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Few and Chosen
Defining Negro Leagues Greatness
By Monte Irvin, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Monte Irvin and Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
Did Josh Gibson actually hit a ball clear out of Yankee Stadium? I heard that he did, but I don't know for sure because I didn't see it, and I don't know anyone who did.
Let me ask another question: did Babe Ruth actually point to the center-field seats in Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs and then hit the ball right where he pointed?
That's what we have heard, but I don't know for sure that he did because I didn't see that either, and I don't know anyone who did. But from what we have all heard and read about the Babe, it's believable that he would have pointed to the seats and then hit the ball there.
The same goes for Josh Gibson. From what I have heard from old-time Negro Leagues players about his unbelievable power and from the shots I have seen him hit with my own eyes, I wouldn't doubt that he actually did hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium. He was capable of doing almost anything.
One player who swears he saw Gibson hit one clear out of Yankee Stadium is Jack Marshall of the Chicago American Giants. It happened in 1934, Marshall said.
"Gibson hit a ball off Slim Jones in a four-team doubleheader that we had in Yankee Stadium," said Marshall. "We had played the Black Yankees in the first game, and the Philadelphia Stars played the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the second game. They say a ball has never been hit out of Yankee Stadium. Well, that's a lie. Josh hit the ball over that triple deck next to the bullpen in left field. Over and out. I never will forget that, because we were getting ready to leave because we were going down to Hightstown, New Jersey, to play a night game, and we were standing in the aisle when that boy hit this ball."
The Sporting News credits Gibson with hitting a ball in Yankee Stadium that landed two feet from the top of the wall circling the bleachers in center field, some 580 feet from home plate. Estimates say that if the ball had been two feet higher, it would have sailed out of the Stadium and traveled about 700 feet.
Another account had Gibson hitting a ball that struck the rear wall of Yankee Stadium's left-field bullpen, about 500 feet from home plate.
Gibson had no peer for hitting home runs. In every league in which he ever played, he led in home runs and batting average. He had no weakness. He was big and strong — 6'1", 215 pounds — bigger than Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx and as big as Babe Ruth, and he was built like a tank. Derrick Brooks, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has a physique like Gibson's. Yes, Gibson was as strong as two men, could run like a deer, and had a great arm.
I've never seen anybody with a swing like Gibson's. He had very broad shoulders and great upper-body strength. He was unique. His swing was effortless. He would walk into the batter's box and turn his left sleeve up, and when he swung he lifted his left foot up just a little and put it right down, like Joe DiMaggio did. When he swung and missed, he wouldn't fall down, he'd follow through. Pitchers were afraid to throw him low and outside because that's the ball he would hit through the middle, and pitchers would be taking their life in their hands if they pitched him away. So they would pitch him inside.
If you want to compare Gibson to anyone, it would have to be Jimmie Foxx; both were strong right-handed hitters, were about the same size, were the same build, could run, and were easy to get along with. Gibson led the Negro National League in home runs for 10 straight years, and records show he hit 75 homers in the 1931 season and 89 homers in another season, many of them against semipro teams.
We were playing against him in a little town near Pittsburgh, Monessen, Pennsylvania. It was a huge stadium, and Gibson hit a ball out of the park, across the street. The mayor of the town was at the game, and he said, "Stop the game and get that ball, because I have never seen anybody hit a ball that far." They said it traveled 575 feet. He was capable of doing anything.
And Josh had a perfect temperament. Everybody liked him. He got along with everybody. A great guy to be around, just a terrific person. He was good-natured, and he had a great sense of humor and would laugh at himself.
They used to call Gibson "the black Babe Ruth," and there was a sort of rivalry between them. Josh would stroll into the clubhouse and say, "Hey, tell me this, how many did the Babe, 'the King of Swat,' hit today?" Somebody would say, "He hit a couple," and Gibson would say, "Well, then maybe old Josh better get out and hit three."
There'll never be another man like him.
Gibson wasn't a Campanella as a catcher. He didn't like pop-ups. He could catch them, but he didn't like to. Campy would chase you away on pop-ups. Gibson was a little slow on pop fouls. He'd tell the third baseman and first baseman to take any foul pop his way, but that was the only thing he wasn't good at. He had a rifle for an arm. He could throw a strike to second base from his squat. And he could really run, especially for a big man.
But he was such a great hitter, and a great clutch-hitter. He would say, "Okay, you got me last time, you won't get me tonight," or "You need one run, I'll go up there and get it for you."
One time we were playing against him in Philadelphia, and our pitcher, Max Manning, struck him out twice with sidearm curveballs. During the ninth inning, with a couple of men on base, Manning threw that same pitch, and Josh hit it over the center-field fence. He was a right-handed hitter, but he could hit the ball as far to right field as a left-handed hitter could.
