Picture this: a boy racing to the barbershop, reveling in his newfound freedom from his mother's hand, his pace accelerated by the thought that a black man's world is beckoning. There are no appointments at Scotty's, just three chairs and a wait that always eats up the clock. But the boy doesn't mind as long as the men are talking, and they always seem to be doing that, these cops, longshoremen and layabouts. Hour after hour they carry on as if there were no place they would rather be than here, where the only other sources of entertainment are a girlie calendar horn Jet magazine and a transistor radio with a coat hanger for an antenna.
The men meander from topic to topic-politics, race, sex—and almost everything the boy hears is an education, especially about the action between the sheets. The one subject he feels fit to comment on is baseball. When the men ask him who his favorite players are, he has their names ready: Mays, Aaron, Clemente and, oh yeah, Richie Allen. Got to put Allen in there, because this is Philadelphia, and it's 1964, and he's hitting the ball so hard for the Phillies that he seems more an aspiring deity than a rookie.
Scotty gazes solemnly at the boy from behind the number 1 chair. He's the oracle of the shop, always has something certifiably intelligent to say, and when the boy looks back at him, Scotty seems as old as the blues, though he's probably only in his 40s. "You never heard of Josh Gibson?" the barber asks.
The boy is puzzled. Why, no, he never has. And that is when the deluge begins. At first it's just Scotty, but pretty soon all the men are chiming in with stories. About Gibson hitting more homers than anybody—black, white or whatever. About the way Gibson and Satchel Paige tuned each other up for the greater glory of the Negro leagues. About Gibson dying of a broken heart because he never got a chance to take a swing in the Jim Crow major leagues. About Gibson still having the last laugh because he pounded a home run clean out of Yankee Stadium, and nobody else, not even Babe Ruth himself, ever did that.
As far as the men are concerned, you don't put any other hitter in the same sentence with Josh Gibson, least of all some damn rookie. When the boy finally leaves the barbershop, still trying to wrap his mind around everything he has heard, his one overriding thought is, Man, if this guy's better than Richie Allen....
The boy will check for himself, for that is his nature long before he becomes known as Gerald Early, professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis and author of an award-winning collection of essays, The Culture of Bruising. He has a passion for books and a trust in the wisdom they hold. So he goes to the library and digs out every volume of baseball history he can find. In none of them is there so much as a word about Gibson. All the stories that the men at the barbershop offered up as gospel might as well be vapor.
We know just enough about Josh Gibson now to forget him. It's a perverse kind of progress, a strange step up from the days when the mention of his name drew blank looks. He has been a Hall of Fame catcher since 1972, so that's a start. And you can always remind people that he got the Ken Burns treatment on public television, or that he was a character in an HBO movie, or that he inspired Negro leagues memorabilia harking back to his old ball club, the Homestead Grays. Any of it will do to jog memories. Josh Gibson, sure. Hit all those home runs, didn't he? Then he's gone once more, gone as soon as he's remembered.
It happened again in the last two seasons as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa woke the long-ball ghosts with their history-making thunder. Suddenly the Babe and Roger Maris were leading a parade out of the mists of the past, counting cadence for Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle. Baseball grew misty over the musty, as only it can, and a grand time was had by all—except anyone who cared about Gibson.
He drew so few mentions that if you didn't know better, you would have wondered if he ever really picked up a bat. His obscurity recalled that of Jackie Robinson, a mystery to far too many African-American ballplayers three years ago, on the 50th anniversary of his shattering of baseball's color line. But Robinson made it to the mountaintop, and in doing so he helped set the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For Gibson, there was none of that, only booze and dope and busted dreams.
Whatever pain he died with lives on in the Negro leaguers who played with him, against him and maybe even for him if they were fortunate enough to walk where he never could. "I almost hate to talk about Josh," says Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who jumped from the Negro leagues to the New York Giants in 1949. "It makes me sad, for one thing, on account of he didn't get to play in the major leagues. Then, when you tell people how great he was, they think you're exaggerating."