Sunday, July 11, 2010


Josh Gibson

Joshua Gibson

Career: 1929-1946
Positions: c, of, 3b, 1b
Teams: Homestead Grays (1929-1931, 1937-1940, 1942-1946), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932-1936), Santo Domingo (1937), Mexican League (1940-1941)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Height: 6' 1'' Weight: 210
Born: December 21, 1911, Buena Vista, Georgia
Died: January 20, 1947, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1972)

In black baseball, only Satchel Paige was a better-known personality than Josh Gibson. A natural hitter, the right-handed slugger hit for both distance and average, and was the standard against whom other hitters were measured.

Gibson was aptly titled "the black Babe Ruth," and his indomitable presence in the batter's box personified power and electrified a crowd. The slugger's rolled up left sleeve revealed the latent strength in his massive arm muscles, and his eyes riveted the pitcher from beneath a turned up cap bill as he awaited the pitch with a casual confidence. Hitting from a semi-crouched, flat- footed stance and without striding, he generated a compact swing that produced tape measure home runs with such regularity that they came to be expected as the norm.

Gibson was idolized by black youngsters, and in every ballpark they would point to a spot in the remotest part of the field and say, "Josh hit one over there." He is even credited with hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, and his prodigious homers have taken their place in baseball lore.

An amusing, apocryphal anecdote alluding to Gibson's legendary power is told about a home run he hit in Pittsburgh. The ball jumped out of the park like it was shot out of a cannon, clearing the fence and sailing out of sight. The next day, in Philadelphia, a ball came down out of the sky and landed in an outfielder's glove, whereupon the umpire promptly declared to Josh, "You're out yesterday in Pittsburgh!"

Gibson was credited with 962 home runs in his seventeen-year career, although many of these were against non-league teams. Many of the individual season marks that are accredited to him also are against all levels of opposition, including 75 home runs in 1931, 69 homers in 1934, and 84 homers in 1936 in 170 games. Regardless of the uneven competition, his Power numbers are impressive. In Mexico he hit 44 homers in 450 at-bats with an .802 slugging percentage and, in one winter season in Puerto Rico, he hit 13 home runs in 123 at-bats, smashing a home run every 9.5 at-bats and an extra base hit per 4.2 at-bats.

He also hit for average, compiling a .354 lifetime batting average in the Negro Leagues, a .373 average for two seasons in Mexico, a .353 average for two winter seasons in Cuba, a .412 average in exhibition games against major leaguers, and a .479 average while earning the Most Valuable Player Award in the Puerto Rican winter league.

In addition to his slugging prowess, Gibson possessed a rifle arm and, by hard work behind the plate, made himself into one of the best receivers in the league. His only shortcoming defensively was a weakness on pop ups behind the plate. For a big man he was quick, both behind the plate and on the bases, and was a good base runner. Two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Walter Johnson and Carl Hubbell, placed him among the all-time great catchers, and Johnson assessed his major-league value at $200,000, twice the value he placed on Bill Dickey.

Always affable and easygoing, Gibson was well-liked and respected by his peers. His popularity extended to the fans, and he was voted to start in nine East-West All Star games, in which he compiled a sensational .483 batting average. He missed two other All Star appearances when he spent a pair of prime seasons in Mexico, and on another occasion he was withheld by his ballclub after being selected for the 1938 game; the East squad lost the game without his services.

Born in Georgia, the eldest of three children, Josh completed five years of elementary school before moving North to Pittsburgh, where his father had secured employment as a laborer with Carnegie-Illinois Steel. After arriving in Pittsburgh, he enrolled at Allegheny Pre-vocational School to study to be an electrician. After the ninth grade he dropped out to become an apprentice in an air-brake factory. In 1927 he also began playing baseball with the Pleasant Valley Red Sox, a Pittsburgh sandlot team, before joining the Pittsburgh Crawfords (at that time a semi-pro boys' team) later in the season.

He was starring for the Crawfords when he first attracted the attention of the Homestead Grays. One account has him playing an isolated game with the Grays in July 1929, but the husky teenager was not signed for regular duty as a professional player with the Grays until after he was pressed into service behind the plate late in the 1930 season, when Buck Ewing split a finger. Immediately the big catcher transformed a good team into a great team, and the Grays defeated the New York Lincoln Giants in the playoffs for the eastern championship. He is credited with a .441 batting average for his first season with the Grays and .367 the following year when, playing amid one of the greatest aggregations of talent ever assembled, he was credited with 75 home runs to spearhead the Grays' drive to another championship.

Leaving the Grays to join Gus Greenlee's Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932, Gibson combined 34 home runs with a .380 batting average in his initial season with the club. Thereafter he recorded batting averages of .464, .384, .440, and .457, and he slugged 69 home runs in 1934 to become a star among stars on the great Crawfords teams of the 1930s. Although their existence as a team was brief, the Pittsburgh Crawfords are considered the greatest team in the history of black baseball.

Shortly after rejoining the Grays in 1937, he jumped to Santo Domingo (along with Satchel Paige and several other black Americans) to play for the Trujillo All Stars. In a short season fraught with political tension, Gibson led the league in batting with a .453 average (more than 100 points ahead of the runner-up) and in RBIs to lead his team to the championship.

