"I ALWAYS CONSIDERED
JOSH GIBSON A MAJOR LEAGUER"

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Photo Courtesy of Sean Gibson

The Hall of Fame catcher’s great-grandson talks baseball, Judge Landis and social justice with big leaguer Josh Bell 

By Jerry Crasnick

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.

MLBPA: SEAN, AS JOSH GIBSON'S GREAT-GRANDSON, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT HIM THAT MIGHT NOT BE PART OF THE COMMON NARRATIVE?

 
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Photo Courtesy of Sean Gibson

SEAN GIBSON:  We all know about Josh Gibson the baseball player, but there are several stories about Josh Gibson off the field. Josh was a single parent. His wife died giving birth to twins. Playing baseball during that time of segregation and also trying to raise twins was very tough. Fortunately, he was blessed to have his in-laws raise the twins while he continued his great career in the Negro Leagues.

Unfortunately, he died at a very young age, at 35, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, so he never had a chance to see Negro League players integrate into Major League Baseball.

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MLBPA: JOSH, YOU PLAYED IN PITTSBURGH AND YOU'RE NOW WITH THE NATIONALS. THOSE ARE THE TWO CITIES WHERE JOSH GIBSON PLAYED. HOW FAMILIAR ARE YOU WITH HIS LIFE STORY AND THE STORIES OF OTHER NEGRO LEAGUE PLAYERS?

 

JOSH BELL:  Growing up a basketball fan, I really didn't know much about the Negro Leagues until I got drafted by the Pirates. They fly you out to PNC Park, and walking through the stadium you see the Homestead Grays uniforms. You see Josh Gibson and the other greats that played and kind of got the ball rolling. I remember putting on the Grays uniform for the first time and continuing the conversations over the years. Finally getting to meet Bob Kendrick and going to the Negro Leagues Museum this past season was an incredible experience. We were only able to stay for a couple hours, but I heard the stories about Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and the greats in the past that didn't really have an opportunity to be recognized up until very (recently) in MLB. I'm excited to continue to learn more and go back to that museum whenever I can and continue these conversations.

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Circa 2016

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MLBPA: SEAN, THE STORIES ABOUT JOSH GIBSON’S HOME RUN BALLS ARE LEGENDARY. DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITES?

 

SEAN GIBSON:  You hear about Josh Gibson’s home run greatness all the time. You hear about the home run in Yankee stadium -- 580 feet – the longest home run ever in Yankee Stadium. I always joke with my buddy Brent Stevens, who’s Babe Ruth’s great-grandson. I tell him, ‘It was supposed to be the House that Ruth built, but Josh Gibson hit the furthest home run in your granddaddy's house.’ There’s another (story) here in Pittsburgh about him hitting a ball out of Forbes Field that went into a classroom at the University of Pittsburgh. Back then, of course, the ballparks were pretty big. At Forbes Field, the deepest part of the field was 457 feet, so you’re talking about some larger fields compared to nowadays.

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Photo Courtesy of Sean Gibson

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MLBPA: IN DECEMBER, MLB ANNOUNCED THAT IT WILL BE INTEGRATING NEGRO LEAGUE STATISTICS WITH MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S STATS. CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR REACTIONS WHEN YOU HEARD THAT NEWS?

 

JOSH BELL:  For me personally, it was awesome. I think it’s another step towards equality. You have to start realizing that racism and segregation have rippling effects. You throw a (stone) into the water and the water is going to ripple and continue to ripple. So you start implementing new things to try to counteract those ripples. I think in the long run, we’ll look back 100 years from now and the game is going to continue to look different. Things are going to continue to progress forward and that's what this is all about.

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SEAN GIBSON:  For myself and our legacy, it's a great honor. I think it’s long overdue. Unfortunately, all the great Negro League players are dead. You’re taking records from 1920 to 1948, and all the great Negro League players who put in the hard work to pave the way are now deceased. I think it's a great announcement, but I’m going to say this: The families always considered our descendants as major leaguers. I always considered Josh Gibson a major leaguer. He just didn’t have (a chance to) play Major League Baseball, and that was not for Josh to decide. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner at the time, didn’t allow African-Americans the opportunity. I’m pretty sure if they had the opportunity, they would have played in the major leagues.

Since MLB made the announcement, the families are still kind of up in the air. What’s the process and what's going to happen next? The commissioner made the announcement, but there was no follow-up, and so right now the families are kind of figuring out, ‘OK, now that they’re integrating these stats, when is that going to happen and what is the process and how do we move forward?’ Those are some of the unanswered questions that we're just trying to figure out.

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MLBPA: SEAN, HOW MANY OF THE NEGRO LEAGUE FAMILIES DO YOU STAY IN TOUCH WITH ROUTINELY?

