On this day in 1937, The Sporting News reports that catcher Josh Gibson of the Negro League’s Homestead Grays hit a ball two feet from the top of the façade of Yankee Stadium, 580 feet from home plate. If Negro League records were kept alongside those of the National and American Leagues, Gibson’s home run would eclipse Mickey Mantle’s record 565-foot home run hit off Chuck Stobbs in Washington’s Griffith Stadium on April 17, 1953 as the longest ever hit. This is not the only record Gibson might hold, and possibly not the only record for distance. Some credit him with crushing a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium in 1934, which if true would make him the only player ever to accomplish that feat.
Born in Georgia on December 21, 1911, Josh Gibson and his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was a teenager. There, he played semi-pro ball and developed a reputation as a fearsome power hitter. Josh Gibson’s professional career began in 1930, when, while attending a Grays game, he was summoned out of the audience by players to replace the team’s injured catcher.
Gibson became the Grays’ permanent catcher and cleanup hitter, and was soon the best power hitter in the Negro League. Many who saw him play said that he was the best power hitter of his generation, superior even to the more celebrated Babe Ruth. He hit tape measure blasts and homers in droves in spite of the fact he played his home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and later at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., two of the largest stadiums in baseball.
There is no central authority on Negro League statistics, so precise numbers for Gibson’s career are impossible to determine. Most sources agree that his career average was at least over .350, and it has been put as high as .384. His Hall of Fame plaque says he approached 800 home runs for his career, but others have put the number as high as 900. Gibson is credited by some with having hit 84 home runs in a single Negro League season, which would be 11 more than the major league record of 73 held by Barry Bonds. Some have placed his slugging percentage in certain seasons at over 1.000. In integrated games between Negro League teams and all-white big league teams, Gibson hit .426.
In the early 1940s, Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He slipped into a coma, and upon regaining consciousness refused to allow doctors to operate. On January 20, 1947, when he was 35, Gibson suffered a fatal stroke in his bed after asking to see his baseball trophies. He died three months shy of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the integration of the major leagues.
Gibson was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues.