Fellow Bucs Dugout contributor Brett Barnett wrote recently about a section of PNC Park known as Legacy Square, which at one time featured a robust area set aside to honor Pittsburgh’s connection with the great history of Negro Leagues baseball but later was reconfigured and several sizable statues were removed.
One of those statues honored the legacy of Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, whose connection to Pittsburgh dates back to the early 1920s when his family relocated from Georgia when Josh was still a pre-teen. Legend has it that Gibson got his start in organized baseball at the age of 16 when he joined a team of Gimbels employees – he worked as an elevator operator at Gimbels department store — and a few years later he joined a semipro team in Pittsburgh known as the Crawford Colored Giants.
According to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website, Gibson turned pro in July 1930 when he was called out of the stands to replace injured Homestead Grays catcher Buck Ewing. Gibson would spend most of the next 16 seasons playing for either the Grays or the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League, compiling eyepopping numbers and numerous stories of his amazing feats of strength in the batter’s box.
He was known by many as the “Black Babe Ruth,” although it was said that some fans and Negro Leagues players preferred to refer to Ruth as the “White Josh Gibson.” The 6-foot-1, 210-pound right-handed slugger’s final season came in 1946 with the Grays when, at the age of 34, he batted .288 with an OPS of .871. Although some historians have said that some of the Negro League statistics could be sketchy, no one disputed Gibson’s greatness, and he became the second Negro Leagues player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 – 25 years after he died of a stroke at the age of 35.
Gibson’s name resurfaced recently when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MLB would officially elevate the Negro Leagues to “Major League” status. The official announcement said MLB was “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history” by taking the action and said the recognition was “long overdue.” Manfred said, “All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice. We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, called the decision to grant the Negro Leagues major league status “profoundly gratifying,” and Bob Kendrick – president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City – said the move validates players who had been shunned by the major leagues and shines a “welcomed spotlight on the immense talent that called the Negro Leagues home.”
In terms of position players, there might not have been any talent more immense than that of Gibson, whose prodigious feats spawned many a tall tale. A poll done by The Sporting News in 2000 placed Gibson No. 18 on the list of the 100 greatest players of all time – the highest ranking of anyone who played all or most of their careers in the Negro Leagues.
Gibson’s greatness was recognized by the Washington Nationals, who installed a statue of Gibson inside the center field gate at Nationals Park in 2009. Gibson never played for a Washington team, but the Homestead Grays played many of their games in Washington during Gibson’s career. In addition to the statue, Gibson also was added to the Nationals’ Ring of Honor.
Given Gibson’s deep connection to Pittsburgh – his great-grandson Sean Gibson is the executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Josh Gibson Foundation, which is dedicated to providing opportunities for the youth of Pittsburgh – should the Pirates honor him in a similar fashion? The club already has major statues honoring four of its greatest players – Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski – as well as a monument to former owner Barney Dreyfuss, a bronze bust of former team president Carl Barger and a bronze casting of slugger Ralph Kiner’s hands. Some might say that’s plenty, but there certainly is room at or near PNC Park for a statue honoring Gibson.
Rob Ruck, a professor of sport history at Pitt who has written extensively about sports, said there’s no doubt as to the “legitimacy or appropriateness” of the Pirates erecting a statue of Gibson somewhere at or near PNC Park. He said talk of such a project has surfaced several times over the past 30 years or so. Ruck said last week that when plans were being drafted for PNC Park, they included a statue of Gibson to be built near where the current Mazeroski statue stands. However, the Gibson statue never materialized.
In the fall of 2017, the Josh Gibson Foundation announced plans to erect what it called Josh Gibson Heritage Park at Station Square. The park was slated to feature monuments to Gibson and – for starters – three other Negro Leagues icons in Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Cumberland Posey. But Sean Gibson said Sunday that the foundation was no longer involved in that project.
Sean Gibson has been plenty busy in other areas, though, as he is helping to lead an effort to rename MLB’s Most Valuable Player award the “Josh Gibson Memorial Baseball Award.” As of today, 1,944 people had signed a petition calling for the change. As for the statue idea, Gibson said that the Gibson Foundation would love to see Josh honored with a statue similar to that of Clemente or Stargell somewhere near PNC Park, particularly since the club removed the statues at Legacy Square. “But that’s not our call,” Sean Gibson said. “That’s up to the Pirates.”
Perhaps the Pirates should consider making such a statue a centerpiece of what’s been referred to a Pirates Plaza – a 15,000-square-foot area that is part of a proposed mixed-use development on the North Shore near the Hyatt Place Hotel and PNC Park. When Pirates officials first unveiled those plans, they said the plaza could serve as a place where Pirates fans could gather before and after games as well as when the Pirates and Steelers were not playing. According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story earlier this year, the plaza could include a “showcase for the nine Pirate retired numbers” as well as Jackie Robinson’s No. 42.
While Gibson never wore a Pirate uniform, he certainly suited up plenty of times for teams representing Pittsburgh. A statue calling attention to his greatness and his connection to the city would be a suitable way to honor him and cement – or perhaps bronze – Pittsburgh’s legacy as a major player in the history of Negro Leagues baseball.