Michael A. Jones grew up in Pittsburgh, long after the heyday of Negro Leagues baseball there and long after the death in the city of one of that era’s biggest stars.
But there was no escaping the name as it echoed through the decades, even if it became but a whisper: Josh Gibson, the man believed to have hit more home runs than anyone else in the history of the game.
“Some say he died of a broken heart,” Jones said. “I would hear that and say: ‘What?’ As I got older, I heard the statement again and I was like, wow, that sounds so dramatic.”
So Jones turned it into a drama. His play, “Josh: The Black Babe Ruth,” recounts the life, times and death at age 35 of the man widely regarded as the greatest slugger in the Negro Leagues and perhaps the best — period.
It opened last spring and is back for a limited engagement through Feb. 25, timed for Black History Month, at the Theater for the New City in the East Village in Manhattan.
Jones began writing 12 years ago, and after years of research, interviews — including with Sean Gibson, Josh’s great-grandson — and revisions, the result is a play focused on a fraught era in the transition to the integration of Major League Baseball.
On one hand, Gibson and Satchel Paige are the biggest names in black baseball and rightly expect to be among the first to get the call. On the other, Jackie Robinson is a better fit in terms of age, background and temperament.
Gibson, devastated, dies in January 1947 — three months before Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers — under circumstances that remain unclear. Was it a stroke? An aneurysm? A drug overdose? Cancer? Or the aforementioned broken heart?
The play, directed by Bette Howard, does not offer a definitive answer. It suffices that it answers the question of who Gibson was. Even non-sports fans know Robinson. Even casual fans likely have heard of Paige, and might recall Buck O’Neil from Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary.
But Gibson is the headliner among a group of players from the pre-Robinson era whose careers largely are known to Negro Leagues aficionados and relatively few others.
Even if you have heard of Gibson, many of the names of others mentioned by historians at a recent post-show panel discussion likely would draw a blank. They include the likes of Turkey Stearnes, Clyde Parris, Cristobal Torriente, Pop Lloyd and many, many others.
“They were there, and it’s so terrible that people don’t know about it,” said Philip Ross, one of the historians on the panel.
But none was better at hitting a baseball into the far reaches of ballparks — including big-league parks such as Yankee Stadium — than Gibson.
BIRTH OF A LEGEND
Born in Georgia in 1911, he moved with his family to Pittsburgh, where he learned the game and played for the Homestead Grays and later the Pittsburgh Crawfords, both legendary Negro Leagues teams.
Reliable statistics are difficult to come by, but by any measure they were extraordinary. They landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1972 — the second Negro Leaguer there after Paige, who reached the majors at age 42 in 1948, a year after Gibson died. Paige lived until 1982, affording him time to introduce himself to later generations of fans, while Gibson faded into history. No one under age 80 or so today can clearly recall him playing — or living.
His plaque in Cooperstown serves as a reminder:
“CONSIDERED GREATEST SLUGGER IN NEGRO BASEBALL LEAGUES. POWER HITTING CATCHER WHO HIT ALMOST 800 HOME RUNS IN LEAGUE AND INDEPENDENT BASEBALL DURING HIS 17-YEAR CAREER. CREDITED WITH HAVING BEEN NEGRO NATIONAL LEAGUE BATTING CHAMPION IN 1936-38-43-45.”
The Hall of Fame website includes this quote from former Cleveland Buckeyes pitcher-manager Alonzo Boone:
“Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or anybody else I’ve ever seen.”
SPOTLIGHT ON GIBSON
Education is part of the participants’ satisfaction in Jones’ play.
“Definitely, that’s one of the things that I love about this play is that when people come here, they’re like, ‘How come I don’t know about this person? This is insane,’ ” said Daphne Danielle, who plays Gibson’s common-law wife, Hattie.
“A lot of people, they’ve heard of Satchel Paige. But you say ‘Josh Gibson’ and they’re like, ‘I think I’ve heard the name, but I’m not sure.’ . . . People who are playing baseball, or anybody, should know about him. Just know the name.”
Danielle said the play has added resonance because her grandfather, Sam Barber, briefly was a Negro Leaguer.
Daniel Danielson, who portrays Paige, wept as he spoke of his family’s connection to baseball and its racial history, including a cousin, George Lombard, who is the current Dodgers’ first-base coach and whose mother, Posey, was a white civil rights activist.
He referred to the larger-than-life Paige as “Michael Jordan times Clayton Kershaw times LeBron James times 10 more people.”
As for Gibson, portrayed by David Roberts, it’s complicated. Perhaps he would have struggled with life off the field, including a relationship with a mistress who appears not to have been a positive influence, even if he had come along 20 or 50 or 80 years later. But life in 1930s baseball did him few favors.
“I speak about Babe Ruth as ‘the white Josh Gibson,’ ” Ross said. “I think that Josh was a better hitter. He had to do things on fields that were tough to play on, and living in a segregated country . . . Yet he flourished, and everywhere he played, the ball went out.”
BIG MAN, BIG STORY
Ross added that while Jones’ writing is powerful, the play “doesn’t even touch the power of the man as a hitter. He became a pretty good catcher. He was a fast runner when he was younger. But as a hitter, he was scary.
“In his personal life, especially as he got older, the pressures of life really got to Josh Gibson. But on the field he smiled. He was happy. He loved being on a ballfield. He loved playing. And he was strong. If there was a fight, you got behind Gibson; nobody would go through him.”
Jones said telling theatergoers about Gibson’s career is part of his task but that it goes beyond that.
“This story is America,” he said. “You can’t just say America’s black and white, because every time you do that, something else comes up and you say, ‘That’s complicated.’ . . . This is about life.”
Ross said the earliest recorded game involving black players was in New York in 1857, but it was not until the 1920s that the first successful Negro League formed. Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers was the beginning of the end.
By the 1950s, teams had to get more creative in marketing, and the Indianapolis Clowns employed female stars such as Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie Johnson, not to mention a male up-and-comer named Hank Aaron.
The number of living Negro Leaguers is dwindling rapidly, as are the number of fans who watched them play.
So all we have left is debate, which is part of the fun. Gibson likely would be pleased to know that he still is in the conversation.
“I always end off [speaking engagements] by saying, ‘Thanks to Jackie Robinson, we have a CC Sabathia, but if not for Satchel Paige, we wouldn’t have Jackie Robinson,’ ” Ross said.
“Was Babe Ruth the better hitter or not the better hitter? I don’t know. But we can enjoy discussing it.”
Born: Dec. 21, 1911 in Buena Vista, Georgia
Died: Jan. 20, 1947 (was 35)
Primary position: Catcher
Batted: Right Threw: Right
Vitals: 6-1, 220
Homestead Grays (Independent) 1930-31
Pittsburgh Crawfords (Negro National League) 1932-36
Homestead Grays (NNL) 1937-40
Veracruz (Mexican) 1940-41
Homestead Grays (NNL) 1942-46
Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972
WHAT “Josh: The Black Babe Ruth”
WHEN AND WHERE Now through Feb. 25; Thurs.-Sat.,
8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Theater for the New City, 155 1st Avenue, Manhattan
INFO Tickets $18, ($15 students, seniors) theaterforthenewcity.net