Tuesday, April 7, 2015
April 7, 2015: Baseball Lives: Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige
[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
On what we don’t know about some of the all-time greats, and what we do.
There are lots of reasons why the Negro Leagues comprise a hugely compelling American history, but near the top of the list would have to be the “what if?” questions and arguments they create. Take titanic slugger Josh Gibson, for example. The introductory paragraph in that linked Hall of Fame piece on Gibson says it all: “The applause Josh Gibson received should have been louder. He was considered the best power hitter of his era in the Negro baseball leagues and perhaps even the majors.” Ah, that eternal “perhaps,” the stories and histories denied to us because of discrimination and exclusion. Later in the same piece, fellow Negro Leaguer Alonzo Boone argues, “Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or anybody else I’ve ever seen.” To be clear, such an assessment is no less valid because Gibson was not allowed to play in the majors (just as the Negro Leagues were no less authentic than their counterpart)—but the gap remains, exemplified by one more quote from the piece: “Negro Leagues statistics of the time are largely incomplete. But the legend of Gibson’s power has always been larger than life.” So was Babe Ruth’s legend, of course—but it was accompanied by a career in the majors, one denied to Gibson and his peers.
As that Hall of Fame piece notes, Gibson would by the end of his career become the “second-highest paid player in black baseball, behind Satchel Paige.” And Paige, whom sportswriter Joe Posnanski has argued was the hardest thrower in baseball history, offers an even more complex and tantalizing “what if?” scenario, because the legendary hurler did in fact get the chance to pitch in the majors—but not until he was 42 years old (for the Cleveland Indians in July 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson’s debut), making Paige’s the oldest debut in major league history. While his brief major league service (he finished that season and pitched the next before being released and returning to the barnstorming circuit) was a mixed success, Paige’s long baseball career provided another unique opportunity for competition against major leaguers: in 1946 and 1947, major league star Bob Feller organized an extensive, nationwide barnstorming tour, and recruited Paige to lead a team of Negro League all-stars that would compete against Feller’s major league all-star team. As that linked article notes, the tour greatly advanced the overall cause of integration in baseball, and undoubtedly contributed to Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson the following year. But Feller also emphasized the tour’s more specific contribution to perceptions of Paige himself: “the case for Satchel Paige,” he argued, “has been made in part by what baseball people saw in his outstanding performances against my barnstorming team.”
The fact that a “case” had to be made for Paige’s greatness at all, and will to a degree always have to be made (although both Paige and Gibson were voted into the Hall of Fame, the sport’s highest measure of success), reflects once again those eternal gaps in our stories and histories. But no athlete (or person) is summed up solely by such professional judgments in any case, and Paige’s life represents an amazing, 20th century American story on many other levels: his childhood in Mobile, Alabama, the son of two domestic workers; his own youthful work to help support that family, carrying bags at the train station (one possible source for the nickname Satchel); the truancy and theft charges that landed him in an Industrial School for Negro Children, where ironically he first developed the pitching skills that would take him far from that place; and his truly nationwide and globe-trotting experiences as a semi-pro and barnstormer (often pursued alongside his service in the Negro Leagues), including stints in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. While we cannot forget the racism and exclusion that denied men like Paige and Gibson many opportunities, we at the same time can and must remember the amazing, legendary, inspiring lives (in and out of baseball) they and many others led just the same.
Next baseball llife tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?