In October, the Baseball Writers Association of America voted overwhelmingly to remove commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name from Major League Baseball’s two Most Valuable Player Awards. The vote was an acknowledgement of Landis’ role in maintaining MLB’s color line from the start of his tenure in 1920 until his death in 1944.
As the baseball writers determine their next step -- whether to leave the awards nameless or attach them to another dignitary -- interested observers have mentioned multiple names as worthy candidates. One is Frank Robinson, the only player to win the MVP Award in both leagues. Another is Branch Rickey, who played a pivotal role in breaking the color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson to a minor-league deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945.
Josh Gibson, the great Negro Leagues catcher, has also attracted an ardent core of support. An on-line petition to rename the MVP Award the “Josh Gibson Memorial Baseball Award’’ has generated almost 2,200 signatures. Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean, has led the effort in his role as executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation.
“If the MVP were renamed for Josh Gibson, it would be for the 3,400 men that were denied the opportunity to play (Major League Baseball),’’ Sean Gibson said. “He would be carrying all of those 3,400 men on his shoulders. Our story is a redemption-type story, and it’s poetic justice. How ironic would it be for Josh Gibson to replace the same guy who denied him the chance to play in the major leagues?’’
Another historical reckoning took place in December when MLB announced that it has elevated Negro League statistics to “Major League’’ status, and that historians and statisticians will work together to facilitate the review process. The decision focuses renewed attention on Gibson, whose Hall of Fame plaque states that he hit “almost 800 home runs’’ over 17 seasons with the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro Leagues and in independent ball.
Sean Gibson recently sat down with the MLBPA to discuss his grandfather’s life and legacy, the mythology and the reality of the Negro Leagues, and the current social justice movement in America. He was joined by Nationals first baseman Josh Bell, who has more than a first name in common with Josh Gibson.
Bell began his career in Pittsburgh before moving on to Washington by trade in December, so he shares two baseball homes with Gibson. Bell’s mother, Dr. Myrtle Bell, is a University of Texas at Arlington management professor and associate dean for diversity, racial equity and inclusion in the school’s College of Business. He is also a member of the Players Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 current and former Black professional players dedicated to increasing opportunities for the Black community in and beyond baseball.