If I asked you to name the top five Pittsburgh baseball players of all time and leave off the noun “Pirates” that would be a clue for you to reference Josh Gibson.
Gibson, Bonds, Clemente, Honus Wagner and Ralph Kiner would probably be the five man Mount Rushmore of Pittsburgh baseball.
While I can tell you about Jordy Mercer’s college career, his minor league progression and major league career, I’m just learning all the nuances of Josh Gibson. We all know about Clemente and his Puerto Rican roots, but not many may know much about Josh Gibson and his time spent on the island in the 30’s and 40’s.
Negro All Stars in Puerto Rican Baseball
The first pitch of Puerto Rican “beisbol” happened in Santurce, a neighborhood of San Juan, on January 11th, 1898, three years before the Red Sox were founded. Baseball seemed like a recreational sport until the late 1930’s when the Liga de B isbol Semiprofesional de Puerto Rico (LBSPR) was christened. The league quickly grew to six teams with teams from all over the island, ranging from the north central capital of San Juan to the western coastal town of Ponce (Carlos Correa’s hometown).
While Jim Crow laws prevented blacks and latinos from playing baseball in the majors, the Puerto Rican league was very welcoming of blacks, and in turn the Negro League allowed Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to join in. This openness between the Negro Leagues and the island is how Josh Gibson (and Satchel Paige, etc.) got to be a legend in Puerto Rico and conceivably change the culture of baseball in Puerto Rico forever.
A 19 year old Josh Gibson played for the Homestead Grays in 1931 and went to the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932 to catch for Satchel Paige. After the 1932 season Gibson traveled to Puerto Rico to be a player/manager for the new Santurce Cangrejeros. He was paid $250 a month and was a star on this new expansion team. In 1933, Gibson returned to Pittsburgh and played for the Crawfords in the new Negro National League through 1936.
Gibson was a bit of a circus sideshow with his prodigious power and keen eye. He supposedly hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium, as well as stadiums in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela. This Giancarlo Stanton-type talent brought in thousands of fans and made him a legend in a land where it was easier for him to assimilate with the common man.
In 1937-38 Gibson batted .342 for Havana, in the Cuban League, while back with Homestead in 1938 he hit .365 with 10 homers in fewer than 100 at-bats before hitting .380 that winter in Puerto Rico. In 1940 Gibson accepted a pay raise to join the Veracruz Azules in the Mexican League. Despite playing only about one-quarter of the season he tied for second in the league with 11 home runs. After the Mexican League season he returned to the Puerto Rican Winter League where he not only batted .480, but hit a home run that was estimated at 600 feet.
Courtesy of SABR summary of Gibson’s career.
Not surprisingly Gibson’s .480 batting average remains a LBSPR record to this day.
Could We Have Clemente Without Gibson?
It seems as if Puerto Rican baseball went from a local pastime to a regional profession in the early 1930’s. It’s too coincidental that this was the time that the Negro League players, and more importantly Gibson, started wintering on the island. Maybe it was a short term business move for the new league to invest in top flight talent from the mainland until the new league gained steam. During Gibson’s first year with the Santurce “Crabbers” in 1932, the uniforms they used were blank and they had no sponsor. By Gibson’s next trip a couple winters later they were sponsored by a national rum company and moved into a new stadium. By his last trip in the winter of 1941-42 baseball was a national treasure with the All Star game occurring over “Three Kings Day” (the Christian feast of the Epiphany).
Is it a stretch to assume that when Roberto Clemente was working in the sugar fields as an 8 year old in 1942 he was swinging a stick of sugarcane pretending to be Josh Gibson ? Clemente was earmarked for his talent as a 16 year old and eventually signed a contract with the same Santurce Cangregeros as a 17 year old and he happened to have the same locker as “The Black Babe”.
You can make an argument that while he hit a home run out of “The House that Ruth Built”, Gibson himself might have “built” the stadium in Santurce…and ones in Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela too.
I never realized how influential Gibson and other Negro league players were in the formation of the Latin American game and it’s crazy to see how it links arguably the two greatest Pittsburgh players ever.