Negro League legend may have been the greatest home-run hitter ever

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As Barry Bonds chases Babe Ruth's treasured spot in home run history, with only Hank Aaron on the horizon, it's worth wondering where Josh Gibson might fit in this illustrious group. He was the preeminent home-run hitter in the Negro Leagues, a stout catcher whose displays of power rivaled Ruth's.

Neither Ruth nor Gibson competed against players of all ethnicities. Ruth swatted his 714 home runs before the major leagues became integrated. Gibson, widely known as "the black Babe Ruth," never had the chance to play in the majors: He died, at age 35, in January 1947, less than three months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.

But while the homer totals of major leaguers are indisputable -- Aaron 755, Ruth 714, Bonds 712 and counting -- Gibson's numbers will forever remain murky. He hit as many as 962 homers in his 17-year career, including 84 in 1936. But many of those came against semi-pro competition, as Negro Leagues teams traveled the land facing any opponent they could find, and record-keeping was sketchy at best.

Gibson's plaque at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown reflects the uncertainty, declaring he hit "almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball." Much like Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 homers in his career in Japan, it is nearly impossible to measure Gibson against the elite power hitters in major-league history.

That doesn't stop Gibson's contemporaries from trying.

"I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron," Hall of Famer Monte Irvin once said. "They were tremendous players, but they were no Josh Gibson."

Asked about this quote during a telephone interview from his Florida home, Irvin, now 87, did not waver, saying, "Oh yeah, Josh was better than those two."

Don Newcombe grew up in Elizabeth, N.J. His father often took him to games in nearby Newark, to watch the hometown Eagles play the Homestead Grays. Newcombe did not have many idols in the era of segregation in America, but he counted Josh Gibson as one.

Newcombe recalled sitting in the bleachers with his dad and marveling as Gibson sent majestic homers sailing over the wall. Gibson and Paige, the charismatic pitcher, were the fabled stars of the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and '40s, magnetic personalities who captivated African American kids such as Newcombe.

"Josh was so young and so strong," Newcombe, now 79, said from his home in Los Angeles. "People would go to see him play the Eagles. He was a drawing card, very well known in the black community."

Newcombe, who later became a four-time All-Star pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers, discovered Gibson's talent first-hand in 1944. That was Newcombe's first year with the Newark Eagles, after he dropped out of high school to join them as a wide-eyed 17-year-old.

During one game at Griffith Park in Washington, D.C. -- Gibson and the Grays were based in Pittsburgh, but they also scheduled some "home" games in Washington -- Newcombe found himself peering toward his idol. A teammate had suggested how to pitch Gibson: get two strikes on him and throw a sidearm fastball, a "crossfire." Newcombe jumped ahead in the count and tried it.

He soon whirled to stare at the center fielder's back for what seemed like 15 minutes. Gibson had ripped a triple to the deepest part of the ballpark, more than 450 feet away.

"I never threw a crossfire the rest of my career," Newcombe said.

Some other stories of Gibson's prodigious power straddle the line between fact and fiction, including the homer that supposedly sailed completely out of Yankee Stadium. Negro Leagues historian Phil Dixon could not verify this feat in his research (though Dixon found documentation of Gibson's 460-foot shot at Yankee Stadium in 1930, when he was only 18). Gibson, in another account, playfully dismissed the out-of-the-stadium shot, saying the ball only reached the center-field bullpen.

Then there's the one about Gibson's home run at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, when the ball traveled so far it never came down. The next day, while playing a game in Philadelphia, a ball suddenly fell from the sky and landed in an outfielder's glove. The umpire pointed at Gibson and shouted, "You're out -- yesterday in Pittsburgh!"

Beyond the embellished tales stood a brash, chatty, good-natured (though later brooding) 6-foot-1, 215-pound slugger. Irvin, who played against Gibson in the Negro Leagues and also in winter leagues in Puerto Rico, raved about his gigantic forearms and upper-body strength, long before steroid suspicions swirled around muscular sluggers.

Gibson even inspired other players to stop and watch him take batting practice, a precursor to the modern-day shows of Mark McGwire and Bonds. Gibson also hit for average, a reported .354 in his Negro Leagues career.

"Josh acted like a hitter, talked like a hitter, walked like a hitter," Irvin said. "He's the best hitter I've ever seen. He would come to the plate and you would be in awe."

Bonds, who declined an interview request for this story, learned about Gibson during a visit to the Negro Leagues Museum in June 2003, when the Giants were in Kansas City for an interleague series against the Royals. Bonds came away with renewed respect for what Negro Leaguers accomplished, even if their feats do not reside in baseball's official record book.

Bonds even suggested he doesn't own the single-season standard, despite his 73 home runs in 2001.

"No, in my heart it belongs to Josh Gibson," Bonds said in July 2003, referring to Gibson's 84 homers in 1936. "Why doesn't that count? Why don't any of those statistics count? ... If Josh Gibson is the home run king, recognize it."

That will not happen, for ample reason. The Negro Leagues were haphazard in keeping statistics, and their schedules included many exhibition games and others against semi-pro opponents. Historians such as Dixon and James A. Riley, the Negro Leagues Museum's director of research, say some games were akin to major-league competition and others weren't even close.

Gibson's only chance to square off against major leaguers came during barnstorming tours, a series of offseason exhibition games. He hit better than .400 in those games, but they were skewed, as legendary Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil pointed out, because the Negro Leagues players wanted to prove their ability and the major leaguers mostly sought to avoid injury.

Dixon never has arrived at a definitive home-run total for Gibson's career; in 1931, when Gibson reportedly hit 70 homers, he actually didn't hit nearly that many, Dixon said. Riley contended Gibson probably did hit 962 homers in his career, but the total includes "a lot" of games against semi-pro and independent teams.

This immovable statistical cloud is the lone source of frustration for Sean Gibson, Josh's great-grandson and the caretaker of his legacy since Gibson's son, Josh Jr., died in 2003. Sean Gibson is philosophical about his great-grandfather's career, at peace with the fact Josh never had a chance to compete in the majors.

At least until the enduring home-run debate surfaces.

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