Josh Gibson, Outside the NNL
Josh Gibson was born on December 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia, a town in Marion country in the southwestern portion of the state. He was the first child born to Mark (born circa 1885 in Georgia) and Nancy (nee Woodlock, born circa 1894 in Georgia or Alabama) Gibson. The couple was married in 1910 or 1911. They had three children: Joshua, Jerry W., born circa 1915, and Annie Larisa, born circa 1918. The Gibsons were poor Georgian sharecroppers.
The 1910 U.S. Census shows the family of Jerry, 52, and Mary E., 36, Gibson living in Brooklyn, Georgia. Jerry’s oldest son Mark was 24 at the time (which matches with the above Mark). However, author Mark Ribowsky states that the name Joshua came from his grandfather. It is interesting though that the family name “Jerry” is carried in both families. Both Jerry and Mary were previously married before wedding each other in 1901. The 1910 Census also shows the family of Shack and Alice Woodlock, including daughter Nancy, living in Marion, Georgia.
Josh Gibson attended public schools in Georgia. Around 1921, Mark Gibson left his family in their rented house in Minton, Georgia to seek employment in the North. He landed with relatives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and found work in the mines for the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. After three years, he saved enough money to send for his family. The Gibson moved into a rented brick house at 2410 Strauss Street in Pleasant Valley, a black section in North Pittsburgh.
Twelve-year-old Josh enrolled in sixth grade at the Allegheny Pre-Vocational School, entering the electrical studies program. He then moved to high school at the Conroy Pre-Vocational School to continue his electrical studies.
At age 15 Gibson joined his father in the mines after school and on weekends. The big, strong kid was nearing his peak physical stature of 6’1” and 215 lbs. Gibson was also drawn to swimming (winning medals locally), roller skating, football, basketball and of course baseball.
At age 16 Gibson left school for good and began working in a Westinghouse air-brake factory in downtown Pittsburgh in 1928. He also operated an elevator at Gimbels department store, the location of the former Kaufmann & Baer’s store that was purchased by the Gimbel brothers in 1925.
Baseball became Gibson’s passion at a young age. He played all the sports, but he made particular effort to attend as many ball games as possible to aid in his understanding of technique and strategy. He sat a many an amateur, semi-pro game and caught the traveling black clubs when possible. The Homestead Grays, taken over in 1912 (originally organized by a group of steelworkers in 1900) by Cum Posey, were the big black baseball attraction in Pittsburgh. When possible, Gibson lined up to watch the Grays.
In 1928 at age 16 Gibson joined his first league team, a semi-pro outfit sponsored by Gimbels. With the club he played catcher before settling in at third base. That year, he was spotted by Harold “Hooks” Tinker playing in an industrial league all-star game. Tinker was manager of the Crawford Colored Giants, an amateur outfit. In 1925 a group of neighborhood boys from the McKelvey School formed what became known as the Crawford Colored Giants. The name came from their sponsor in a 1926 tournament - the Crawford Bath House, a municipal recreation center. Tinker immediately signed up Gibson.
Gibson played for the Crawfords until the summer of 1930. He jumped the club soon after Gus Greenlee purchased it (Greenlee would transform the sandlot crew into the famed Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League). That summer, Gibson was recruited by Posey for his Homestead Grays. On July 31, Gibson made his professional debut at age 18.
1930-31 Homestead Grays in the Negro National League
1932-36 Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro National League
1937 Cuidad Trujillo in the Dominican League
1937-40 Homestead Grays in the Negro National League
1940 Caracas in the Venezuela League
1940-41 Vera Cruz in the Mexican League
1942-46 Homestead Grays in the Negro National League
He also played for many years in the Cuban Winter League and the Puerto Rican Winter League. Josh’s brother Jerry also played baseball, as a pitcher playing semi-pro ball before joining the Cincinnati Tigers of the Negro American League in 1943.
To start 1937, Gibson held out trying to garner more money from Greenlee. In March Gibson and Judy Johnson were traded from the Crawfords to the Grays for two players and $2,500. It was one of the biggest deals in Negro league history. A month later, on April 22, Gibson, Satchel Paige and sixteen other Negro National Leaguers jumped to Dominican League, funded by Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.
