But keeping his father's name alive has given Josh Jr. a reason to soldier on. He travels with his grandson Sean, who, at 30, looks like big Josh: same heft, same round face, same easy smile. "He's learning the history," Josh Jr. says, "because he's going to take over when I die."
The two started a Josh Gibson League for kids in Pittsburgh last year, giving those youthful dreamers a place to learn about the Negro leagues and rack up their own hits, runs and errors. A place where they can hear Josh Jr. say, "The thing I don't like particularly is that people call my father the black Babe Ruth. I'd prefer it if they just called him Josh Gibson."
It is an understandable request, but the truth is, Gibson must be remembered before he can be called anything. In that regard, there is only so much reassurance Josh Jr. can offer himself. He can tell the story of how Johnny Bench stopped him at a card show and said he wished he'd seen big Josh play: one great catcher paying homage to another. Or he can pass along the tales told by the men who played with his father. Mainly it comes down to Josh Jr. sitting at the table in his cramped dining room, pulling something from an envelope and saying, "Here, I got to autograph this for you."
It is a picture of big Josh with the Grays in his prime, his arms thick, his smile shy, almost beguiling. Very carefully, Josh Jr. writes his name in blue ink across his father's shoulder. When a legend is on life support, you do what you have to.