Meet Josh Gibson – The New Batting Champ of the World

On 29 May 2024, Major League Baseball announced that after a three-year research project, Negro Leagues statistics will be added to the historical record.

This will have an effect on some all-time categories on the major league leaderboards. Most notably, Josh Gibson will become the all-time leader in batting average both in a single season (.466 in 1943!) and over a whole career (.373!). 

While the Commissioner and team owners of the day prevented him from playing in the American or National Leagues, MLB is taking much-needed steps to rewrite the record books to acknowledge the outstanding achievements of non-white players before integration. 

Like many Negro Leagues players, stories about Gibson are part-fact and part-myth and legend. Unsurprisingly, the Negro Leagues weren’t covered in the predominantly white-owned media in the same way the National and American Leagues were. However, we still retain a good understanding of the leagues and their players through some of the game’s greatest storytellers, and now, a fairly complete record of their statistics too, thanks to the tireless detective work of baseball enthusiasts. 

Over the last three years, teams from across baseball have worked to separate the facts from the myths. After Gary Ashwill and Kevin Johnson of Seamheads created the Seamheads Negro League Database, which painstakingly reconstructed players’ individual statistics through box scores and contemporary reports, they worked with MLB’s official statisticians at the Elias Sports Bureau to audit their findings. Now, those results are verified and ready to be added into the major league record books, which means it’s time to learn what we can about our new batting average champ.

What we do know

We know that Josh Gibson was born in Georgia in 1911, and moved with his family to Pittsburgh in 1923. He started playing baseball for local teams when he was 16, and, after being plucked directly from the crowd, debuted for the Negro Leagues’ powerhouse Homestead Grays in 1930. Foregoing a career as a electrician, Gibson instead became the star catcher for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro Leagues, forging a 17-year career across Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Gibson’s Hall of Fame plaque

While no-one can quite agree just how good he was with the glove, there is no disputing his otherworldly hitting. On his Hall of Fame plaque, he is credited with almost 800 home runs in his career. The stats to be integrated into the major league record books don’t quite reflect that, since the records of some games have been lost and only games between major league teams have been counted, but considering the volume of barnstorming and exhibition games Negro League teams played, and Gibson’s hitting prowess, 800 is probably about right for his career. 

Gibson was made to hit; one of black baseball’s greatest storytellers and Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil said that he had “the power of Babe Ruth and the hitting ability of Ted Williams”. For Negro League players, these sorts of comparisons happen a lot – to understand players we didn’t get the privilege to see, we have to contextualise them into what we do know. Gibson is often called the ‘black Babe Ruth’, but for his contemporaries, many instead called Ruth ‘the white Josh Gibson’. 

Alongside these comparisons, we also have eyewitness records of towering blasts at major league stadiums. This is a man that – according to the Sporting News – hit balls out of Yankee Stadium on three separate occasions, and even managed to get one out of the Polo Grounds, one of the largest stadiums ever to host a major league game. O’Neil used to say that the booming noise that Gibson made when he hit the baseball was only ever made by two other people in his experience – Babe Ruth and Bo Jackson

Finally, we also now know about his major league statistics. This is a man that hit .466 in a season, .373 over a career and led his league in home runs for 11 of the 14 years he played major league ball. He is the last player to win consecutive batting triple crowns, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI in 1936 and 1937. He’s a Hall of Famer, and a member of both the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall of Fame and the Washington Nationals’ Ring of Honor. His Baseball Reference page is incredible. His numbers, unmatched. 

What we don’t know

And yet, there is still so much we don’t know.

How would he have fared had he played in a fully-integrated league? Given how well some of his contemporaries like Jackie Robinson (1949 MVP) and Roy Campanella (1951, 1953 and 1955 MVP) played, probably very well indeed.

What sort of numbers would he have put up if he was playing 150 games a year in the majors? Gibson played all year round to keep earning throughout the year. What if he was paid a good wage and could focus on baseball? What if Gibson didn’t have to expend energy battling just to live as a black man in a society where racism was rife? How good could he have been?

There’s also some simple stuff. What did his swing look and sound like? We’ve heard the stories but we don’t know for sure as footage of Gibson is essentially non-existent. We have video of people like Ruth and other deadball era greats, despite them playing far earlier. Meanwhile, this is about the best we get for Gibson:

And then, in 1943, in the offseason before his .466 season, Gibson fell into a coma and after waking was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After battling with severe headaches for the next four years, Gibson tragically died of a stroke at age 35, just three months before Robinson broke the colour barrier by signing with the Dodgers. Gibson almost certainly had a lot more baseball in him. What might have been if not for that cruel twist of fate?

One of many

While Gibson is hitting the headlines thanks to his spot atop the historical charts, he is just one of many Negro League greats to hit the leaderboards. For example, five new players have been placed among the top ten career leaders in all-time batting average – Hall of Famers Buck Leonard (8th), Turkey Stearnes (6th), Jud Wilson (5th), Oscar Charleston (3rd) and Gibson himself.

Many people and organisations have spent decades keeping the memory of these players alive by promoting the history of the Negro Leagues. Chief among these is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City – which we featured in an article last year – who have campaigned tirelessly for the recognition of these stars and have a huge collection of Negro League memorabilia and knowledge. While others might be miles ahead of the curve, MLB is finally beginning to make things right. 

Featured image of Josh Gibson – The Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

Image of the HOF plaque – Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Charlie Deeks is the Atlanta Braves correspondent for Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Omashaft!

One comment

  1. Sorry but you can’t play 800 games and 50 game seasons and put him ahead of anyone in baseball . Stats were not accurate or complete.

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