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 …