Black History Month Profile: Josh Gibson, Baseball's Greatest Power Hitter?

February 20, 2009

The recently confirmed steroid use by 104 Major League players in a single season has forever branded the last 13 years as baseball's "Steroid Era." The discovery has not only tarnished the game's reputation for transparency and fairness, but also has thrown a wrench into another cherished aspect of the sport - the historical legacies of its players.

Of all the major spectator sports, baseball has maintained the strongest tradition of statistical record-keeping. Whereas basketball did not start recording blocked shots until the 1970's, and football did not start recording sacks until the 1980's, baseball has essentially kept track of the same statistical categories for over a century.

It is precisely because of this data that baseball historians are able to make accurate assessments about any individual player's legacy. In other words, players from different eras can be compared, number for number, and category for category, since the same standard recordings have been made throughout the decades.

Now, due to the inflated stats of the Steroid Era, the numbers are no longer an accurate barometer.

So, if the numbers have become at least somewhat less important, what effect does this have on some of baseball's long-standing historical debates? Specifically, who really is the game's greatest power hitter?

Prior to the recent steroid revelations, the list was relatively short and composed of three categories of players.

First, was the group consisting of Babe Ruth, Hammerin' Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and a few other ol'timers and retired players whose names were sincerely debated among the game's pundits.

Second, was the the "yeah, but" group, involving players such as Sadaharu Oh and the Negro League stars. This group was always questioned because of the legitimacy of their competition.

Finally, there were the players of the modern era, whose mind-boggling numbers elicited a sort of grudging, hesitant respect due to concerns over "juiced" balls, expansion-thinned pitching, and steroid use.

Well, circumstantial evidence now indicates that the skepticism towards the modern players was well-founded. Such "evidence" includes the Jose Canseco books, the Rafael Palmiero positive test, the recent possible Bonds positive, the Mark McGwire "andro" admission, and the A-Rod confession. As a result, the superior numbers of some of these players have been rendered almost meaningless, making the game's past legends that much more relevant in the debate.

Taken one step further, this general de-emphasis on numbers also should technically reopen the debate to all categories of sluggers, including the second group - the "yeah, buts." And it is in this category where the legendary Josh Gibson is found.

Given the abundance of great sluggers in baseball history, it is necessary to first narrow the pool of nominees. Since we are focusing on power rather than pure hitting, cumulative home run totals should be the key consideration. Greats like Willie Mays and Mantle will be eliminated, since they have less than 700 blasts. Also removed is pure hitter Ted Williams, whose mid-career military service artificially restricted his home run stats to a total of 521.

Therefore, we will look at the following short list of nominees, all of whom have their strong and weak points: Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds, Sadaharu Oh, and Josh Gibson.

Babe Ruth

As a slugger, Ruth's numbers were tremendous. Ruth amassed a lifetime batting average of .342, and had a 60-homer season. He also produced 714 total home runs, 2,217 rbi's, 2873 hits, and still remains baseball's all-time leader in slugging percentage at .690. In addition, Ruth had one of baseball's most memorable home runs -- his legendary Called Shot.

However, Ruth did much of this in a segregated world. Although this fact was by no means his fault, it still remains unavoidable that Ruth's recorded at-bats never came against black or latin pitchers. Hence, he benefited by facing a diluted pitching-pool.

Henry Aaron

Aaron eclipsed Ruth's home-run total, and was the sport's home run king until Bonds recently passed him. Aaron boasted a career batting average of .305, tallied 755 blasts, drove in 2297 runs, and had 3771 hits.

However, because Aaron never hit more than 47 blasts in a single season, his power has often been downgraded in the eyes of critics.

The counter argument to this attack is Aaron's clutchness. Not only did Hank earn a World Series ring, but he also faced tremendous social pressures that few others have experienced. During Hank's run on Ruth's record, America's bigots emerged, threatening his life on a daily basis. The fact that Aaron was able to keep his focus at the plate against major league pitching, while simultaneously worrying about potential snipers in the stadium, is a testament to the man's professionalism and heart.

Barry Bonds

Barry's numbers speak for themselves: .298 career batting average, 762 blasts, a 73-homer season, 1996 rbi's, 2935 hits, and an OBP of .444.

More importantly, numbers alone are insufficient in conveying the level of dominance that Barry displayed during his peak. In fact, his dominance was genuinely Ruthian, as no other player in history generated as many intentional walks. Quite simply, teams were afraid to put the bat in Bonds' hands.

The obvious detraction with Barry is that he probably achieved such numbers due to his use of steroids. Perhaps so, but as of today, the only confirmed substances he has been caught using have been amphetamines -- far from a performance-enhancer. Moreover, even if Barry did use steroids, it is also likely that so too did many of the pitchers that he destroyed. Hence, the advantage that he gained might be somewhat overstated.

The real problem with Bonds is his lack of postseason clutchness. The man never earned a ring, and effectively squandered his best opportunity in his World Series appearance against the Angels. During that series, Barry was in his prime, yet performed in a mediocre manner by failing to dominate. Compared to Manny Ramirez's recent dominance in the 2008 playoffs, Barry looked almost like a journeyman.

Sadaharu Oh

Oh's cumulative home run total of 868 is unsurpassed. In any league, such production is impressive. Oh also had a career batting average of .301, while accumulating 2786 hits and 2170 rbi's.

It has long been said that Oh earned such numbers due to the smaller Japanese hitters' parks in which he played.

But with Oh, the real question is whether his numbers are inflated due to the "weak" competition of the Japanese League. Unlike today, few Japanese players from Oh's era proved their ability to play in the States. Moreover, at that time, baseball lacked the international competitions which could allow one to gauge the ability of Japanese talent. Back then, there was no World Baseball Classic, and Olympic competition did not begin until 1984.

In his defense, Japan's modern elite players have enjoyed success in the bigs. Ichiro is a bona fide superstar, and pitchers such as Dice-K, Hideo Nomo, and Takashi Saito, have at times dominated major league hitters. So, it is reasonable to assume that as the premiere player of his time, Oh certainly could have been at least a starter on some major league club.

In fact, Oh once had a home run hitting contest in Japan against no less than Hank Aaron. Although Aaron won, 10-9, the narrow margin of victory lends some credence to Oh's power.

Perhaps the one area where we can assess his competition is in his 55-homer single season record. Three times since the 80's, a foreign no-name player has threatened to break the record, only to be thwarted by Japanese pitchers throwing intentional walks. All three of those players ("Tuffy" Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Randy Bass) enjoyed very average success in MLB, only to later star when they arrived in Japan. The fact that such mediocre players nearly broke Oh's record, puts some doubt into his accomplishments.

Josh Gibson

Gibson, a catcher, was the premiere hitter of the Negro Leagues. His power earned him the nickname of "The Black Babe Ruth," which ultimately could have been an insult because Gibson might have been the better player.

Although he never got a chance to play in the bigs, the impeccable quality of Negro League competition is indisputable. During Gibson's era, the Negro Leagues were blessed with incredible talent, and competed on even terms with white Major League All-Stars in exhibition games.

More importantly, when baseball finally did integrate in 1947, the Negro League players flourished. Those legendary players can be identified with one name. Jackie. Mays. Satchel. Aaron. Newcombe. And some of these players, like Jackie Robinson and 40-something Satchel Paige, weren't even considered the best players in the Negro Leagues at the time.

Gibson played for several teams in the Negro Leagues, and for a few clubs in Latin America. He was rumored to have hit between 800-1000 home runs against all levels of competition. It is also claimed that Gibson hit history's only fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. Gibson is also reported to have hit another blast in Yankee Stadium that traveled 580 feet.

Although it is universally agreed that Gibson would have starred in The Show, his lifetime stats are hard to gauge for several reasons. First, the Negro League season averaged only 60-80 games. The reason for this short schedule is that club owners preferred to have their squads play more profitable barnstorming competitions against non-league, independent teams. Those teams tended to be less talented than regular Negro League teams. Finally, even in the regular Negro League games, the statistics were recorded differently than in the majors. For hitters, at-bats were not always recorded, and neither were walks.

In other words, Gibson really has two sets of statistics -- those against all competition including semi-pro teams, and those against the Negro League clubs.

Against all competition, Gibson's numbers are monstrous. He averaged a blast every 10.6 at-bats, equaling chemically-aided Mark McGwire's all time average. In 1934 he hit 69 bombs. In 1933, he hit 55 blasts, and averaged .467.

Against Negro League competition in shortened seasons Gibson's numbers still impress. In those games he tallied at least 115 blasts while averaging a homer every 15.9 at-bats. That ratio puts him below Ruth, Bonds, Killebrew, Mantle, and Williams, but above Aaron.

He also reportedly earned 9 Negro League home run crowns, and 4 batting titles.

The Hall of Fame credits Gibson with a lifetime batting average of .359, and a slugging percentage of .648. Some have calculated his lifetime average to be as high as .384. When given the opportunity in exhibitions, Gibson destroyed white major league pitching, hitting 21 for 56, with at least 2 blasts. Cooperstown states that his average against major leaguers was .426

Gibson also excelled when competing against other pros in Latin America. His .480 average in the Puerto Rican Professional League still is that league's all-time record, and bests the numbers of such past alums as Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Ron Cey, Reggie Jackson, Orlando Cepeda, and Frank Robinson.

Unfortunately, there is little film, if any, on Gibson. Hence, one cannot view old clips and determine his bat speed, or the compactness of his swing.

Essentially, any evaluation of Gibson requires a minor leap of faith. In other words, one is forced to look at a small body of statistics, and then make "what if" projections from that data.

In any case, what is undeniable is the man's talent. Gibson was a true Hall of Famer.


Aaron. Ruth might have been the most dominant of the 5 because of his dual success as a pitcher. Bonds might have been the best all-around athlete since he is the only 5-tool guy in the group. Oh's competition makes his credentials very skeptical. Gibson, probably is the best pure hitter of the five, but much of his power is based on anecdotes and numerical projections. That leaves us with Aaron -- brave, consistent, chemical-free, and the best power hitter in history.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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