COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Was the myth larger than the reality? Not really.
But the applause Josh Gibson received should have been louder. He was considered the best power hitter of his era in the Negro baseball leagues and perhaps even the majors.
One-hundred years ago this week, on Dec. 21, 1911, Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Ga. His father, Mark Gibson, moved his family to Pittsburgh in 1923 rather than try and continue to nurse a crop from his meager farm.
Josh's education ended after the ninth grade. His introduction to organized baseball came at age 16 when he joined the Gimbels A.C. In 1929, the Crawford Colored Giants, a semi-pro team in Pittsburgh, convinced him to leave the Gimbels and join their squad.
He became a professional by accident July 25, 1930 while sitting in the stands. When Homestead Grays catcher Buck Ewing injured his hand, Gibson was invited to replace him because his titanic home runs were already well known in Pittsburgh.
"If someone had told me Josh hit the ball a mile, I would have believed them," said Sam Jethroe, who starred for the Cleveland Buckeyes and later in the big leagues.
His legendary feats with the Homestead Grays have many experts regarding Gibson as the sport's greatest home run hitter. Negro leagues statistics of the time are largely incomplete. But the legend of Gibson's power has always been larger than life.
The 6-1, 215-pound Gibson was nearly indestructible behind the plate. He occasionally played left field or third base, but never for more than a game or two. Gibson's natural skills were immense. His powerful arm, quick release and agility made base runners wary of trying to steal.
But hitting is what made Gibson the second-highest paid player in black baseball behind Satchel Paige, another future Hall of Famer.
The Sporting News, baseball's written authority for decades, credited Gibson in 1967 with hitting a 580-foot home run in Yankee Stadium. The ball landed two feet from the top of the bleacher wall.
"Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I've ever seen," said former Cleveland Buckeye pitcher and manager Alonzo Boone. "Anything he touched was hit hard. He could power outside pitches to right field. Shortstops would move to left field when Josh came to the plate."
In 1972, Gibson became the second player from the Negro leagues elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, joining Paige.
Paige may have put it best when describing Josh at the plate: "You look for his weakness and while your lookin' for it, he's liable to hit 45 home runs."
Jonathan Coe was the fall 2011 Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum