Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baseball’s Greatest Slugger? Depends on Who's Telling the Story.

“---- ------ was the … Leagues' greatest home run hitter and one of the most feared sluggers of any era… ------ used a short, compact stride and a massive upper body to crush line drive home runs in ballparks all over… In one of the games played in Yankee Stadium he slammed a home run into the left field bullpen that traveled more than 500 feet. Fans for years after would claim it as one of the longest drives ever hit in that ballpark… ------‘s slugging drew big crowds… ------'s clouts were so impressive that fact and myth soon became blurred…” (“Josh Gibson,” 2006). History would lead us to believe this passage is about none other than “The Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth. However, it is actually referring to the not-so-well-known Josh Gibson, who played many years ago in the Negro League.

A long residual that has continuously reoccurred is the plague of racism in America’s national pastime (Schultz, 2008). Ever since the creation of baseball as an organized sport, African Americans and other talented players from different ethnic backgrounds have struggled to find their place in this country’s favorite pastime. This is all too clear when taking a critical look at the life and careers of Babe Ruth and “The Brown Bambino,” Josh Gibson.

Sports, for many years and on many different occasions, have mirrored our society; they share a two-way and mutually reinforcing relationship (Schultz, 2008). Society was never quick to allow African Americans their due rights and baseball was no different. Many would even believe that the first black professional baseball player was Jackie Robinson when he crossed the color barrier in 1947 (“Blacks in Baseball: Integration,” 2008). However, that is not true. There were about 50 players who participated on white professional baseball teams before 1887, including the actual first black professional ballplayer, John K. ‘Bud’ Fowler, who played on an all-white team in 1867. However, mirroring society’s segregation at that time, there was the creation of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” reached in 1887. This was an unspoken rule that no blacks would be signed to a professional team and it was not, however, until society was further along in accepting African Americans that acknowledgment has been given to blacks playing baseball (“Blacks in Baseball: Segregation,” 2008). Since those running baseball, following the ways of society, were not accepting of African Americans until Jackie Robinson, the story has been told that he was the first to cross the color barrier.

The twenties was a time when nervousness of the post-World War I generation provided fertile soil for the growth of a particular kind of heroism. The arrival of the twenties saw the cult of the hero—the man who provided living testimony of the power of courage, strength, and honor and of the efficacy of the self-reliant, rugged individual who seemed on the verge of becoming as irrelevant as the covered wagon. Given the time that Babe Ruth emerged and the way he stood up against pitchers gave him a heroic presence that society was yearning for (Nash, 2008).

Many would believe it was Babe Ruth’s raw talent and ‘heroic’ stature that appealed to America, but if you look at the comparison between he and Josh Gibson, a different idea might come to mind. Gibson came shortly after Ruth, so it can safely be assumed that America was still in need for that ‘hero’ figure. It can’t be due to talent alone, because it is believed that Gibson hit around 962 homers, with some accounts being closer to, or over, one thousand and one year alone of 84. Many sports historians even believe that Gibson’s offensive numbers are lower than they could have been because of the fact that many fields he played on were without fences (Janik, 2008). These numbers would have easily surpassed the Babe’s. It has also been said that Ruth was such a good athlete due to his amazing pitching ability. However, Gibson was just as good a catcher as he was a hitter; it has been long believed that being a catcher hurts one’s hitting ability due to the amount of strain put on the legs from the constant amount of crouching that is required. They both did have their negative aspects, be it drinking or other unhealthy habits. However, America accepted their lifestyles in very different ways. Ruth was viewed as a charismatic man who just loved life. Gibson, who actually drank to fight off the symptoms of his mental health issues which contributed to his untimely death, was received as a perfect reason for why not to accept a black man into baseball. They have more or less been made out to be the same type of the player with very similar stats, yet something has set them apart.

Babe Ruth chose a lifestyle of excessive eating, heavy drinking, and sexual promiscuity. His ‘human’ lifestyle is what people liked about him. He was much more outgoing than Gibson and many believe this might be the distinction between him and Gibson, added with the fact that he was white and Josh Gibson was black in a time of racial tension in America, which allowed Ruth to reach his popularity.

That did not work out so well for a different black athlete around this time. Jack Johnson was a prizefighter in the early 1900’s who, like Babe Ruth, was on top of his game. In a sport like boxing, where it was literally one on one, nobody could stand in the same ring as Johnson. He too liked to live a similar lifestyle of Ruth. “He was a big spender who loved the high life—flashy dress, champagne, night clubs, fast cars, and willing women” (Radar, 2004). However, unlike the Babe, Johnson was persecuted by society and never reached the same ‘hero’ status. By living the way he did, whites were made nervous by him and blacks felt he was worsening the racial tension for them. Though he has his place in history now, Jack Johnson was never fully embraced into that ‘hero’ status and it has a lot to do with the way he lived his life.

History is political and sport history is no different. The dominant class writes history and what we know all depends on whose version of the story is told (Schultz, 2008). A common thought for why not many people know of Gibson is because of the color of his skin. Given the similarity of his statistics with Ruth’s, it would be hard to refute that thought. Josh Gibson has numbers that are as good, if not better than Ruth’s. Mainstream America was not as accepting of blacks back then and that is why more people don’t know about the legendary African American slugger. So the next time you ask somebody about anything that happened many years ago, make sure to ask yourself, “Whose version of the story am I being told?”


(2006). Josh Gibson. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from
http://www.baseballlibrary.com/ballplayers/player.php?name=Josh Gibson 1911.

Blacks in baseball: Integration. (2008). Encyclopaedia Britannica's Guide to Black History. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-229948

Blacks in Baseball: Segregation. (2008). Encyclopaedia Britannica's Guide to Black History. Retrieved March 18, 2008, from http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-229947

Janik, J.M. (2001). Legendary POWER. Boys' Life, 91.8, Retrieved March 18, 2008, from EBSCOhost MasterFILE Premier.

Nash, R. (2008). Sports heroes of the 1920s. In S. A. Reiss (Ed.), Major Problems in Sport History (pp. 324-326). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Radar, B.G. (2004). Jack Johnson. In B.G. Radar (Ed.), American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, 5th ed. (pp. 151-154). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schultz, (2008). Module I: What is sport history? Week 1. University of Maryland, College Park.

Recommended Reading

Nelson, K. (2008). WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball. New York: Jump at the Sun/Hyperion.

Papazian, R. (Producer), Sullivan, K. R. (Director). (1996). Soul of the Game [Motion Picture]. USA: HBO.

Zoss, J. & Bowman, J. (2004). Diamonds in the Rough: The Untold History of Baseball. New York: University of Nebraska Press.

1 comment:

Cash said...

I agreed with your essay very much. Blacks because of the racial tension of the time, did not recieve the same spotlight as their white counterparts. I also think that this applies across many different sports too. Gibson did not get the attention and hype that Babe Ruth did and now with sports history written, he might not ever recieve the same glorification. And even when blacks were recognized it still was a negative thing. They linked whites being good at sports because of thier skill, while they linked blacks being good at athletics because of their "primitive" nature. I just feel as though it is a shame that blacks never recieced the same kind of positive attention as white players because their are some many accomplishments African Americans recieved in sports but will never be recorded in the history books because of their skin color.