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Gibson’s the Greatest

When Major League Baseball started including Negro League statistics into its calculations, baseball great Josh Gibson came out on top.
Josh Gibson stands on a baseball field, poised to swing a bat.
© Mark Rucker—Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Josh Gibson, catcher for the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, practices his swing in this 1940 photo.

Josh Gibson is finally getting his due. Major League Baseball (MLB) named Gibson its career batting average leader after incorporating Negro League statistics into its calculations.

Gibson, who played professional baseball in the 1930s and 1940s, had a batting average of .372. Yet Ty Cobb, with a batting average of .367, was long considered the career leader because MLB’s rankings didn’t include athletes who played for the Negro Leagues during the era when professional baseball was segregated. That changed in 2020, when MLB decided to include Negro League stats and Gibson’s name rose to the top.

Gibson also surpassed MLB great Babe Ruth in slugging percentage (the number of bases a player records per at-bat). 

“We’re excited,” Josh Gibson’s great grandson, Sean Gibson, told CNN. “This is a long time coming. Not just for Josh Gibson, but all the other great Negro League family members as well.”

A metal statue of Josh Gibson holding a bat is outside of Nationals Park.

John Bracken (CC BY 2.0)

Created by sculptor Omri Amrany, this statue of Josh Gibson is outside Major League Baseball’s Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

The Negro Leagues operated between 1920 and the late 1940s, when MLB began signing Black players. The first was Jackie Robinson, who played in the Negro Leagues before he was invited to join MLB’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. So far, MLB has added more than 2,300 Negro League players to its rankings, with many more to come. 

“It’s a show of respect for great players who performed in the Negro Leagues due to circumstances beyond their control,” baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told the Associated Press.

And it’s a sign of the greatness of those players that some long-standing rankings are changing, including Ty Cobb’s status as baseball’s number one. Cobb’s great grandson, Tyrus Cobb, said he’s happy that Gibson is being recognized.

“Baseball history is a part of U.S. history, and I think [the] Major Leagues acknowledging and incorporating the Negro Leagues is a huge step in kind of bringing all the parts of baseball history together,” Tyrus Cobb told the Associated Press.And I think it’s actually pretty exciting that there’s a new statistical batting average leader.”

The changes will also allow other Negro League players to take their rightful place in the history books.

“They’re being recognized finally as major league caliber ballplayers,” baseball researcher Scott Simkus said in 2020.

The table below shows how some of baseball’s stats have changed since Negro League players were incorporated.

A table showing stats for career batting average, season batting average, career slugging percentage, and season slugging percentage with Gibson at the top of all lists.

© Michael Flippo/stock.adobe.com; Infographic Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Did You Know?

Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, also excelled at football, basketball, and track and field.

Jackie Robinson holding a basketball, playing football, posing in his baseball uniform, and posing in his track uniform.

 UCLA Archives, © Bettmann/Getty Images, UCLA Library Special Collections/University Archives, © Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Photo composite Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Story of the Negro Leagues

Black and white photo taken from the stands at a baseball game
Robert H. McNeill Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-89885)

The Negro Leagues’ Washington Homestead Grays play a baseball game to a packed crowd in 1946 or 1947.

The first Negro League was formed in 1920, more than 50 years after professional baseball clubs began refusing to sign Black players. Black players were sometimes excluded because white players refused to accept them as teammates. There was also a belief that white fans didn’t want to see white and Black players on the same team. 

Banned from existing professional leagues in the 1860s, Black players began finding other ways to play. They formed teams, such as the Chicago American Giants, and often “barnstormed,” meaning they traveled to small towns and played against any willing opponents. In 1920, Chicago American Giants owner Rube Foster joined with other team owners to form the Negro National League. Eventually, this league merged with other leagues around the United States, Canada, and Latin America, and became what we now call the Negro Leagues.

Exterior of a stadium called Rickwood Field.
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-highsm-05142)

Built in 1910, Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, is the oldest standing baseball field in the United States. It was the home of the Negro Leagues’ Birmingham Black Barons for four decades.

The players took pride in their skills, and so did their fans. But Black baseball players faced everyday challenges that white players didn’t. At the time, the American South was racially segregated, and Black Americans were barred from many restaurants, hotels, and other public places. For Negro League players, this made life on the road extremely difficult. And while Black baseball players made more money than the average Black American, they made far less per game than white players.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, major league teams began signing Black players, beginning with Jackie Robinson in 1947. The Negro Leagues began to fade as talented players like Robinson, Satchel Paige, Minnie Miñoso, and Willie Mays went to Major League Baseball. The last Negro League game took place in 1958.

The slideshow below features snapshots from Negro League history.

Robert H. McNeill/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-89884), Hy Peskin—Alon Alexander/Alamy, Robert H. McNeill Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-89885), The William Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-18576), Courtesy, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York, © Jerry Coli/Dreamstime.com, The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images, Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USF34-007958-ZE)

Josh Gibson, Legend

Josh Gibson slides into home plate.

 © Bettmann/Getty Images

Josh Gibson (seen above in 1944) may be baseball’s GOAT (greatest of all time). You can read more about Gibson at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

unsurpassed

PART OF SPEECH:
adjective
Definition:

: better or greater than anyone or anything else

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