The great Walter Johnson once said, "There is a catcher that any big-league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Bill Dickey isn't as good a catcher. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow."
The tragedy of Josh Gibson is that he was born too soon. He was 34, and his best years behind him, when Jackie Robinson broke into organized baseball with Montreal. If Gibson had been 10 years younger — or if the color barrier had been broken 10 years earlier — I have no doubt that Josh would have been a major star in the big leagues, right up there with Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, and Johnny Bench as the greatest catchers ever to play the game.
Sadly, Gibson suffered a stroke, and possibly a brain tumor, and he died a year later, three months before Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers in 1947.
If it were my choice, I would have made Roy Campanella the first African American to play in the major leagues. That's not to take anything away from Jackie Robinson. He did it and he was a success, but nobody knew at the time that he would become such a great player. If it had been me making the choice, I would have picked Campanella.
Campy was the best catcher in our league then; he was young, talented, humorous, and easy to get along with. I don't know this for a fact, but I have always suspected that if Branch Rickey was considering Campanella to break the color barrier, he might have rejected him because Campy's father was Italian and his mother black. It's possible that Rickey didn't want someone who was a product of a mixed marriage; he wanted a purebred, so to speak.
I first met Campanella when he was just a baby, 17 years old and playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants. He wasn't the roly-poly Campy that we knew when he played for the Dodgers, but he was chunky, and he always had a smile on his face. Even as a kid, he had such a good nature.
The first time I saw Campy was when Baltimore came to Newark. I had heard so much about him, so I went over to him before the game and said, "I understand you're the big deal down in Baltimore at the moment. I want you to know I rule this roost. Up here, I'm the main man."
"It's all right with me," he said. "I don't care. But you have to come to Baltimore."
Campy and I became great friends. In fact, for a long time, he was my best friend.
A few years later, I was invited to play for San Juan in the Puerto Rican Winter Leagues. Campy was also there, but he played for Caguas, a town about 40 miles away. I was in a terrible slump when Caguas came to San Juan, and Campy sought me out and said, "Dude" — Campy called everybody "Dude"; if he called you "Dude," that meant you were a good friend of his — he said, "Dude, I see you're not hitting much."
"I know," I said, "but I'm catching everything in center field, and I'm throwing out everybody that's running."
"That's not enough, man," he said. "Here's what I'm going to do. If we get a lead, I'll give you the sign." Sure enough, the second time I came to bat we were down by about five runs. Campy got down to give the sign, and through his mask, so the umpire wouldn't hear, he whispered, "Fastball."
They threw me a fastball, and I took it.
Campy got in his crouch, and again, through his mask, he whispered, "Curveball."
I took that one, too, and Campy screamed, "Geez, what are you doing?"
"Let me tell you this, man," I said. "You don't have the best reputation for telling the truth. I had to check you out."
On the next pitch, he again whispered what was coming. This time I believed him, and I hit a home run.
A month later, we played Caguas again, and Campy was in a slump. I said, "You did me a favor; I'm going to do you a favor in return."
Campanella, who was married, had brought his wife and two kids with him to Puerto Rico. So I told him, "You need to get away from your wife and two kids for a night just to clear your head. Come on over to San Juan and we'll go out and do a little dancing or something. Get away from it. Relax yourself."
Campy got a driver to take him to San Juan, and I took him to a nightclub. He was dancing and having a good time. At the time, he drank only Coca-Cola. I figured he needed to loosen up a little, so I ordered him a Coke and when he wasn't looking, I poured a little rum into the Coke. After about an hour, he said, "You know, dude, I don't know why I feel so good."
"See," I said. "I told you. Get away from those kids for a night and you'll relax. You just needed a little freedom to clear your head."
It was nearly 2:00 AM, closing time at the club, and Campy's driver wanted to get home. Campy told me he was going to leave. "Dude, I know what you have been doing," he said. "I'm not dumb. But let me tell you what. In about a month, invite me back and do the same thing all over again."
The kicker to the story is that many years later, shortly before he died, Campy's wife told me, "You taught my husband to drink rum and Coke, and he's still drinking it."
Another time, I was playing in Mexico City and Campy was there, too, playing in Monterey, about 500 miles north. It was the last game of the season, and we were playing against Monterey in Mexico City. Monterey had a pitcher named Lazaro Salazar, a Cuban left-hander: a good pitcher and a good hitter. They had us beat, 2–1, in the bottom of the ninth.
Jorge Pasquel, the father of Mexican baseball, was sitting in the box seats, right behind home plate. With two outs and nobody on, Ray Dandridge singled, and I was coming up with the tying run on first base. I was in the batting circle, and when Dandridge got his base hit, Pasquel yelled at me, "Hey, Monte, come here."
"Jorge," I said, "I'm getting ready to hit."
"Never mind," he said. "Come here."
I went to the box where Pasquel was sitting, and he put his arms around me and said, "You hit a home run for me."
"Jorge," I said, "do you see how hard Salazar is throwing?"
"No, never mind," he said. "You hit a home run for me, for your friend, for Jorge."
"I'll do the best I can, Jorge, but I can't promise a home run," I said. "I'll try to keep the rally going."
"No, no," he insisted. "Never mind that, you hit a home run for me."
At that time, I always used to take one pitch because very rarely would I swing at a ball and miss it. Taking one pitch was no big deal. Salazar's first pitch was a fastball right over the outside corner. I took it. Strike one. The next pitch was a sharp breaking curveball. I swung and fouled it over the grandstand.
The count was 0–2, and something said to me, "Be ready now because Campy is going to want to strike me out with three pitches." I guessed fastball and hit it over the center-field fence for a home run. We won the game, 3–2.
By the time I circled the bases and got to home plate, Jorge Pasquel had climbed out of his box seat and was standing at home plate waiting to greet me. He shook my hand, and in his hand was $500.
Campy hadn't left the field. He was still standing at home plate, also waiting for me.
"Geez," he said, "you're the luckiest son of a so-and-so."
He was ranting and raving about how lucky I was.
"Settle down," I said. "Jorge just gave me $500 and told me to give you $250 for calling the right pitch."
A big smile spread across Campy's face. "You my main man," he said.
Even when he was young, Campanella was a good hitter, a pull hitter. He would pull almost every pitch. In order to get him out, we tried to crowd him inside and then throw him change-ups away.
Campy went on to play nine years with Baltimore. Eventually, he challenged Josh Gibson as the premier catcher in the Negro National League.
In Baltimore there was a young fellow named Ziggy Marcelle whose father, Oliver, had been a great Negro Leagues third baseman in the early days, before I got into the league. One day Ziggy went to Biz Mackey, the manager of the Elite Giants, and said, "Skip, I'd like to try out."
"What position do you play?" Mackey asked.
"I'm a catcher," Ziggy said.
"We have a catcher, Roy Campanella," Mackey said.
"Yeah, I know," Ziggy said, "but you can use two catchers, give Campy some relief once in a while."
Mackey said, "Okay, if we get a lead, I'll put you in and see what you can do."
Ziggy waited for his chance, but it was a close game and Mackey kept Campanella in the whole way, and Campy hit two home runs, threw out a base runner, and blocked the plate and tagged out a base runner trying to score. When the game was over, Ziggy went to Mackey and said, "I just want you to know, I play other positions."
In 1946, when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, he also signed four other players from the Negro Leagues, including Campy and Don New-combe, and he never gave the Negro Leagues teams any money — not a penny.
Campanella was 25 years old, and he was ready for the major leagues, but the major leagues weren't ready for him. Robinson went to Montreal, the Dodgers' top farm team in the Triple A International League; Campanella and Newcombe went to Nashua, New Hampshire, in the Class B Eastern League. Campy overmatched the league and was named Most Valuable Player.
At Nashua his manager was Walter Alston, who would be Campy's manager with the Dodgers in a few years. Alston had so much respect for Campanella's knowledge of the game that once, when Walter was ejected, he turned the lineup card over to Roy and made him manager for a day, so you could say that Campanella was the first black manager in professional baseball. Nashua won the game, and Campy retired undefeated as a manager.
The following year, when Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, Campanella moved up to Montreal and again was named the league's Most Valuable Player. Paul Richards, managing in Buffalo, called him "the best catcher in the business, major or minor leagues."
By then Campy was a finished product as a catcher. He didn't need seasoning in the minor leagues. He had honed his skills during his nine years playing in the Negro Leagues. When he got to Brooklyn, he would often catch both ends of a doubleheader in sweltering heat and humidity. When he was asked about it, Campanella said, "Hell, doubleheaders are nothing. In the Negro Leagues I used to catch four games in one day."
Preacher Roe was a savvy, veteran left-hander for the Dodgers in the 1950s, a guy who knew all the tricks of the trade, within and outside of the rules, and used every one of them. Roe admitted in an article in Sports Illustrated that one of his main weapons was the spitball, which was banned by baseball and is a pitch that darts and dives unpredictably, making it as difficult to catch as it is to hit. Campanella had no trouble handling Roe's wet one.
Excerpted from Few and Chosen by Monte Irvin, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2007 Monte Irvin and Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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