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Baseball's Unappreciated POWER duo
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Baseball’s Unappreciated Power Duo


By ROBERT O’CONNELL

MARCH 27, 2018

Josh Gibson scoring a run for the Homestead Grays in a game against the Newark Eagles at Griffith Stadium in Washington in 1942. Credit National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Baseball’s great power partnerships range from the foundational (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) to the quintessential (Willie Mays and Willie McCovey) to the clutch (Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz) and the chemically enhanced (Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro).

Now comes the supercharged slugging duo of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees. The union of the reigning National and American League home run leaders in one batting order has sent fans leafing back through record books for comparable tandems.

Yet one deserving pair often remains overlooked in these discussions. In the 1930s and ’40s, catcher Josh Gibson and first baseman Buck Leonard anchored one of the most potent lineups in baseball history, but they did so for the Homestead Grays of the Negro leagues.

The disgrace of the time, that qualified stars were barred from the Major League Baseball because of their race, echoes now as a statistical frustration. While their white contemporaries enjoyed M.L.B.’s tidy schedules and scrupulous statistics-keeping, the black players of the early 20th century made do with a mixture of official and unofficial contests across borders of league and nation. The numbers that resulted are slapdash and incomplete; in the case of Gibson and Leonard, the statistics obscure the truth as much as tell it.

From 1937 to 1946, with an interruption at the start of the 1940s during Gibson’s sojourn in the Mexican League, Gibson and Leonard batted third and fourth for the Grays, who played in Pittsburgh and Washington. To see them play was, by all accounts, to see the ideal heart of a batting order.

The right-handed Gibson was the folk hero, all staggering physique and tall-tale feats; he swung a 40-ounce bat alleged to have once sent a homer 580 feet out of Yankee Stadium, besting Mickey Mantle’s quasi-mythic 565-foot blast. Leonard was the technician, whose left-handed stroke scattered line drives that carried almost by accident over the fence. The baseball historian Bill James ranks Leonard as the best first baseman in Negro leagues history and Gibson as the best catcher in baseball history.

Behind these two, the Grays won eight Negro National League pennants and two World Series in the Negro leagues, and Gibson and Leonard earned a following that had more in common with the excitement now attending Judge and Stanton than with their big-league contemporaries.

“You’re selling tickets around seeing Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, no question about that,” Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro League Baseball Museum, said last month, noting that the Grays often outdrew the Washington Senators. “They would fill up the ballpark for batting practice.”

But neither ability nor celebrity shielded Gibson and Leonard from the statistical challenges of the era. By economic necessity, Negro leagues teams interspersed their schedules with games against semipro or independent squads; of the 200 or so games they played in a summer, fewer than half were official Negro leagues contests.

Statistics and box scores even for those can be hard to track down, compiled as they were not by an official steward of the leagues but by the daily box scores of African-American newspapers like The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier. And if the numbers from the Latin American leagues that often featured the best black ballplayers are the stuff of legend — Gibson’s 33 homers in 94 Mexican League games in 1941 obliterated the previous league record by 21 — they are similarly tricky to compare with the annual tallying afforded M.L.B.’s stars.

“Inevitably, just looking at the Negro League numbers, you’re not going to get a full sense” of what a player did, said Gary Ashwill, who researches Negro leagues statistics for Seamheads.com and contributed to a Hall of Fame report on the subject.

Although some figures, like Leonard’s 42 homers across competitions during the 1942 season or Gibson and Leonard’s tie for the home run title in 1944, are as familiar to Negro leagues aficionados as 61 and 73 are to baseball fans everywhere, the totals that could capture a career’s breadth are absent.

James guessed that Gibson would have hit 500 major-league home runs and likens Leonard to “a left-handed Henry Aaron,” but specifics are evasive. Tracking down scores and records, Ashwill notes, is an ongoing task. At present count, Seamheads has found 258 credibly recorded league home runs between them.

The greatness of Gibson and Leonard is officially recognized; both players were among the second class of Negro leagues players inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Gibson’s plaque credits him with 800 homers in league and independent play) in 1972, 25 years after Gibson’s death from a stroke.

Still, Ashwill said: “It’s a counterfactual, to try to compare the great black players to their contemporaries or to modern players. There’s always going to be some uncertainty of where they should stand in relation to each other.”

Collective memory helps fill the gaps that numbers leave. “The statistical data doesn’t always paint the real picture about these guys,” Kendrick said, “so you do get a lot of oral history as it relates to these players, and that’s one of the reasons why the myth and legend that surrounds them is so great.”

In the architecture of baseball history, though, numbers are sturdier than words. There is some small forgetting every time Negro leagues players fail to show up in a comparative chart, every time conjecture has to substitute for a box score. But to the shepherds of those players’ stories, there is little doubt as to their place in the game.

“I tell you what,” Kendrick said of Gibson and Leonard. “I’d take those two right now and put them in the middle of my lineup, and I’d feel pretty good about it.”
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