First Pitch: How should baseball honor Josh Gibson and Negro League legends?

MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates

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Major League Baseball has taken several steps recently to appropriately honor baseball’s lost era — a group of legends who were not allowed to play with their peers due to the color of their skin.

Josh Gibson’s grave site is not easy to find. Deep in Allegheny Cemetery, down a winding road at section 50, lies arguably the true home run king. At the time of Gibson’s death in 1947, the gravesite was unmarked. The city of Pittsburgh has since made an effort to make up for that flaw, posthumously, in 1975, with a plaque.

While not nearly of the same variety of disrespect, Major League Baseball refused to recognize Gibson, Satchel Paige and dozens of Negro League legends until the early 1970’s. Correcting errors decades after the fact goes against baseball’s very fabric, but they’ve done so as recently as this season, giving Negro Leaguers “official Major League status”, thus providing some level of validation for their work in growing the game, and fighting against discrimination at the same time.

What this means for the statistical greatness of Gibson remains unclear. Is he the home run king? He hit nearly 800 of those, by most accounts. Gibson would also hold the record for single-season batting average at .441, and be top-5 in career batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.

Placing Gibson among those greats also means displacing other long-held MLB storylines. What of Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron? What of Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams?

The difficult truth is that Gibson’s status as a major-league great was stolen from him, just as was his ability to achieve a normal life of a major league ball-player. Gibson may not be around to accept his post-mortal recognition, but his family is. And that should be enough.

Whether it’s tomorrow (baseball-reference has hinted at a big announcement), or next season, Gibson’s kin deserve the acknowledgement Major League Baseball kept from them for so long.

So, what are the next steps for baseball to honor Josh Gibson, and those like him?

Sean Gibson, Josh Gibson’s great-grandson, is leading the effort to rename the NL MVP in his honor. The Baseball Writer’s Association of America vacated the name on the award last season after removing Kenesaw Mountain Landis due to his upholding a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep black players and minorities like Gibson out of Major League Baseball.

Gibson is one of three primary candidates to replace Landis, along with Branch Rickey and Frank Robinson. The argument for Gibson, of course, is that it would be poetic justice for an all-time Negro League great to replace the man who kept him from integrating into the Majors for so long.

Sean Gibson spoke to FanSided regarding the movement to rename the NL MVP award after Josh Gibson, as well as efforts around Major League Baseball and the city of Pittsburgh to honor his great-grandfather.

1. Pittsburgh — as well as the Pirates and MLB as a whole — has worked recently to honor Negro League legends like your great-grandfather. While it’s not enough, nor should it be, for the decades without much proper recognition, what are the next steps for Major League Baseball, do you think, as it pertains to honoring Negro Leaguers and legends like Josh Gibson?

Sean Gibson: “Our first step will be when the stats are officially put into the record books. MLB made a huge announcement last year to integrate those statistics…they did tell us that it would happen sometime this year. As far as any additional things, right now there are several teams that host a Negro League tribute night…what I would really like is that we have our own Negro League day, just like how they do Jackie Robinson Day. Since they’re including statistics from the Negro Leagues, why not have a Negro League Day?

“Since Negro League Baseball is now Major League Baseball, we know there’s going to be several licensing agreements behind this. We’d like MLB to work with the families and representatives on this. All we ask is that MLB work directly with the families on all licensing deals.”

2You wrote in the Undefeated that the MVP Award should be renamed after Josh Gibson. Have you heard back from MLB or BBWAA in any way regarding that? 

SG: “The BBWAA has not spoken to us personally. They don’t know when it would take place, but they meet twice a year…we don’t know for sure, but we hope a decision is made sometime in July. Last year, there was no name on the award (because Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name was removed for keeping Negro Leaguers out of MLB). So this year, we’re hoping they put a name on that award, and we hope that name is Josh Gibson.”

3. Other candidates for renaming such an award include Frank Robinson and Branch Rickey. Is Josh Gibson more deserving of this honor, or could MLB find a way to perhaps honor all three, with Gibson taking the NL MVP award?

SG: “This is nothing to take away from Branch…or Frank. Those are good candidates, we think Josh is a great candidate. One, our theory is based on redemption and justice. How ironic would it be for someone like a Josh Gibson to replace someone who denied not just him, but other African-Americans an opportunity.

“Number two, this award will not just be for Josh Gibson. This award would represent the 3,400 men that were denied an opportunity to play in the majors. So it’s more than just one person, this is 3,400 men. That’s why Josh is a great candidate.”

4. You attended the unveiling of a mural in Homestead — previous home of the Grays, which your great-grandfather played for — in honor of Josh Gibson. How important is it for us to embrace and increase awareness of Negro League legends like Josh Gibson in the arts and media?

SG: “The mural is beautiful. It’s in Homestead, where the Grays played at. It really stands out, the artist Jeremy Raymer did a fantastic job. I loved the image, our family loved the image, because it looked just like Josh…it’s 2,700 square feet of artwork. For people who don’t know who Josh Gibson is, it’s going to make them wonder, ‘Who is this guy?’. They’re going to do the research. It’s has nothing to do with the Grays or (Pittsburgh) Crawfords. You just see his face.”

5. Beyond the home run, Josh was a tremendous catcher. For those who may not know, how great of a defensive player was Josh Gibson?

SG: “He played 17 years as a catcher and was still able to dominate offensively. We all know catcher is the most brutal position in professional baseball. There were times he wouldn’t even get out of his crouch and throw players out. That proves how strong his arm was. As we all know, the equipment wasn’t up to par. For him to endure that defensive position, and still come out every day…and still have a phenomenal offensive side, it speaks volumes of his talent. He did it both ways.”

Should BBWAA rename the National League MVP award after Josh Gibson?

While the records speak for themselves, very few have heard the story of Gibson, as a person. Josh got married at just 18 years old and had twins the following year. He lost his wife shortly after childbirth, and had to take on single father responsibilities along with the life of a Negro League ballplayer. It was never easy.

Gibson’s story is just one of thousands. Negro Leaguers suffered through unthinkable racism and consequences for everyday activities many of us take for granted.

“When you look at all the obstacles and adversity he had to overcome just to be successful. We know he played in an era with a lot of racism…MLB players didn’t have to worry about death threats, where to sleep,” Sean Gibson told FanSided. “MLB players got up every morning, went to the ballpark, no problem. Negro League players had to endure all these things just to get to the field! And they still came out and did their job very, very well. To have all that pressure built upon you…and to be able to be successful is a story itself because it shows how great these men were.”

Rickey and Robinson are excellent choices as well, and don’t expect the Gibson family to get in the way if either are chosen as the next representative for NL MVP. Yet, it’s tough to go against the narrative Sean and his family lay out.

Josh Gibson’s name on the NL MVP would not just symbolize a victory for Sean and his family, it would provide some sort of gratitude to the thousands like him who long went undetected and unaccepted by the highest governing body of the sport they love.

To support the Gibson family’s cause, you can donate to the Josh Gibson foundation or sign the petition to rename the NL MVP after Josh Gibson.

First Pitch is a weekly FanSided.com MLB feature in coordination with the FanSided network.

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