There is a growing movement within the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to remove the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, from its MVP trophies. A number of past MLB MVP winners and others in the game are showing great support for this initiative, including former MVP and Cincinnati Reds star Barry Larkin, who told the Associated Press that he is aware of Landis’ name and “what that meant to slowing the color line in Major League Baseball.”
Among those who have been suggested to replace Landis include Hall of Famers Branch Rickey, Frank Robinson and the legendary Josh Gibson — the best power hitter in the game, hitting almost 800 home runs in his career.
As his great-grandson, it is an honor to see Gibson among the names being considered for the trophy along with two other worthy candidates. Rickey dared to sign Jackie Robinson as the first Black player in the league while the sport — and most of the country — was still segregated. Frank Robinson remains the only player to win the MVP in both the American and National leagues. Both men deserve strong consideration, but only Gibson was denied the chance to win an MLB MVP award because Landis did not integrate baseball as its first commissioner.
Wouldn’t it be fitting for Gibson’s name to be on the trophy? He likely would have been a multiyear MVP awardee in the majors during Landis’ tenure if the award had existed, and if Black players were given an opportunity to play in the majors. In fact, it would be more than fitting, it would be poetic justice.
In the storied history of the Negro Leagues, it was Gibson who personified baseball superstardom, and he should have been able to perform for all to see alongside his 1930s and 1940s contemporaries: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. If the barriers between the races did not exist, the MLB would have been all the richer for the competition, the storylines, the sheer drama and pinnacle of play that the likes of Gibson would have brought to the major league games. But like so much of American society in the first half of the 20th century, MLB chose and countenanced division, separation and justice for some, but not all. As recent incidents have shown, it is a price we continue to pay even now. But this is not a conversation about what might have been, but about redemption.
Gibson’s hitting and power were second to none and, coupled with his catching, he helped lead his teams to multiple first-place finishes. A 1972 Hall of Fame inductee (the second Negro Leaguer after Satchel Paige), Gibson was a true baseball superstar. Due to his illness and tragic death at the age of 35, it stole from all of us what likely would have been one of the greatest baseball careers ever.
The convergence of Landis and Gibson is worth unpacking to explain why Gibson’s name should be on the MVP trophy for a league in which he never played.
In 1919, to provide strong leadership and address the numerous game-fixing and gambling scandals baseball had been experiencing, the MLB established the position of commissioner and appointed Landis as the first to hold the office. Landis brought with him his legal background and undying love for the game. However, when it came time to integrate baseball, Landis did little to help Black players. Official MLB historian John Horn told the Associated Press Landis has a complicated story that includes “documented racism.”
Despite playing in the shadow of the MLB, Americans outside the African American community came to learn about Negro League stars such as Gibson, players who were so good that white America paid them the “compliment” of comparisons to white baseball stars. Monikers such as Andrew “Rube” Foster (earned from a pitching matchup when he beat Rube Marquard), “the Black Honus Wagner” (John Henry “Pop” Lloyd), “the Black Lou Gehrig” (Buck Leonard) and yes, “the Black Babe Ruth” (Josh Gibson) all spoke to white America recognizing the greatness of these Black players.
Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, on Dec. 21, 1911. The Gibson family moved north when Gibson’s father found work in the Pittsburgh steel mills. Gibson grew up playing ball and gained the attention of local businessman and sports enthusiast Gus Greenlee, who signed Gibson to his semipro team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, which would emerge in the 1930s as one of the Negro Leagues’ powerhouse squads.
The story of Gibson’s 1930 debut for the Grays is one for the ages. Judy Johnson, manager of the Grays and eventual Hall of Famer himself, needed a catcher after he was injured in a game at Forbes Field against the storied Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson saw Gibson in the stands (he knew of his local sandlot play) and invited him to catch. According to Johnson, “Here we are, Forbes Field is packed. Josh Gibson was sitting in the stands, him and a bunch of boys who played sandlot baseball. I asked if he would catch. ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Johnson!’ I had to hold up the game, let him go in the clubhouse and put on a suit.”
Over a 17-year career, his play for the Crawfords and Grays, along with stints in the Caribbean, would be punctuated by mammoth home runs, a high batting average and an out-of-this-world on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentage. According to Seamheads, the recognized statistical source for the Negro Leagues, his career figures were a .365 batting average, .690 slugging and 1.139 OPS.
Gibson played on two of the best Negro League teams — the 1931 Grays and the 1935 Crawfords — and then went on to anchor a Grays team that was league champion every year but one from 1937 to 1945, playing in four Negro League World Series, winning two.
In a Feb. 12, 1938, article in the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the premier African American newspapers of the day, Pittsburgh Pirates owner William E. Benswanger said, “If the question of admitting colored ballplayers into organized baseball becomes an issue, I would be heartily in favor of it. I think that colored people should have an opportunity in baseball just as they have an opportunity in music or anything else.” In response to a request for his assessment of Gibson who played next door, Benswanger responded, “Well, I saw Gibson about two years ago and he certainly looked like big-league timber to me.” The question remained, what would it take for admitting Black ballplayers to “become an issue.”
The doormat Pirates could have benefited from signing some players from those 1938 Grays — Gibson, Leonard and Ray Brown among them — but Benswanger lacked the courage to blaze the trail a decade before Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers eventually did, not coincidentally after Landis’ death.
Imagine for a moment if the majors were integrated when Gibson began his career in the early 1930s. It is worth asking what difference it might have made and how Black ballplayers would have performed alongside white players. By comparison, from 1948 to 1962, the first 15 years following Robinson’s major league debut, the National League awarded 11 of its 15 MVPs to Black ballplayers (half of the American League teams did not begin integrating their squads until September 1954 and trailed the senior circuit in the infusion of talent).
It was not a question of skill, it was the matter of equal opportunity that had thwarted Black players from competition. The 1930s were a special time for the Negro Leagues and players such as Leonard, Johnson, Charleston, Jud Wilson, Willie Wells, Ray Dandridge, Mules Suttles, Leon Day, Hilton Smith — besides Paige and Gibson — would have helped anchor or round out many lineups.
Renaming the MVP award in memory of Josh Gibson would do more than just honor a great baseball player. It would remind people of some of the many victims of racism — the players who were denied their life’s dream of playing ball at the highest level. For all those who came before Robinson, the “Josh Gibson MVP Award” would be an act of redemption.
And poetic justice.
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