Earlier this week, Major League Baseball officially recognized Negro Leagues play from 1920-48 as "Major League" status. It's a move that has rightfully gained lots of praise and one that was long overdue. The leagues saw some of the greatest baseball players in history ply their trade, such as Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige -- and another player we'll cover extensively below.
Quickly after the announcement, there was some level of discussion on the possibility of the late, great Josh Gibson becoming baseball's new, officially recognized home run king.
After all, Gibson has been said, in some corners, to have hit around 900 home runs. That's obviously higher than Barry Bonds' MLB record 762. So will Gibson be the new leader in Major League Baseball's official record books?
Not so fast, says the research.
Seamheads.com is doing excellent work on searching for and finding official box scores from Negro League games, and though the work continues and they probably can't find everything, Gibson's official total at present stands at 238. That might seem low, but it's the highest total there is, besting second-place Charleston (211) comfortably. Only nine Negro Leagues sluggers are in triple digits.
It's also a far cry from the near-900 we've heard about for so many years. What gives?
First off, it appears there were a lot of unofficial (or "exhibition") games taking place. Seamheads researcher Scott Simkus laid out a lot of the statistics they were finding on a thread on Twitter and included this helpful nugget:
4. The seasons were short. The teams might have played 150 to 175 games each summer, but they only played 40, 50 or 60 games against fellow Neg league clubs. Some years, they played 80 or 90. Occasionally they played more than 100 "official" Negro Leagues games, but this was rare— scott simkus (@scott_simkus) October 28, 2020
As such, it's entirely possible Gibson actually went deep around 900 times, but that doesn't mean every single one will count toward his official total -- even if it was against legitimately strong competition. Ronald Acuna Jr. went deep in Venezuela this offseason, for example, but that doesn't count toward his MLB total.
It is strongly believed a lot of the lore comes from so-called "barnstorming" games, that is performances where Gibson would play and showcase his immense power. Those don't count either. MLB's official historian John Thorn weighs in:
None of this, of course, is to demean anything Gibson did in his life. It's a shame the league wasn't integrated, as we never will get the chance to accurately weigh how dominant he would have been, though it's pretty well accepted Gibson was one of the greatest players in baseball history.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract (through the 2000 season), Bill James wrote, "I have little doubt that Josh Gibson was the greatest catcher in the history of baseball. Gibson, a right-handed hitting catcher with good defensive skills, is essentially comparable to Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Roy Campanella and Gabby Hartnett -- except that, as a hitter, he was more like [Jimmie] Foxx or [Babe] Ruth than Bench or Carter." (pg. 192)
James even ranked (again, this is only through the year 2000) Gibson as the ninth best player in history, behind, in order, Ruth, Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Charleston, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Walter Johnson. (pg. 358)
With the stats Seamheads has been able to compile from official Negro League games, Gibson was ridiculous. He hit .365/.449/.690 with an OPS+ of 202. For comparison sake, Babe Ruth in the non-integrated MLB hit .342/.474/.690 with a 206 OPS+. James wrote that it was widely accepted that Gibson homered at a similar rate to Ruth. The official stats on Seamheads have Gibson with a home run every 13.9 at-bats. Ruth clocks in at one every 11.7.
But this doesn't account for all of Gibson's work. He excelled in the Cuban League, Mexican League and played in Puerto Rico, among other places not officially recognized as Negro Leagues. We really have no way of knowing exactly what he hit or how many homers he smashed. Scott Simkus in his book Outsider Baseball devotes a chapter attempting to estimate Gibson's actual home run total and lands on 643 (pg. 84).
Not the record, but that's pretty damn impressive.
The mystery around Gibson's home run total is perhaps best summed up with this line from his SABR profile, discussing the early part of his career when he might've hit 72 homers in a year: "With incomplete records, unregulated ballparks and fence distances, and a wide span of exhibition pitching talent, the number is less important than the reality that Gibson was already an elite power hitter."
The lore behind Gibson might've been strongest in the raw power department. Some of the legend is that of a tall tale. The stories of him hitting 700-foot taters are very unlikely, but that doesn't mean he was a run-of-the-mill slugger. From his SABR profile:
In 1937 he hit another mythical home run, later credited as 580 feet in The Sporting News. In a report filed three decades after the fact, the paper noted that "Gibson hit one in a National Negro League game that hit the escarpments in front of the 161st Street elevated railway, about 580 feet from home plate. It has been estimated that if the drive would have been two feet higher, it would have sailed out of the park and travelled some 700 feet."
Perhaps Gibson did not hit baseballs 600 or 700 feet. Perhaps his longest blows were only 450 or 500 feet. Perhaps they were even shorter than that. It remains indisputable that Gibson was hitting the ball farther than any of his contemporaries in the Negro Leagues, and it is quite plausible that he was hitting them as far as, or farther than, his white contemporaries as well.
In a 2010 newsletter entry by Simkus (special thanks to him for sending it along at a moment's notice), he gathered 31 home runs totaling 13,766 feet, which is about 2 1/2 miles. There was a 550-foot shot in Cuba, a 515-footer in Puerto Rico, a 513-foot blast in Pennsylvania, a 500-foot shot in the Polo Grounds and a 485-footer in DC's Griffith Stadium, among others. (Simkus notes there are "probably exaggerations," but the point remains that Gibson was a colossus among men.)
Testimonials from Gibson's contemporaries also back up the earned reputation as one of the greatest ever. From Hall of Famer Monte Irvin (via Gibson's SABR profile): "I played with Willie Mays and against Hank Aaron. They were tremendous players but they were no Josh Gibson." Hall of Famer Roy Campanella said Gibson was, "not only the greatest catcher but the greatest ballplayer I ever saw."
Gibson's Hall of Fame plaque reads, "Considered greatest slugger in Negro Baseball Leagues, power-hitting catcher who hit almost 800 home runs in league and independent baseball during his 17-year career. Credited with having been Negro National League batting champion in 1936, -38, -42, -45."
As far as the nearly-800 or more home runs, Thorn says, "that is in the realm of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox."
True enough, official box scores in actual league play aren't going to get us anywhere close to making Josh Gibson the official MLB home run king. But we should not view him as anything less than a true giant of the game.
Gibson isn't the home run king, statistically, and that's OK. It's unnecessary to define his greatness with a number.