Those who played with him considered him a good catcher; not a great one, not the best one, but a solid receiver. Judy Johnson, who played with Josh from the day Josh relieved Buck Ewing, considered him just that way. "He was not a Campanella, but he could run, had a good arm, and he did the job," Judy said.
Yet Roy Campanella, who was coming into the leagues as a rookie when Josh was in the prime of his career, considered Josh his idol and felt that, as a catcher, "I couldn't carry Josh's glove. Anything I could do, Josh could do better." That may be a bit of largesse from one pro to another, and Campanella through the years tempered his praise for Josh's catching prowess.
Campanella spoke from a solid point of reference, however, for he was tutored by one of the best catchers who ever lived. Biz Mackey of the Baltimore Elite Giants was the pro Josh looked to as a catcher when he broke in in 1930, and who was still playing when Campanella came up in 1937. The grizzled Mackey caught for more than thirty years, until he was past fifty, and no man in Negro baseball surpassed his ability to handle the position. He was brilliant defensively and superb at handling pitchers, and also, incidentally, had a right hand that best showed the rigors of the position. Mackey's throwing hand was broken a dozen times in his career, every finger was at one time mashed, twisted, sprained, or fractured to the point where the fist became a mangled cluster of bumps and knobs. Still, Mackey did the job, and nothing Josh ever did as a catcher cut into Biz's sterling reputation. And Campanella, as Mackey's protegé first in the Negro leagues then as a Brooklyn Dodger, sustained it.
Josh did have a powerful, accurate arm. In an informal pregame track meet among the Crawfords in 1932, he won the long-distance toss. Behind the plate he was not easy to run against and frequently picked runners off third base in a pre-arranged play with Judy Johnson. He had what is called a short throw, something vital to a catcher because he cannot afford to take much time to wind up and release his peg. Josh's came from behind his ear as he was still in his crouch. Again, it was a much-practiced copy of the textbook catcher's toss, something Josh worked on over and over until he had mastered it.
As a Crawford, Josh was generally considered to be still developing as a catcher, picking up savvy, dealing with pitchers, building confidence to throw, but he never became known for any significant weaknesses. As the years passed, particularly when he rejoined the Grays, he did the job superbly day after day. When Buck Leonard joined the team, he found he was learning a lot from Josh. The two of them sat in the dugout watching opposing pitchers, and Josh pointed out peculiar quirks and habits in a pitcher's motion which he believed could be taken advantage of. By then he was a seasoned pro, an established, respected catcher.
Always he demonstrated his remarkable strength. He could catch anything a pitcher threw at him, block any wild pitch with fearless ease, and bounce back after a collision or an injury. A mark of his strength was found in the way that he recovered from a recurring problem with his shoulder. On a number of occasions the shoulder would pop out of joint and hang immobile. It was painful and bothersome, but something that Josh had endured since his childhood days. Harry Kincannon, who had played ball with Josh from sandlot days, was usually the one to run on the field and help jerk the shoulder back in place. And Josh, after a few practice throws and grimaces, continued on with the game.
It wasn't quite as easy with foul pop flies. Josh often had trouble following and catching them, and it was the one weakness his teammates most remember. He had difficulty getting his bearings once he flipped off his mask and went after the fly, even to the point of getting dizzy as he looked upward and attempted to track the ball. First basemen, especially Buck Leonard, tried to help out and catch fouls for him. That wasn't always possible, and Josh's disorientation often permitted the ball to drop out of his reach. Few knew it at the time, but the problem was a foreshadowing of things to come, a physical condition that even one so strong and gutsy as he was would be unable to overcome.
Still, Josh's weaknesses were only relative ones, and are mentioned in light of his overall magnificent talents. With his power, his eye, his tremendous appeal as a power hitter, he would have satisfied any team if he had been able only to stand behind the plate and let pitches bounce off him. Instead, Josh was a smooth, efficient, reliable catcher who apologized to no one for his defensive skills. Had his, and most anyone else's, defensive talents not paled in comparison with his hitting ability, his catching would not be even casually scrutinized.
From Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues by William Brashler.
Copyright © 1978, 2000 by William Brashler. Reprinted with permission.