When Josh Gibson passed away in 1947 at the young age of 35, legendary sportswriter Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “The Great Umpire has silenced the mighty bat of one of baseball’s greatest sluggers of all time.” Smith also wrote, “The king of sluggers is dead…long live the king!” Over seven decades later, the king’s legacy is still alive through the Josh Gibson Foundation, even if The Great Umpire has temporarily hit the pause button in the form of a Covid-19 shutdown. The Josh Gibson Foundation was founded by Gibson’s son, Josh Gibson, Jr., and the elder Gibson’s great-grandson Sean Gibson now serves as its Executive Director. Sean joins BallNine in this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Sean Gibson was born and raised in Pittsburgh and despite his baseball lineage, basketball was his best sport. The multi-sport star played one season of basketball at NCAA Division I Robert Morris University in 1987-1988 before transferring to Edinboro College in Pennsylvania. In 1992-93, Gibson put up 467 points in the season for the Fightin’ Scots, which was the 11th highest total in school history at the time.
Photo: Courtesy of the Salt Lake City Tribune
Today, Gibson serves as the Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation. In a message on the foundation website, Gibson says, “Over the past years, the foundation’s vision of ensuring that the youth of our community remember the legacy of Josh Gibson while providing opportunities that will improve their lives has made significant progress.” The Josh Gibson Foundation does this not only through baseball, but also through education. The Foundation serves the youth of Pittsburgh, engaging players as young as five years old and offering programs for all ages in sports and education all the way through college credit courses centering on careers in sports through their Business of Sports Academy.
Like nearly every other organization in the United States, 2020 has been a challenging year for the Josh Gibson Foundation. As if shutting down operations due to Covid-19 wasn’t painful enough, the shutdown has come on what was to be a banner year for the legacy of Negro Leagues Baseball. 2020 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Negro Leagues and as one would expect, the Josh Gibson Foundation was ready to celebrate in grand fashion.
Their crowning event of the celebration, a youth baseball tournament featuring teams from Negro League cities, was set to be held on Josh Gibson Field in Pittsburgh. Making the event even more special, the teams were going to wear uniforms with their home city Negro League team names on them. So instead of seeing young baseball players out on Josh Gibson Field with “Monarchs,” “Crawfords,” and “Grays” across their chests, the tournament had to be put on hold.
In addition to the youth tournament, the Foundation had to suspend their other events, including their annual fundraiser gala in which the Josh Gibson Legacy Award is presented. Despite the disappointment, Gibson remains optimistic and has already begun to plan on how to safely return to helping children of all ages and backgrounds come the fall. Gibson discussed all of that, as well as his family lineage, when he took the time to Spitball with BallNine.
Photo: Courtesy of the New Pittsburgh Courier
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gibson. It’s an absolute honor to speak with you. Can you talk to us first about the Josh Gibson Foundation? How did it start and what are some of the things you do?
My grandfather, Josh Gibson, Jr., who was Josh Gibson’s son, created the foundation in the early ‘90s and once I got out of college, that’s when I got involved. Once I was involved, I started incorporating a lot of the academic and baseball programs. My first couple of years, we were strictly baseball. We had a “Rookie Ball” program for kids five through eight and a Little League, which was 9-12. After a year or two, once we got all the kids involved in baseball, we started adding educational programs, which are afterschool programs and mentoring programs. Once we started adding those it was great. The kids wanted to play baseball; they were into it. But we told them, “Listen, if you want to participate in baseball, you have to participate in afterschool programs. You have to get your homework done and keep your grades up.” That’s the most important thing we try to teach our kids, no matter how great you are as an athlete, you still have to get good grades.
That’s great. What are some of the educational endeavors the Josh Gibson Foundation undertakes?
We have three sites. Two are in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and one in a community work center. We have a STEAM program for boys, a boys and men mentoring program and an afterschool program for grades five through eight. We have a curriculum called BOSA which stands for Business of Sports Academy and it teaches kids the business side of sports. We teach courses like Sports Media, Sports Marketing, Sports Sales, Sports Law, Sports Events. That was one of the things I was more focused on. Dealing with young people, I tell them don’t give up on your dreams. Most of these young kids nowadays want to be the next Lebron or Barry. What we’re teaching them is that, we’re not telling them to give up on their dream, but if that doesn’t happen, you can still be involved in sports as a career. That’s more of a high school and college credit course that we have.
How has the nationwide shutdown due to Covid-19 affected all of this?
The Foundation is kind of struggling right now. Hopefully we’ll be up and running again. We’re transitioning a lot of our programs to virtual for the fall. It seems like that may be the way to go. We don’t know if kids will be in the classroom in the fall, and if they are in the classroom, we don’t know how that will affect afterschool programs.
