Think of Jimmie Foxx and his broad, muscular build. Consider the kind of power he could generate, his impeccable strike-zone judgement, and his all-around ability at the plate. Now put a catcher’s mask on him, and you’ve got Josh Gibson, our second Negro Leagues honoree.
In reality, Foxx blazed what I believe is what Gibson’s most likely path as a white guy would have been: Start one’s career at catcher then quickly move to first base once management recognizes the need to save your body. Then dissipative lifestyle knocks you out of the game by your mid-thirties. Now let’s be fair to both men. Foxx was likely a better overall athlete, baserunner, and fielder than Gibson. But, get this, I suspect that Gibson may have been a better hitter than Foxx. Now I’m not going to die on that sword or hill, but there’s certainly a lot of stories about Gibson’s power that are rivaled only by those about Mickey Mantle’s clout. Then there’s the fact that Gibson is easily the best hitter in Negro Leagues history. There’s enough “there” there to merit some informed suspicion.
But whoopdee either way. Foxx was called “The Right Handed Ruth” for a reason, and if Gibson was a little better or worse than Foxx, it’s of little concern. What’s of primary concern? Namely that by making him our first position-player honoree, we argue for Gibson being the Negro League’s GOAT hitter.
It’s not exactly a tough argument to make.
Josh’s bona fides as a hitter are legion and legendary, but here’s a few things that support his reputation as a pitching demolition man. First, his 202 OPS+ is 19 points higher than second-place finisher Willard Brown’s 183, and Gibson has about 1400 more PA. Thing is, that’s not all of Gibson’s playing record. He played in Mexico in 1940 and 1941. In his 542 plate appearances, he exploded on the league for 44 homers, 38 doubles, 7 triples, 91 walks, 10 steals, 132 runs scored, and 162 driven in. A season straight out of the Lou Gehrig playbook. Josh batted .393 in so doing. He similarly destroyed the Puerto Rican Winter League, and in the Cuban Winter League, which played all its games at the same mausoleum of a ballpark, he hammered 14 homers in 224 at-bats over two seasons, a rate of 34 in a 550 at-bat season. That might not sound all that Ruthian, but in his first Cuban campaign, he finished second in roundtrippers (3 to a trio that each hit 4), despite the fact that one of them had 86 at-bats, and the other two batted 126 and 189 times. In his other Cuban season, he again led in homers, blasting 11 in 163 at-bats. No one else eclipsed 5. In fact, Gibson outhomered each of the other three teams in the league.
It’s these kinds of performances that actually substantiate the lore about Josh Gibson. Unlike Cool Papa Bell’s dashing under the covers before the light goes out or myriad other hyperboles, the stories of Gibson’s brawn and bat are the real deal.
So, congratulations to Josh Gibson, our second Negro Leagues honoree, and next time tune in to see who gets the call for our Hall.