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The Stuff of Legend

Posted By Alex Belth On February 25, 2008 @ 5:52 am In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

We won’t know until years from now, but I wonder how history will treat the sluggers of the past twenty years? Or, how home run hitters from the 60s-80s will look in comparison? Which players will be forgotten? Who will be re-discovered? I got to mulling this over recently after reading Laughing on the Outside, John Schulian’s wonderful piece on Josh Gibson [1] (SI, June, 2000):

We know just enough about Josh Gibson to now forget him. It’s a perverse kind of progress, a strange step up from the days when the mention of his name drew blank looks. He has been a Hall of Fame catcher since 1972, so that’s a start. And you can always remind people that he got the Ken Burns treatment and public television, or that he was a character in an HBO movie, or that he inspired Negro leagues memorabilia harding back to his old ball club, the Homestead Grays. Any of it will do to jog memories. Josh Gibson, sure. Hit all those home runs, didn’t he? Then he’s gone once more,gone as soon as he’s remembered.

Gibson died at 35, of “booze and dope and busted dreams,” just a few months before Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby entered the major leagues:

Whatever pain he died with lives on in the Negro leaguers who played with him, against him, and maybe even for him if they were fortunate enough to walk where he never could. “I almost hate to talk about Josh,” says Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who jumped from the Negro Leagues to the New York Giants in 1949. “It makes me sad, for one thing, on account of he didn’t get to play in the major leagues. Then, when you tell people how great he was, they think you’re exaggerating.”

But that’s what greatness is: an exaggeration. Of talent, of charisma, of the acts that live long after the athletes we deem legendary have shuffled of the mortal coil. So it is with Gibson, who opened Irvin’s eyes in 1937 by hitting a grounder so hard that it knocked the shortstop who caught it backward. Then there was the night in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, when Gibson bashed a homer and the mayor stopped the game until the ball was found, because he’d never seen one hit that far. “I played with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron,” Irvin says. “They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson.”

This is no different from Roy Campenella telling one and all that the couldn’t carry Gibson’s mitt. Or Walter Johnson arguing that Gibson was better than Bill Dickey in the days when Dickey was the benchmark for catchers. Or Dizzy Dean, a true son of the South, wishing his St. Louis Cardinals would sign Gibson–and Satchel Paige–so they could wrap up the pennant by the Fourth of July and go fishing until World Series time. Irvin, with his proclamation, leaves himself no wiggle-room He doesn’t just count Gibson among the game’s greats; he ranks him first.

If you could go back in time, what player(s) would you most want to see? Gibson is up there for me, Satch too, as well as Pete Reiser, Dick Allen, Walter Johnson, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra (to name just a few).


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[1] Laughing on the Outside, John Schulian’s wonderful piece on Josh Gibson: http://nebraskapress.unl.edu/catalog/productinfo.aspx?id=672931&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

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