- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

Josh Gibson, in his grave these 60 years, was being hailed by a few dozen people at the Mayflower yesterday when a man offered a sobering thought.

“You know,” he said, “when Gibson was alive, he couldn’t have eaten a meal or stayed here.”

That sad bit of history, reflecting the District’s long-gone days as a segregated town, might have rested heavily on more than a few minds as the venerable hotel on Connecticut Avenue turned over a generous section of its mezzanine to a Gibson display that will be on view through June 30.

Nobody was to blame, and everybody was to blame, for the Jim Crow laws and mind-set that afflicted and conflicted most of the South when Gibson — possibly the best catcher ever to play the game — died from a brain tumor and hard living at age 35 on Jan. 20, 1947. Less than three months later, Jackie Robinson became the first black man since 1884 to play in the major leagues.

Que sera sera?

“He was never bitter, nobody in our family was bitter, that he never played in the major leagues,” insisted Sean Gibson, the late slugger’s 37-year-old great-grandson and president of Pittsburgh’s charitable Josh Gibson Foundation. “Sure, big leaguers made more money, but all Josh wanted to do was play baseball. He accomplished more than most major leaguers do — and he made the Hall of Fame [in 1972] without being in the majors.”

It’s doubtful that many white fans were aware of Gibson’s exploits when he played for first the Pittsburgh Crawfords and then the Homestead Grays from 1929 to 1946, but all these years later the mere retelling boggles the mind. The roly-poly (6-foot-1, 256 pounds) Roy Campanella prototype slugged “over 800” home runs, according to his Cooperstown plaque, and more than a few carried 500-plus feet. Though Negro League records tended to be a bit hazy, he is credited with whacking 69 dingers in 1934 and batting .467 in ‘33. His lifetime average is said to be over .350.

Such numbers, verified or otherwise, inspired some tall tales. The Grays split their home games between Pittsburgh and Washington (winning nine consecutive Negro National League pennants between 1937 and 1945), and one story claims Gibson slugged a ball out of sight one day at Forbes Field only to have it descend the following afternoon at Griffith Stadium.

Yeah, right.

Certainly, the Negro Leaguers who survive best in modern memory are Gibson, latter-day TV star Buck O’Neil, legendary pitcher Satchel Paige and speed merchant Cool Papa Bell. Wonderful stories about them still abound. Paige, of course, gave us his “Rules for Staying Young,” the most famous being “Don’t look back — something might be gaining on you.” And Bell was said to be so swift that he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark.

Yeah, right. But what’s wrong with a little hyperbole among friends?

The current goal for Negro League veterans and historians is simply to spread the word among fans who weren’t around then. This can be difficult because, Nationals reliever Ray King was saying yesterday, many young people do not willingly embrace history.

“It really bugs me,” said King, 33, who has toiled for six major league clubs since 1999. “When I came up with the Cubs, people like Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins were always around and talking baseball, and I learned from them. Nowadays, I doubt if 10 percent of the players know who Curt Flood was and what he did for us.”

King was one of several players from the Nationals and Pirates who showed up at the Mayflower. Also on hand was James Tillman, an 86-year-old ex-teammate of Josh Gibson, who recalled the old slammer telling him, “When you hit a home run, you can tell it from the feel when the ball leaves the bat.” A former Negro Leaguer of the female persuasion, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, 71, was unable to attend because of illness.

The Nationals will have a substantial Negro League tribute in place after their new Anacostia Waterfront ballpark opens in April, club official Alphonso Maldon said. For now, however, the Mayflower’s mezzanine will have to do. Visitors will see, among other artifacts, Gibson’s old Grays jersey, a 33-cent postage stamp bearing his likeness and, sadly, a final photo of him in uniform that shows him shrunken by cancer to the point of gauntness.

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