 

SEAN GIBSON:  The Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Turkey Stearnes and Leon Day families. Cool Papa Bell’s daughter Connie just passed away. The families of Gus Greenlee, who owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Cumberland Posey, who owned the Homestead Grays. We have a close-knit circle of family members that stay in touch, and we talk about situations like this. Moving forward, the families would like MLB to speak directly to the family members. Too many times MLB will consult with the Negro Leagues Museum, and the museum cannot speak for the families, so that's why we’re asking Major League Baseball to speak directly with the family members when it comes to these decisions. Because the families have a voice and there are a lot of family members out there doing great things. There are three foundations: The Josh Gibson Foundation, the Leon Day Foundation and the Buck Leonard Foundation are carrying on the legacy of these great African-American baseball players. We respect the museum, but they don't have the right to speak for the families.

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MLBPA: SEAN, WHAT KIND OF WORK DO YOU DO WITH THE FOUNDATIONS?

 

SEAN GIBSON:  Well, I can’t speak for the others, but here in Pittsburgh we provide education, athletics and scholarships for inner-city kids. We have our Josh Gibson Baseball Academy and our after-school program, and we're in three sites here in the city of Pittsburgh. We’re in two Pittsburgh public schools. We also have a curriculum in the school that's called BOSA. It stands for the Business of Sports Academy. It teaches kids the business of sports. We also have a summer camp called Camp Challenge. All that information is on our web site at https://www.joshgibson.org/.

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MLBPA: WHEN YOU READ ABOUT THE NEGRO LEAGUE PLAYERS -- THE QUOTABILITY AND THE NICKNAMES – IS IT AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION TO SAY THEY HAD MORE FUN PLAYING THE GAME? THERE WERE SO MANY INTERESTING PERSONALITIES.

 

JOSH BELL:  I think that's just part of the culture. You see this game played all over the world and in different ways, and that all comes together in Major League Baseball. If Johnny Cueto or Marcus Stroman had never seen the Japanese windup with a pause, would they be pitching that way? Would they have the same success they're having? Who knows? Different cultures have different influences. I think back to those times, and I’ve watched some of the videos (from the Negro Leagues) and I’m like, ‘Man, these people were just being themselves on a baseball diamond.’ That’s what you always strive to do here in the big leagues -- just try to be yourself and become the best version of yourself, day in and day out.

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MLBPA: SO THAT'S PART OF THE APPEAL -- THE WAY THEY PLAYED AND APPROACHED THE GAME?

 
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Photo Courtesy of Sean Gibson

SEAN GIBSON:  Oh yeah. One thing the Negro Leaguers would have definitely brought was speed. They were very athletic. They loved the game and they didn't care about playing in the major leagues. I think the Negro Leagues can teach us about going out and having fun and overcoming obstacles, because that’s what they did. Just look at their conditions and how they played. Sometimes they would have to travel across the state just to play two or three games, and they would have these wool uniforms in the hot sun. You can imagine wearing a wool uniform, and after the first game, it’s full of sweat. You can imagine how heavy it was.

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JOSH BELL:  Some Sundays when I was with the Pirates, we would play in the ’70s uniforms, and we would be complaining. They definitely weren’t wool. But they were a little bit thicker material, and we had black pants, and that never helps during the summer. Then this past summer, we went to the Negro Leagues Museum and saw the jerseys they were wearing, and we were like, ‘We’re never complaining again.’

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MLBPA: THERE’S A STORY ABOUT COOL PAPA BELL – THAT HE ONCE HIT A LINE DRIVE UP THE MIDDLE AND HE WAS SO FAST THAT THE BALL HIT HIM ON THE BUTT WHEN HE WAS SLIDING INTO SECOND BASE.

 

SEAN GIBSON:   Oh well. You know, we’re laughing and people ask you those questions. They used to say, ‘Cool Papa Bell was so fast, he could turn the light off and be in bed under the covers before it got dark.’ There was another story that Josh Gibson hit a home run in Pittsburgh against the Philadelphia Stars, and the ball went into the sky and never came down. Then the next day the two teams are in Philadelphia playing each other, and the ball comes out of the sky.

Of course, we know they’re mythical stories. I think some people take it as a joke, like the Negro Leagues were a joke. But these guys really played the game, and the most important thing (to remember) is just how great they were. People always compared Josh Gibson to Babe Ruth, and we always say, ‘Babe Ruth is the white Josh Gibson.’ Why does Josh Gibson have to be the Black Babe Ruth? To be compared to Babe Ruth is an honor, but Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige and those guys were great athletes. I mean, they were great athletes, and they really loved the game.