The political situation in the Dominican became precarious. The American ballplayers were lived in jails for their protection. The games were played surrounded by Trujillo’s heavily armed soldiers. Gibson, though, was paid about $2,000 during his seven weeks there. In July he returned to the United States and rejoined the Grays.
Gibson jumped the Grays again in 1940 to play ball in Venezuela ($700 a month plus a $1,000 bonus). When the league folded, he took off for home, arriving in August. He then joined Vera Cruz in the Mexican League. He then agreed to join the Grays for 1941; however, before season started he returned to Mexico for a $6,000 salary. Posey sued Gibson for $10,000 and filed a protest with the State Department. A judge sided with Posey and further ordered the foreclosure of Gibson’s house if he didn’t return to the States within a week. Gibson signed a two-year agreement ($1,200 a month after bonuses) to appease Posey and end the legal troubles.
Sometime in 1928 or ‘29, Gibson began seeing Helen Mason, a local Pittsburgh girl who lived 45 Panola Street with her parents James (born circa 1868 in Virginia) and Margaret (born circa 1890 in West Virginia) Mason. The Masons were married in 1910, the first marriage for each.
Helen, a Pennsylvania native, was the same age as Josh. The Masons also had two other daughters: Rebecca, two years younger than Helen, and Octavia (called Dolly), three years younger than Helen. James repaired water main leaks for the city.
In February 1930 Helen discovered that she was pregnant; consequently, Josh and Helen were married on March 7 at Macedonia Baptist Church. Josh moved in with the Mason family that night.
Interestingly, Josh Gibson is listed twice in the 1930 U.S. Census. Both listings were taken in April 1930. He is listed at the residence of both the Mason and Gibson families. Oddly, the Gibson family identifies him as “Joseph.” Whether that is his middle name or not is unknown, but it is a possibility.
On August 11 Helen, carrying twins went into premature labor. She died giving birth. Distraught, Josh left the hospital without naming or caring for the children. The Masons took the children in, naming them after their parents, Helen and Joshua Jr. Josh rejoined the Grays without a word to his teammates. He merely focused his attentions even more single-mindedly to baseball.
Gibson was in and out of his kids lives, allowing the Masons to raise them. Josh Jr. would become a batboy for the Crawfords. In 1948 after his graduation from Schenley High School (the same school his mother Helen matriculated) Gibson, an infielder, briefly played in organized baseball for Youngstown, Ohio, in the Class-C Middle Atlantic League. He then played for the Grays from 1949-50 for Josh Sr.’s good friend Sam Bankhead and in the Provincial League in 1951, a league based in Quebec, Canada. In Canada Gibson broke his ankle sliding, ending his career.
In 1933 Gibson met Hattie Jones, born on January 6, 1907 in East Tallahassee, Florida. Accounts suggest that Hattie had a bland personality and placed strict demands on Gibson. She was particularly forceful that Gibson provided for her. So in the spring of 1934, Gibson purchased a two-story brick townhouse for $1,000 for the couple at 2157 Webster Avenue in North Pittsburgh near his parent’s home. They lived there however they did not immediately marry. (Some reports suggest that they were not married until 1940. However, immigration records of overseas travel list Joshua Gibson as married during his return trip from the Dominican Republic in July 1937.)
Whenever they were married, the couple was having serious problems by 1940-41. It’s been said that Gibson’s decision to play ball in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico from 1940-41 may have just been efforts to avoid household difficulties. This may be true at times but Hattie did travel with him to at least Venezuela (and perhaps other locations) during this time. At some point he couple separated.
Gibson started drinking heavily at least as early as 1937, much of the time with his good friend Sam Bankhead, and later smoking marijuana. His mother had always been a heavy drinker, often throwing raucous parties. Certainly the long stretches of time he spent out of the country and on the road didn’t help the drinking. The marital troubles didn’t help as well. Helen Bankhead, Sam’s wife, would later describe with awe and disgust just how much her husband and Gibson drank in Mexico in 1941. Day after day, sometime during the game, the two would drink bottle for bottle to see who the last man standing would be.
