Friday, October 01, 2004

Underheralded Heroes

Josh Gibson may not fit most people's idea of a true natural athlete. Often overweight, he had shaky knees, and his game was not multi-faceted. But he had one incredible skill - the ability to launch a baseball incredible distances with his bat. Indeed, he is heralded with several of the longest hits ever to have been seen in Griffith Stadium. His batting average was one of the highest in the league, he was feared by all pitchers who threw at him, led his team to numerous league titles, and indeed his achievements were such that he ended up in the baseball Hall of Fame.

The story of Buck Leonard is not entirely dissimilar. Indeed, in many ways it fits far more easily the over-stated and all-too-conventional path that heroes claim nowadays - not that Leonard would ever have wanted himself to have been seen in such a way. He took up baseball because he had been sacked from his job, and needed to earn money for his mother and siblings following the death of his father when he was young. Playing first base for a sandlot team, his talent quickly became apparent, and became scouted by and played for some of the best teams in the country. Over a period of many years, he became the team's leader, and, as a team-mate of Gibson, proved to be essential to the team's success. It was fitting that both men were elected to the Hall of Fame in the same year.

Yet we will never know just how good these players truly were. The simple reason is to do with the colour of their skin. Jackie Robinson 'integrated' baseball when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 - Gibson died in January 1947 (and was already a shadow of the fearsome hitter he was), and Leonard was already past his prime and incapable of being an everyday player. These two players, more than any others, were the front-runners in the case for integration, and would have been a major league asset for any major league owner brave enough to sign them, but fell victim to prejudice and greed (many Negro League owners were remarkably quiet in the cause for integration because of the threat to their profits). By the time a major league owner stuck his neck out and brought players to the level they deserved to play at, these players were past their best.

Some old-time stars did manage to make it into the major leagues, most notably Satchel Paige, who achieved the remarkable feat of pitching three shut-out innings in the majors at the age of fifty-nine. But the stars who were too old to showcase their talents at the highest level, although honoured through the Hall of Fame, never have the satisfaction of seeing their statistics appear in the annals of MLB history, and all their records seem to have an asterisk played against them. For example, see this extract from Tom Verducci's mailbag on

"Never mind Bonds vs. Ruth. What about Josh Gibson? He had a lifetime average above .350, hit 84 home runs in one season and nearly 800 for his career. I believe he is still the only man to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium. I know it's apples vs. oranges, but can any comparisons be made? -- John Menninga, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Unfortunately, comparisons can't be made, at least on a strict statistical basis, because Gibson was never allowed to compete with major league players. Given his prowess in the Negro Leagues, there's no doubt he would have been a major star in the big leagues. I'm glad you mentioned Gibson, because we should make it a point to remember such great players who never got their proper due."

But why should we consider Babe Ruth's records, for example, any more valid than Josh Gibson's? He never had to prove himself against the best black pitchers - a fact which surely diluted the quality of the opposition that he had to play? I am being slightly facetious here - serious problems dominated the organisation of the Negro Leagues, such as the irregular league schedules and the questionable business dealings of many of the owners. Additionally, the Negro League World Series often saw competing teams "loan" players from other teams. Yet in the same way that Gibson never had to face the best white pitchers of his era, Ruth never had to face Satchel Paige. Surely this means he was able to pad his statistics against poorer players? Just because Ruth was eligible for the major leagues because of the colour of his skin does not mean his records should be considered more legitimate than others. Both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues are tainted because the top players in each never faced off against each other. We know full well who is more to blame - the stubborn racist attitudes of men like Clark Griffith, Connie Mack and Walter Briggs - but asterisking one set of records and not the other shouldn't be done.

Can you imagine nowadays if Randy Johnson didn't throw against Barry Bonds? Moreover, it would be used as a point for further discrimination - 'that Barry Bonds sure can bat, but put him up against Johnson and he couldn't live with it'. Or in a football context, if Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira or George Weah had been prevented from playing against white opposition. Of course, in South Africa it continued until much more recently, and now the tables have turned, for there is a minimum quota of black players in each side (which is also wrong, as it can only be injurious to deserving and talented white players. Merit should be the only criterion). Rank prejudice can never be condoned.

And yet, ultimately, the baseball players had a huge role to play in the energising of black society to push harder for their civil rights. It is not a struggle that has yet been won, and problems still exist on both sides, in the same way that although the Major League owners were prejudiced, the Negro League owners didn't call for integration in the vocal way other unheralded heroes like Sam Lacy or Wendell Smith did. But deep in their hearts, as the black fans watched the Baltimore Elite Giants, or the Kansas City Monarchs, or the Homestead Grays, they knew "their" players were as good as the "others". The confidence this must have given them - to have in people like Robinson proof of how unjust US society at the time was, and how blacks could succeed in a predominantly white world - will have been enormous.

So the memory of great men like Gibson and Leonard must be preserved. They serve as reminders of how unjust discrimination, on any basis, can be. In the title I used the word underheralded. Sure, people know of them and of their feats. But the asterisks against their achievements still remain. They may not have been the ones to step into the Promised Land, but they were certainly the forerunners. And the more we think about these remarkable men the more we will remember how important values such as liberty, opportunity and justice for all really are.

PS Much of the information here has come from reading a wonderful book called "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators". For those of you who have stuck it out until here, I can recommend this book wholeheartedly.