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MLBPA: ANOTHER TOPIC IN THE NEWS: IN OCTOBER, THE BASEBALL WRITERS VOTED TO REMOVE JUDGE KENESAW MOUNTAIN LANDIS’ NAME FROM THE MVP AWARD BECAUSE OF THE SEGREGATION DURING HIS TENURE. DO YOU THINK THAT DECISION WAS PROPER, AND WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY SHOULD DO WITH THE MVP AWARD?

 

JOSH BELL:  For me personally, it was 100% (proper). I think it's a further realization that there are some things that are part of our American history that we should not be proud of -- that we shouldn't be stamping on things here in the present. If we can heal some hurt by taking a name off and that's all it takes – or taking a statue down here and there, and that's all it would take – I think that's an easy step for people to make. You don't play baseball at the highest level if you don't love the game, and that love was not good enough for certain people in that period of time because of skin color. And that's unacceptable. If you had that mindset back in the day, it wasn't frowned upon then, but it's frowned upon now, and I think these are steps in the right direction.

That’s what the present is all about -- trying to learn from those mistakes we made in our past and make sure they don't continue in the future.

SEAN GIBSON:  I echo what Josh said. With everything going on right now in America with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the movements and some of the monuments and statues being removed, it was probably the right time for some of the former MVPs to step up and ask for Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name to be removed from the MVP Award. His name had been on the award since he passed in 1944.

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MLBPA: HOW DO YOU THINK JOSH GIBSON, SATCHEL PAIGE AND THE OTHER NEGRO LEAGUERS WOULD HAVE FELT ABOUT TODAY’S SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT?

 

JOSH BELL:  Hopefully we're doing things they could be proud of. You look at the game and there are people from all over the world – colors, creeds, you name it. With the Players Alliance, we donated a lot of money and goods to people all over the nation. Phoenix, Dallas, Miami, you name it. We were going up to cars and giving out baseball equipment and gloves and COVID equipment to anybody who wanted to come up to us. Just to have the opportunity to share our love for the game with the next generation, with the youth … it was an opportunity for us all as players to come together and say, ‘Hey, this is what we're going to do this offseason.’ We’re going to try to do the same thing next season. Let's continue to raise money and push this narrative for equality. It’s something we're going to fight for. It’s just awesome to be able to have a voice and have it not be shot down like it would have 100 years ago.

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Photo Courtesy of Sean Gibson

SEAN GIBSON:  I think it’s about time to have organizations like this, to have all these great African-American athletes come together with one voice. It’s fantastic for young African-American baseball players coming up to see these guys coming together, not just for baseball reasons but for social justice and providing baseball equipment and COVID relief supplies and just giving back to the African American community. That's what these kids nowadays need, to see some positivity. What these baseball players are doing -- especially African-American players and what they’re bringing to inner-city communities -- I think it's a wonderful thing.

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MLBPA: THIS MONTH IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH, SO WE'RE FOCUSING ON BLACK HISTORY IN BASEBALL. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO TAKE IT BEYOND FEBRUARY AND MAKE IT A YEAR-ROUND ENDEAVOR?

 

JOSH BELL:  It just comes with conversation and being interested. It all comes from caring. A lot of people get to this point in their careers and all they want to do is focus on baseball. But after what happened this past year, I think a lot of people had a reality check that the world isn't exactly what it seems. We’re superstars and we can travel all over the world and play this game, but we have to respect the people that came before us and try to make things better for the people coming after us. February's an important month, but we can continue to represent throughout the season and the offseason. That's what this is all about.

SEAN GIBSON:  For me, Black history is all year-round. It's 365, so I don't think we have to celebrate it in the shortest month of the year, 28 days and sometimes 29 days. We can have conversations like this year-round to educate people on the Negro Leagues and African-American history in general. Have panel discussions with Josh and other family members and players that talk about social justice, the Negro Leagues and Black Lives Matter outside of February. I think that would be great.

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MLBPA: DO EITHER OF YOU HAVE A FINAL QUESTION TO ASK OF YOUR FELLOW CHAT PARTICIPANT?

 
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JOSH BELL: I do. I’m thinking back to my meeting with Bob Kendrick at the Negro Leagues Museum, and there was a story about a player that hit an oppo taco with one hand. Was that Josh Gibson? They said he took one hand off the bat and hit the ball out the other way.

GIBSON: Did you say ‘taco taco’?

BELL: Opposite field.

GIBSON: Oh, that was him. A lot of people compared Bo Jackson to Josh Gibson during his time as far as the power and greatness and things like that.

You threw me off with that ‘oppo taco’ thing. I thought you were talking about Taco Bell. (laughs)

BELL: I threw you a curveball.