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Black Diamond

Sometime during my baseball-crazy childhood in the 1940s, when I was feverish about the Big Cat, Johnny Mize, and played out an entire Giants’ schedule in my head, I heard of a baseball player who had nothing to do with the National or American League. His name was Josh Gibson, and he was supposed to be another Babe Ruth. Josh was black, but he could still play for the Giants. The Dodgers got Jackie Robinson. Why couldn’t the Giants have Josh? Was he alive or dead? Nobody knew. Stories would come to me. Josh hit a thousand home runs in the league he played for, a league of black men. Infielders had to duck under his line drives, or lose their brains to Josh. The black Babe Ruth could tear a man’s head off with that mean sock of his. Josh had all the mystery of someone you could never trace.

That mystery is now beginning to disappear. William Brashler, a novelist born in 1947, has written the first biography of Josh Gibson. It comes eight years after Robert W. Peterson’s classic study of Negro baseball, Only the Ball Was White. Peterson devotes a chapter to Josh, but he creates the legend of a moonfaced laughing giant who developed bad knees and happened to die of a stroke at the age of thirty-five. William Brashler helps to cut through that legend and give us a sense of Josh’s life, in and out of baseball.

Gibson was born in a tiny Georgia village on December 21, 1911, the son of a sharecropper. The family moved to Pittsburgh when Josh was twelve. According to Peterson, he was a boy who “thought nothing of strapping on roller-skates and skating six miles downriver” to watch a ballgame. But he never got past the ninth grade. He had, Brashler tells us, “a single-minded, stilted life.” He was a catcher on the Crawford Colored Giants, a semi-pro club, by the time he was seventeen. In 1930 he joined the Homestead Grays, professional barnstormers who dominated Negro baseball in and around Pittsburgh. He made a local girl pregnant that year, and he married her. His bride, Helen Mason, was seventeen. She gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, but she went into convulsions, “and a few hours later her heart gave out and she was dead.”

So Josh was a husband, a father, and a widower at eighteen, and a “fledgling Homestead Gray.” Helen’s family cared for the twins, while Josh went back to the Grays. He hit seventy-five home runs in 1931, the year before he was twenty. And the legend of “Josh” began to percolate through the Negro leagues. He was six feet two, and he loved to gulp quarts of vanilla ice cream. He wasn’t left-handed, like the Babe. Josh was a righty, with a short, powerful swing. He didn’t have to wade into the ball and commit his entire body, twisting himself into a corkscrew whenever he struck out. Josh’s power came from “arms, shoulders, and back muscles so awesome that he didn’t need the coiled power of his legs or the whiplike action of his wrists.” The Babe’s home runs were usually long, fly balls. Josh’s were “quick, smashing blows that flew off the bat and rushed out of the stadium.”

In 1932 he “jumped” to a new club, the Crawfords, that would soon become the darlings of Pittsburgh, with Josh and Satchel Paige. For the next thirteen years Josh played summer and winter, often moving from club to club, in the volatile, homeless world of Negro baseball. He played in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and throughout the United States. He suffered a strange decline around 1942, what Brashler calls “a depressed and dark season of the mind and body.” He became “an old catcher with ravaged knees.”

Josh had a series of nervous breakdowns, beginning in 1943. The sense of raw power was gone. He “appeared glum, almost sullen, with drooping, lazy eyelids and a look of utter exhaustion.” He had to be put in institutions more than once. For a while he lived at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, coming out to play baseball on weekends. He began to hear voices. His teammates caught him “sitting alone…engaged in a conversation” with Joe DiMaggio:

C’mon, Joe, talk to me, why don’t you talk to me?…Hey, Joe DiMaggio, it’s me, you know me: Why don’t you answer me? Huh, Joe? Huh? Why not?”

He stopped playing altogether near the end of 1946, suffering from black-outs, headaches, and battered knees. On January 19, 1947, he went to a movie theater, fell unconscious, and was taken to his mother’s house, where he died early in the morning.

Brashler demystifies the legend of Josh, shows us some of the sadness behind the moonfaced mask, the disappointments, and the many spills. But the book is unsatisfying, for Brashler seems much too stingy with his material. The story is deeper than the storyteller. Brashler is unwilling to enter into that “dark season” he talks about, the interior of Josh’s nightmare world. He tells us Josh was “not one to brood” over the fact that he would never play in the major leagues, “or feel that he had been slighted, or cheated, or victimized.” How does Brashler know? Perhaps it’s true that “Josh himself had no idea of the demons that possessed him, of the voices he heard…the shadows, the echoes, the forms he thought he saw.” But it doesn’t take a wizard to guess at what those demons might have been.

Nowhere does Brashler mention the rage that Josh must have felt, that horrible sense of being unmanned, of having to remain a boy playing in a boy’s league. Josh wasn’t the only black ballplayer to hear “voices.” Brashler informs us of another case: Rube Foster, the “black Cy Young.” Foster was one of the first real organizers of Negro baseball. Like Josh, he “suffered severe delusions.” He thought “a World Series was in progress and he was needed to pitch.”

Rube Foster pitched that World Series in his head; Josh talked to Joe DiMaggio. The “delusion” seems pretty similar to me. Call it humiliation, if you wish. Both were hungry, powerful, frustrated men who turned their anger inward and used it to whip themselves. Rube Foster never got the call to pitch in any World Series, and Josh never played with Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio, the new Babe Ruth, wouldn’t “recognize” Josh, or reveal himself. “Why don’t you answer me? Huh, Joe? Huh? Why not?”

Put aside for a moment the specific problems of black men and all the indignities that accrued to them after their careers were over: their existence as janitors, factory workers, and bums, if they managed to survive. Josh didn’t even live to become a janitor. But let’s think of something else, apart from any color ban or unwritten rule of baseball. White, black, or brown, Josh was an extraordinary athlete who wasn’t allowed to enter “organized” baseball and play with the very best. He had to define himself against a patchwork, inferior league. Under those conditions, I would want to kill.

Josh hurt no one but himself. This was the rule of Negro baseball: a wound so deep it was barely recognizable. Some men talked to themselves, some men played until they dropped, some men turned to clowning. That’s the advantage Satchel Paige had over Josh. Satch learned how to “psych” himself, and hid his anger in irony. He had his fluttering “pea ball” that could disappear right under the batter’s nose. But that wasn’t enough. Satch began to shuffle and entertain. He put himself apart from other ballplayers, developed a rubbery look to please the crowd. He could enter the major leagues when he was well into his forties, because Satch always brought in the fans. He could go back to barnstorming in his fifties, after he lost some of that magic appeal, and pitch in his sixties for any woebegotten team that could afford his price.

But Josh lacked Paige’s intelligence and wit. He didn’t know how to bend. Still his demons weren’t peculiar to him: baseball itself was a kind of virulence, a distinctly American disease, with its own system of punishments and rewards; a game that men played in striped or unstriped pajamas, with petty, irrational gods who presided over a catalogue of written and unwritten rules that were in themselves a form of insanity. The gods declared that Indians and “white” Cubans could play, but not black men. Blacks had to play on separate teams.

A curious echoing went back and forth between the Negro leagues and organized baseball, a copying of styles, fetishes, and dreams. Negro baseball had its own National and American Leagues, with a World Series that was often a sham, because teams would drop out in the middle of a season, or jump from one division to the next. Yet the Negro leagues dreamed up the idea of an All-Star game and developed the notion of playing baseball at night.

There was often a camaraderie between black and white players. They would hit and pitch against each other on barnstorming trips after the regular season was over, and even coexist on the same teams in Mexico City, San Juan, or Havana. This camaraderie didn’t occur without some kind of schism among the major leaguers themselves. The Dean brothers, Dizzy and Paul, always barnstormed with Negro clubs. But Al Simmons, star of the Philadelphia Athletics, would have nothing to do with blacks, on or off the field. And Babe Ruth, who did play against blacks, was terrified of the word “nigger,” as Robert W. Creamer tells us in Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. The Giants mocked Ruth without mercy during the World Series of 1922, calling him “niggerlips” and “baboon.” After the third game, Ruth went into the Giant clubhouse to growl and warn his enemies not to say “nigger” any more: “Don’t get me wrong, fellows. I don’t mind being called a prick or a cock-sucker or things like that. I expect that. But lay off the personal stuff.”

And what about the blacks? They lived in a partitioned world of tricky passageways and narrow entrance and exit points. They could use Forbes Field when the Pirates were out of town, but they weren’t permitted inside the locker rooms; they could play against Ruth and Gehrig in Havana, but not in a major league park. Josh hit longer home runs in Yankee Stadium than any Yankee ever did. But who saw his homers? Black players and fans made a legend out of him, because Josh was one of the few heroic parts of that pathetic piece of baseball they had.

So we await another history of Josh, one that will illuminate his madness and the schizoid landscape of Negro baseball. Brashler has given us some of the facts but few of the insights that would explain Josh to us and allow us to know the Negro leagues.

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