Gibson, the Negro League’s best hitter ever, died of a stroke at the age of 35 in January 1947, just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Leonard, who turned 40 that season, retired a year later.
“We felt at the Negro League that we could have been in the big leagues, but we weren’t supposed to be,” Leonard said in his acceptance speech on that cloudy summer day 50 years ago, a month before his 65th birthday. “…we felt like we were contributing something to baseball too. We played bats and bats, and we loved it and we loved playing – because there wasn’t a lot of money in it. My entry is something I didn’t think would happen.”
Gibson, a catcher, and Leonard, a first baseman, led the Grays’ “Assassins” team, which dominated the National Negro League in the 1930s and 1940s. Grays split their time between the capital and Pittsburgh, often outpacing the Washington senators at their own playground, Griffith Stadium.
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The duo were recruited with six other players, including Dodgers shooter Sandy Kovacs and Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.
“They could hardly be more representative of Melting Pot USA,” Sporting News wrote at the time, describing the five neighborhood recruits. “Modest and appreciative, they stood before a microphone in a small town in the USA. …a Jew from New York, an Italian from Missouri, a Scots-Irish Indian from Alabama, a Spaniard from California and a Negro from North Carolina.”
Gibson and Leonard were the fourth and fifth black players to make the Hall of Fame, after Robinson (1962), fellow Brooklyn Dodgers Roy Campanella (1969) and Sachel Page, who in 1971 became the first player inducted by the Negro Committee. League Veterans. (The three played in the Negro leagues, but Page was the only one of the three to have played most of his career there.)
Some news coverage that day described Gibson and Leonard as supportive actors at best. In its story on induction, The New York Times reported, “In a perfectly appropriate blend of sentiment, humor, and brevity, Yogi Berra, Sandy Kovacs, Lefty Gomez, and five less-awesome personalities were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today.”
Fifty years later, it would be difficult for any baseball historian to consider Gibson and Leonard “less glamorous” than another Hall of Fame. According to baseballreference.com, Gibson finished with a career batting average of .374, 0.720 slowdown and 1.178 OPS off the charts. Leonard had a career batting average of 0.345, and a 1.042 OPS.
“Josh was the greatest hitter in my life,” Page said in 1972, according to The Times. “There were some great hitters—Williams, Dimaggio, Museal, Miss, Mantell. But none of them were as great as Josh.”
Campanella, the all-black league star who played eight seasons in the Black Leagues before joining the Dodgers in 1948, told Sporting News, “Whenever I played on the Black League All-Star Team with Josh, he was the catcher. I played third base. All I could He did, Josh could have done better.”
It’s a pity that Gibson is a person of color
Of course, Gibson and Leonard didn’t come out of nowhere. During spring training in 1939, former Washington Senator Walter Johnson, one of the best bowlers in baseball history, watched Gibson play a game in Orlando, then exclaimed to Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, who was quoted:
“There’s a catcher any big league club would want to buy for $200,000. I’ve heard of him before. His name is Gibson. They call him ‘whale’ Gibson, and he can do everything. He hits that ball a mile. And he easily realized that he might as well be on a chair.” Rocking, throws like a gun. [Yankees star] Bill Dickey is not a good hunter. It’s unfortunate that Gibson is a person of color.”
“That was the general impression of the people who watched the match,” Povich added.
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Senate owner Clark Griffith came to the same conclusion a few years later, although he lowered the price slightly. “There’s a catcher worth $150,000 in anyone’s money right now. If I could have had it, I would have been chasing it some time ago!” rushes into The Post in 1942. Griffith remembers seeing Gibson beating four double-headed bugs the year before, One of them was the longest ball ever hit at Griffith Stadium.
Yet Griffiths resisted pressure from black journalists like Sam Lacey to sign Gibson and other black players – and instantly improve his midfield. Leonard recalls that around one day in 1942, Griffith asked to meet him and Gibson, according to a 1988 story by John B. Holloway, excerpted from his book “Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers.”
At that meeting, Leonard recalls, Griffith mentioned the campaign by black sports writers to put them on the slate of senators, and said, “Well, let me tell you something: If we get boys, we’ll get the best of them. He’ll split your league. Now what do you think?” in that? “
Leonard said they replied that they would be happy to play in the major tournaments, but would leave it to others to make the case. According to Holloway, the duo never heard of Griffith again.
Two years ago, the American Baseball Writers Association voted to remove the name of former Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis from its MVP boards. There were no black players in the major leagues during his long tenure as the sport’s first commissioner, from 1920 to 1944. Now the Josh Gibson Foundation has a campaign to rename Gibson’s MVP.
“We all know that Kennesaw Mountain Landis has denied more than 3,400 men the opportunity to play in the major leagues,” group CEO Sean Gibson, grandson of Josh Gibson, said in a recent phone interview. “So having Josh Gibson named in the MVP will represent not only Josh Gibson, but it will represent 3,400 men who have been denied the opportunity to play in the major tournaments. That’s bigger than just Josh Gibson. Josh carries these guys on his shoulders.”
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He added that it would be “poetic justice” for a player deprived of the opportunity to play in major tournaments to replace the commissioner who was an obstacle.
Shawn Gibson said his grandfather, who accepted the Hall of Fame billboard for Josh Gibson, always credited Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams for opening the door for players like Gibson to make the hall. Williams said in his introductory speech at the 1966 Hall of Fame, “I hope that one day the names Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who aren’t here just because they don’t get a chance.”
“Five years later, Sachs entered ’71,” Gibson noted. “Next year, 72, is Josh. My grandfather always gave credit to Ted Williams, because he feels that if Ted Williams didn’t mention Josh Gibson and Sachel Page in his speech, he wouldn’t know if it was happening that fast.”
Gibson said he believes Williams’ background – his mother was Mexican-American – helped him feel empathy for the black league players. Another factor was Williams seeing black players during Storm matches against the Negro Leagues.
“So he knew the talent,” Gibson said. “He knew how amazing these guys were for diamonds.”
“Ted spoke; no one spoke.” “So we’re so grateful for that. His speech was only for three minutes. And for him, the inclusion of that little piece of pie, from Josh and Satch, was huge for us.”