A Life in the Negro Leagues
by William Brashler
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Though Josh was born to be a catcher -- his build and his toughness the prime requisites for the position -- he was not an instant one. Catching is a complex, multifaceted job that takes raw physical strength to endure the countless foul tips to the fingers, legs, and crotch, the swinging bats on the side of the head, the wild pitches in the stomach, the collisions with base runners, and the constant squatting and bending of the knees to receive the pitch, retrieve it, and return it. Then it takes brains to guide a pitcher, to call his pitches, place the glove, outmaneuver the batter, and cajole the umpire. And on top of all that, the catcher is supposed to anchor a team up the middle, keep his infielders aware and instruct them on the situation at hand, and supply an arsenal of chatter and encouragement lest everyone fall asleep. If a runner strays from the bases, the catcher should pick him off, and he should nail any and all base stealers with a frozen rope of a peg that should come from his ear, rise no higher than four feet off the ground, and hiss into his fielder's glove just inches above the bag. All catchers, Josh included, through all the eras of the game, have had to do such things for better or worse. And none of them, including Josh, found it very easy.
Through the years, especially when he wasn't hitting shots into the third deck and making fans forget about everything else, Josh was held in varying esteem as a catcher. He was once described as "a weak member in that department." Plays such as a wild pick-off throw in the 1933 All-Star game didn't help much, but he made up for such lapses. In the 1934 All-Star game, he cut down Sammy Bankhead with a brilliant peg as Bankhead attempted to steal second base.
In his early seasons with the Grays and the Crawfords, Josh impressed with his speed -- he was quick for a big man and possessed good hands despite the fact that the catcher's glove of his time was a fat, round saucer of leather with a molded pocket no bigger than the ball (many modern-day catcher's mitts are shaped like oblong baskets, much like first baseman's gloves, and can be used to snag the ball instead of catching it square in the pocket) -- and his hustle, and unflagging enthusiasm and chatter no matter how lopsided the score or how many games he had already caught that day.
But Josh's greatest asset as a catcher was his durability. He was seldom injured severely enough to keep him out of action for any length of time. In fact, until the last few years of his career, only the layoff due to an appendectomy in 1932 kept him sidelined for more than a day or two. And through those years, playing with the Grays, Crawfords, All-Star teams, and clubs south of the border, he was behind the plate taking the beating that that position gives.
Occasionally he was put in left field in order to keep his bat in the lineup, but he never stayed there long. In 1933, he was listed at third base, and sometimes he dallied at strange positions against weak sandlot teams. But he remained a catcher. If he wasn't photographed with a bat in his hand, he posed in his gear, his hat turned backward and accentuating his wide, flat forehead, the bulky chest protector with its crotch flap, his immense forearms and the chunky glove hanging on his hip, the armorlike shin guards over his legs. As a hitter stopping in midswing for a photographer, he often flashed a toothy grin; as a catcher he posed full front with his legs apart, or crouched with his right hand clenched and stared impassively, silently communicating the fact that the sweat and grimy dust and whistling foul tips of a catcher's life were unglamorous and unarnusing.
From Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues by William Brashler.
Copyright © 1978, 2000 by William Brashler. Reprinted with permission.