Back in the United States for the remainder of the season, he teamed with Buck Leonard to form a power tandem that was the nucleus of a "murderers' row" that restored the Grays to a position of dominance in black baseball. The pennant that season was the first of nine consecutive Negro National League flags the Grays would win. During the next two seasons, 1938-1939, he is credited with batting averages of .433 and .440 and incredible slugging percentages of 1.389 and 1.190.

After these sensational seasons, Gibson succumbed to the lure of South America and the rustle of pesos and spent two summers in Latin American leagues. He split the first year between Venezuela and Mexico, leaving Venezuela when the league folded and joining Veracruz, where he promptly pounded the ball at a .467 clip and, although playing only a quarter of the season, finished only one short of the home-run title. The following year, with the luxury of playing the entire season, he hit .374 and led the league in home runs with 33 (almost double the total of the runner-up), and in RBIs to lead his team to the Mexican League pennant.

His salary in Mexico was $6,000, but when Cum Posey filed a $10,000 suit against him and made plans to take his house, a settlement was reached and he agreed to return to the Grays. After arriving back in the United States in 1942, he lead the Grays to four more Negro National League flags, with batting averages of .344, .474, .345, and .398 for the seasons 1942-1945.

Gibson's return coincided with the resumption of the Negro World Series after a fifteen-year hiatus, and in the first four Series played, the Grays broke even. Sandwiched between a pair of losses (Kansas City Monarchs in 1942 and Cleveland Buckeyes in 1945), the Grays earned back-to-back championships (1943-1944) over the Birmingham Black Barons. In the latter Series victory, Gibson hit a cool .400, including one round-tripper.

In 1945, the premier slugger repeated as the league's homerun champion as the Grays won their ninth consecutive Negro National League title.

The exceptional success achieved by every team on which Josh played stands as further tribute to his extraordinary talent. While Gibson was enjoying continued success on the playing field, off the diamond, a dark side of his personal life had begun to manifest itself. Earlier in his career, he had avoided a lifestyle that would lead to dissipation. But by the end of the 1942 season, a decline in his physical and psychological well being was in evidence, and in January 1943 he was committed to the hospital after having suffered a nervous breakdown. For the remainder of his life he was plagued with personal problems resulting from excessive drinking and possible substance abuse.

Players returning from the service after World War II noticed the marked deterioration in both his playing skills and his health. Although he could still hit, his power had diminished and his defensive skills had eroded. Once a superb physical specimen, Gibson could no longer get down in a catcher's squat and resorted to trying to catch by standing up and just stooping down. By the end of the 1946 season he was only a shadow of his former self but still demonstrated awesome power, smashing a 550-foot home run in St. Louis against the Buckeyes in a 12-2 victory in front of 20,000 fans. He finished the season with a batting average of .361, with a slugging percentage of .958. Even in the last year of his career, he maintained his graceful, fluid swing and was a marvel to watch swinging a bat.

When Gibson was in his prime, Washington Senators' owner Clark Griffith had once sent for Gibson and Buck Leonard to come to his office to discuss the possibility of the pair of sluggers playing for the Senators. Years had passed but, as the beginning of 1947 approached, Jackie Robinson was slated for duty with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the spring and, despite his limitations, the fading star still clung to visions of playing major league baseball.

When Gibson suffered a fatal stroke only a month after his thirty-fifth birthday and just a few months prior to Robinson's becoming the first black major-leaguer in more than half a century, romantics attributed his untimely death to a broken heart from disappointment at not getting the same opportunity. Regardless of the cause, the greater loss was suffered by the American sports world, who never were afforded the opportunity to witness Josh Gibson's greatness in the major leagues.

In 1972, preceded only by Satchel Paige, Gibson became the second player from the Negro League to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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As his 80th birthday approaches, a look at the life and legacy of the late Ray Charles.

"I just do what I do." That's what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history. Of course, Charles' self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist's 80th birthday Sept. 23. Looking back at Charles' storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase "musical genius." In Charles' case, that's no hype.

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity

In 1954, the artist's melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit "I've Got a Woman"-and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop. His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after "Woman," including "Drown in My Own Tears," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Hit The Road Jack" in São Paulo, Brazil on September 22, 1963.

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Then I'll Be Home" in Montreux, Switzerland on July 19, 1997.

Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You."

His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."

But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.

A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.

Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.

He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."

"He really was a genius," says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. "He did things the way he wanted."

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film "Ray," Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.

In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle ("Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida," Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, "Confession Blues."

Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual. "He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home," Jones recalls with a laugh. "His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes... that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around."

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles as a West Coast jazz and blues man recorded such songs as "It Should've Been Me" and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's composition, "Mess Around."

Then he connected in 1954 with "I've Got a Woman," which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started. In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded "The Genius of Ray Charles," a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including "Come Rain or Come Shine") and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie's orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.

Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."

Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."

Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."

Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines also accessible to the blind.

"Everything he did had a business acumen to it," says Gumina, who cites Charles' liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles' stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer's shows, lighting and wardrobe.

Together the pair designed and built Charles' L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.

To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.

"He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever," Gumina says, "and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn't have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That's why he was able to save $50 million before he died."

Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.

Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."

Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity


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