In 1942 virtually everyone that came in contact with Gibson noticed a drastic change in personality. He was quiet, withdrawn and depressed. He was also suffering from dizziness and intense headaches. Frazier Robinson later described Gibson in 1942, “He wouldn’t have nothing to do with you. He’d just sit. He wouldn’t talk much, wouldn’t joke around, he just lost that spark.” Gibson’s headaches were particularly troublesome by the end of the year.
On January 1, 1943 Gibson collapsed with a seizure, remaining unconscious for a day. He was taken to St. Francis Hospital where he stayed for ten days. There, he learned that he was suffering from a brain tumor. The doctors recommended an operation but Gibson refused, fearing potential complications. Come spring training though, Gibson was back at work for the Grays in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He never did tell his teammates about his illness. At the time of Gibson’s death, rumors, but few facts, abound.
Gibson’s drinking and behavior became even more erratic in 1943. During his last few years, Gibson’s teammates would occasionally pack their catcher into a cab headed for St. Francis so he could “dry out” after particularly long stretch of drinking. They were unaware of just exactly what care he was receiving at the hospital. During this time, he barely saw Hattie, especially considering the fact that the Grays played their home games in Washington D.C.
In 1944 in D.C. Gibson met an attractive and vibrant woman named Grace Fournier. She was the wife of an overseas serviceman, a man she claimed was exceeding jealous and dangerous – involved with gambling and drugs. The two were inseparable, spending much of their time partying. Gibson introduced Grace to his teammates and encouraged friendship, something he refused to do with Hattie. Gibson also wasn’t shy about being photographed with Grace, something he also avoided with Hattie. Josh and Grace were frequently intoxicated, nearly nonstop. Rumors suggest that Grace also introduced hard drugs, such as, cocaine and heroin to Gibson. Luckily, the two split after Fournier’s husband returned home after the war.
Naturally, Gibson lost his muscular physique. He ballooned to 225 pounds, much of the excess hanging around his midsection. In late 1945 it was announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Jackie Robinson. The news just seemed to depress Gibson further.
The end was nearing for Gibson in 1946. He had refused all treatment and his self medication through alcohol and drugs was taking its toll. He became moody, even malicious at times. He was perpetually depressed and known to weep at times. His speech was often slurred and incoherent even when he was sober. Gibson had also developed kidney troubles and bronchitis (and probably liver trouble as well).
By the end of 1946, Gibson’s weight had dropped to 180 pounds and he was too ill to play winter ball. He also became broke from his lifestyle and moved back in with Hattie, in part, because he couldn’t take care of himself. At some point he moved in with his mother. The last few months of 1946 proved to be the only extended time Gibson spent with his children.
On January 20, 1947 a drunken Gibson went to an afternoon movie at a local theatre. There, he was found unconscious and taken to his mother’s house. He died (of either a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage) a few hours later after requesting that his trophies be brought to him. Gibson had just turned 35 years old a month earlier.
The funeral was held at Macedonia Baptist Church. Speculation abound, as Gibson’s friends, teammates and baseball associates didn’t know the root of his illness. He was interred at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Section 50. Lot SG-C232, near Gus Greenlee.
Last edited by Brian McKenna; 04-23-2008 at 12:09 PM.
A sad story, sad ending Brian. All that talent, the history of MLB would have been greatly enriched if Josh and some other blacks had their chance.
Originally Posted by Brian McKenna
Right on. Josh Gibson is a legend.
Originally Posted by SHOELESSJOE3
THE GREATEST WHO EVER LIVED
Hitler & his supporters used Max Schmeling as a symbol & sports hero of the Jewish Holocaust known as Nazi Germany.
Supporters & sympathizers of the Black Holocaust known as Jim Crow, have Ruth & Cobb.
THE FLEET-WALKER MOVEMENT
Tragic & sad are the first words to come out of his mouth. Does anyone know what happened to his kids and does he have any grandchildren or great grandchildren that are still alive.
Today I Consider Myself the Luckiest Man on the Face of this Earth...
“I would like to take the great Di Maggio fishing....They says his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand...”
“The Old Man and the Sea”