Thursday, July 14, 2011

#41: Josh Gibson: The Power and the Darkness by Mark Ribowsky

University of Illinois Press, 2004. 319 pages.

This book was originally printed in 1996. For this edition, Mark Ribowsky produced an updated preface and introduction. Ribowsky's discussion of the reaction to this text is interesting. But first, let's consider Josh Gibson.

Gibson and Satchel Paige are the two best known stars of the Negro Leagues of the 1920s and 1930s, and, by most accounts, are considered the best players produced by those leagues. According to Shades of Glory published by the Baseball Hall of Fame, Gibson appeared in 510 Negro League games between 1930 and 1946. He played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays. He, along with many other black players, also played in the Dominican Winter League and the Mexican League. In 1941 at age 30, he hit .374 with 33 Home Runs in 94 games for Veracruz. Gibson is routinely credited with 800 or even 900 home runs, which is most likely not correct. Officially, he is credited with 177 in 2529 at bats, still a very impressive rate. He used a massive 41 ounce, 40 inch bat and appeared in his first semi-pro game at age 16. (26)

And this is where Ribowsky comes in. He attempts to strip away the legends and get at the individual, and he succeeds. While I knew (or thought I knew) quite a bit about Gibson the ballplayer, I did not know much about him as a man. The intersection of black baseball, organized crime and ego is wrapped up in the relationship between Gibson, Satchel Paige and Gus Greenlee, owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Greenlee ran numbers from his pool halls and saloons and began to lose business in the late 1930s (150). Gibson was in demand; what separated him from Satchel Paige was, to be blunt, loyalty. Satch would pitch anywhere, anytime. The effect on his teammates, according to Ribowsky, was resentment and anger. Paige made more money than anyone else because he played more than anyone else. Contracts meant next to nothing to him; however, Gibson viewed the business side of baseball as a "trial", and "even if prodded, would not have known how to clown it up" for white and black fans. (95)

Gibson was a haunted man who took to booze to dull his pain. Ribowsky treats his downward spiral of the 1940s not as the fall of an idol and does not portray Gibson as a victim of the institutional racism of white baseball. He simply casts him as a man beset by demons who did not know how to deal with them. We all know people like that (or may be people like that) and this makes Gibson approachable, not the awesome Baseball God. This caused Ribowsky some grief when the book first appeared; his response is "the hardest thing to accept about Josh Gibson was that he was not impregnable after all." (12)

This is perhaps the hardest thing to deal with when confronted with the mortality of our parents, heroes and ourselves. I got to meet Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull, some years ago. I own every Tull album (and deal with shame from some quarters for this fact) and I was struck by how short and skinny he was. He seemed nice and spent nearly 90 minutes signing autographs in a parking lot. Some people were pissed that he did not sign the (literally) 14 items they brought, but fuck 'em. Once you become a hero, it is understood by all that you do not belong to yourself but to everyone. Your time is no longer your own. All of us on some level want the fame and money, but we have no idea of the price. Gibson paid at the office, as do most professional ball players who achieve hall of fame status. Even Gibson, a man in his prime who could run fast, stood 6'1 and was 230 pounds of muscle, did not have enough to give. This was an excellent book.

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