Gibson, the Negro League’s greatest hitter of all time, died of a stroke at age 35 in January 1947, just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. Leonard, who turned 40 that season, retired a year later.
“We in the black leagues thought we could and should have been in the majors, but it wasn’t meant to be,” Leonard said in his acceptance speech on that cloudy summer day he 50 years ago, a month before his 65th birthday. “…We felt we were bringing something to baseball as well. We played with a round ball and round bats, and we liked that and liked to play – because there wasn’t a lot of money in it. My starter is something I never thought would happen.
Gibson, a catcher, and Leonard, a first baseman, propelled a Grays “Murderers’ Row” team, which dominated the Negro National League in the 1930s and 1940s. The Grays split their time between DC and Pittsburgh , often outscoring the Washington Senators at their home ballpark, Griffith Stadium.
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The duo were inducted along with six other players, including Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax and Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.
“They could hardly have been more representative of Melting Pot USA,” Sporting News wrote at the time, describing the five living inductees. “Humbled and grateful, they stood in front of a microphone in a typical American small town. … A Jew from New York, an Italian from Missouri, a Scots-Irish-Indian from Alabama, a Spaniard from California, and a black from North Carolina.
Gibson and Leonard were only the fourth and fifth black players to enter the Hall of Fame, following Robinson (1962), Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella (1969), and Satchel Paige, who in 1971 became the first player inducted by the Committee on Negroes. League veterans. (All three had played in the Negro Leagues, but Paige was the only one of the three to have played there most of her career.)
Some news reports that day characterized Gibson and Leonard as, at best, supporting actors. In its article on the induction, The New York Times reported: “In a perfectly appropriate mix of sentiment, humor and brevity, Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Gomez and five less glamorous personalities were inducted into the Hall of the fame of baseball today.”
Fifty years later, it would be hard for any baseball historian to consider Gibson and Leonard “less glamorous” than the other Hall of Famers. According to baseballreference.com, Gibson finished with a career batting average of .374, a slugging percentage of .720 and an off-chart OPS of 1.178. Leonard had a career batting average of .345 and an OPS of 1.042.
“Josh was the greatest hitter I ever pitched to, and I pitched to everybody,” Paige said in 1972, according to The Times. “There have been great hitters – Williams, DiMaggio, Musial, Mays, Mantle. But none of them were as good as Josh.
Campanella, a star receiver who played eight seasons in the Negro Leagues before joining the Dodgers in 1948, told Sporting News: “Whenever I played on a Negro League All-Star Team with Josh, he was the catcher. . I played third base. Anything I could do, Josh could do better.
“Too bad this Gibson is a man of color”
Gibson and Leonard, of course, didn’t come out of nowhere. During spring training in 1939, former Washington Senators star Walter Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, watched Gibson play in a game in Orlando and then raved about from Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich, who quoted him:
“There’s a receiver that any club in the big league would love to buy for $200,000. I’ve heard of him before. His name is Gibson. They call him ‘Hoot’ Gibson, and he can do anything. He hits that ball a mile. And he catches so easily he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a gun. [Yankees star] Bill Dickey is not such a good receiver. Too bad this Gibson is a man of color.
Povich added, “That was the general impression among the Nats who saw the game.”
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Senators owner Clark Griffith came to the same conclusion a few years later, though he lowered the price a bit. “There’s a receiver out there who’s worth $150,000 of anyone’s money right now. If I could have had him, I would have sued him a while ago! he gushed to the Post in 1942. Griffith recalled seeing Gibson hit four homers in a doubleheader the previous year, one of which was the longest home run ever at Griffith Stadium.
And yet Griffith resisted pressure from black journalists such as Sam Lacy to sign Gibson and other black players – and instantly improve his mediocre squad. Leonard recalled that one day around 1942, Griffith asked to meet him and Gibson, according to a 1988 Post article by John B. Holway, adapted from his book “Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers.”
At that meeting, Leonard recalled, Griffith mentioned the black sportswriters’ campaign to get them on the Senators roster and said, “Well, let me tell you something: If we get you boys, we we will have the best. It’ll break your league. Now what do you think?
Leonard said they responded that they would be happy to play in the major leagues, but would leave it up to others to make their case. According to Holway, the duo never heard from Griffith again.
Two years ago, the Baseball Writers’ Association of the America voted to remove former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name from the MVP plaques. There were no black players in the major leagues during his long tenure as the first athletic commissioner, from 1920 to 1944. Now the Josh Gibson Foundation has a campaign to rename the MVP for Gibson.
“We all know that Kenesaw Mountain Landis has denied over 3,400 men the opportunity to play in the major leagues,” group executive director Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson, said during a recent telephone interview. “So having Josh Gibson’s name on the MVP Award would not only represent Josh Gibson, but it would represent the 3,400 men who were denied the opportunity to play in the majors. That’s more important than Josh Gibson. Josh carries these guys on his shoulders.
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He added that it would be “poetic justice” for a player deprived of the opportunity to play in the major leagues to replace a commissioner who had been an obstacle.
Sean Gibson said his grandfather, who accepted the Hall of Fame plaque for Josh Gibson, always credited Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams for opening the door for players such as Gibson to do the Hall. In her 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, Williams said, “I hope that one day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can somehow be added as a symbol of the great black players who aren’t here just because they haven’t been given a chance.”
“Five years later, Satch enters 1971,” Gibson noted. “The next year, 1972, it was Josh. My grandfather always gave credit to Ted Williams because he thinks that if Ted Williams doesn’t mention Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige in his speech, he doesn’t know if it happens that fast.
Gibson said he thought Williams’ background – his mother was Mexican – helped him feel compassion for Negro League players. Another factor was that Williams was seeing black players in barnstorming games against the Negro Leaguers.
“So he knew the talent,” Gibson said. “He knew how great those guys were on the diamond.”
“Ted spoke up; no one else spoke,” he added. “So we are very grateful for that. His speech lasted only three minutes. And for him to include this little piece of the pie, from Josh and Satch, was huge for us.