By Jason Shetler
For many years, the debate among Pirates fans has been whether Manny Sanguillen or Jason Kendall is the greatest catcher in franchise history. While you can certainly make valid arguments for one over the other, there is one catcher who could have changed that question forever, and that catcher is Josh Gibson.
Gibson is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the Negro Leagues. Known as “The Black Babe Ruth”, Gibson put up staggering numbers offensively, as he batted .350 while posting a phenomenal .624 slugging percentage during his 16 seasons for both the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Like all Negro League players, Gibson wasn’t allowed to play in the Major Leagues due to a “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which banned non-white players from taking part. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, MLB’s first commissioner, did everything in his power to assure that blacks couldn’t play in the Majors during his tenure from 1921 to 1944.
During that era in baseball, Negro League players were just as talented as Major Leaguers, so Gibson’s numbers would probably have still translated just fine. Good offensive hitting catchers at that time were very few and far between, which would have given Gibson the opportunity to become a perennial All-Star backstop during the 1930’s. In 1942, former Pirates president Bill Benswanger had interest in purchasing Gibson from the Homestead Grays, but nothing materialized. Aside from that, Gibson was beginning to exit his prime anyway, so the numbers wouldn’t have been as strong. There’s not much doubt that had Josh Gibson joined the Pirates in his prime years that he would have been perhaps the greatest catcher in the long and storied history of the franchise, if not for the stubbornness of a racist commissioner.