy trying to be Josh Gibson," his son says. For Josh Jr. inherited his father's resonant voice and not much else in the way of gifts. He lacked size, power and a flair for the dramatic. The best thing he could do as a spindly third baseman was run, and that ended after he left the Homestead Grays in 1950 for Canada's Provincial League. He broke an ankle stealing a base and tried to keep playing by deadening the pain with novocaine. When he could run no more, he limped home to a city job slinging trash cans. The job lasted until one of his kidneys gave out 20 years ago, and his struggle intensified in 1985 when hypertension cut short his twin sister's life.