Can you talk to us about the young athletes the Josh Gibson Foundation serves?
I get calls all the time from white parents thinking this is just for Black kids. My comment to them is, “If that was the case, we would be doing the same thing that Major League Baseball did to Josh Gibson so many years ago.” I think people see the name Josh Gibson and Negro Leagues and people think it’s just for African American kids. But it’s not. We’re open to whoever wants to be a part of the program. We’re open to the public and that’s the most important thing about the Foundation.
Can you go into some more detail about the college credit courses you offer to students?
There are always college level career prep programs like ROTC or cooking or engineering, but I don’t know of a curriculum that is strictly sports-related in Pittsburgh. There may be sports classes like this you can take at some colleges, but from what I’ve seen, we’re the only place that offers a full sports curriculum that teaches kids the business side of sports. We’re actually working to get it in Cleveland too. We’re working with Cleveland State University and Warrensville High School to try to get the program in Cleveland. It’s a college credit course. You get three credits per course and you get up to 12 credits before you even enter college. That’s the great thing about this. It’s not just a curriculum, it’s a college credit curriculum where you can be involved early in high school and still continue on your business of sports path onto the college level.
That sounds like a really unique program for sure. Can you tell me more about the baseball side of things?
The Josh Gibson Academy isn’t as strong as it used to be. Pittsburgh is a football town. We’re big on football here. A lot of our kids don’t see a winning team here consistently when you compare it to football. The Steelers are always competitive. If they’re not going to the playoffs, they’re close. They’re always competitive and they have an African American Head Coach. The Pirates got rid of the best African American player to play in Pittsburgh in a long time in Andrew McCutcheon, so it’s hard sometimes to get our kids involved. Most of my kids are single parents with moms mainly. We find that moms like football a lot. I see it. The Little League football field is about ten minutes away from our baseball field. I can go up there on a football day and it’s crazy up there with the moms. You come to a baseball game and it’s totally different.
What we’re doing with the Academy, we partner with the City of Pittsburgh Parks and Rec for fields and we’re getting into tournaments and invitationals. Next year we’re hoping to add in a showcase as well. The Major League Baseball Players Association and Tony Clark had agreed to do a sponsorship with us for this year, but we sent something to Major League Baseball and didn’t hear back from them. MLB does what they can. Josh didn’t play in the Majors. As a small non-profit, we’re always hopeful they can do more. But as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers, so we’ll take what we can get.
Does Major League Baseball do any work with any of the families or foundations of Negro League players?
If you want my honest opinion, they can do more. They’re involved with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is great. The museum is separate from the families of Negro League players families though. I don’t know if MLB feels that by giving money to the Negro Leagues Museum that it would help the families and foundations, but no, that doesn’t help us. There’s no relationship with the family members of former Negro League players. I talk to Satchel Paige’s family, I talk to Buck Leonard’s family, I talk to Turkey Stearnes’ family. There’s no relationship.
With 2020 being the Centennial of the Negro Leagues and Josh Gibson’s stature as the greatest Negro Leagues power hitter, what was the Josh Gibson Foundation involved in to celebrate the Centennial?
All of our events this year have been postponed until next year due to Covid. One of our major events was coming up next weekend, June 26 through the 28th. We were hosting the Josh Gibson Negro Leagues Youth Classic with kids ages 11 and 12. We were bringing in teams from other cities that represent their Negro League team. So, the team from Kansas City would have been the Kansas City Monarchs, the team from Cleveland would have been the Cleveland Buckeyes. It would have been nice to see all these kids on Josh Gibson Field in The Hill District in Pittsburgh. It would have been great to see all those kids with all those Negro League names on their uniforms, but it’s out of our control and there’s nothing we can do about it.
We had also partnered with some of the minor league baseball teams to help put on some of their Negro League tribute nights to celebrate the Centennial, so of course that got postponed. Through the Foundation, our three major events were the Josh Gibson Classic in June, in October we were going to do a Centennial weekend. We were going to have a symposium of national speakers and former players and the topic was going to be “What did the Negro Leagues mean to you?” and that was going to be October 16th and then our biggest fundraiser, our gala, was going to be October 17th where we honor a former Major League Baseball player with the Josh Gibson Legacy Award at that event. In the past we’ve honored guys like Lou Brock, Juan Marichal, Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, the Clemente family. Initially this year we were looking to try to get Ken Griffey, Jr. but of course everything was shut down.
That’s all incredible stuff about the Josh Gibson Foundation. I’m really struck by how wide-ranging it is and how many people you impact. Now getting to the man himself, what is it like to have Josh Gibson, one of the greatest baseball players ever, as your great-grandfather?
I didn’t really know much about Josh Gibson until I was about 13 years old. I knew of him by family members talking about him, but I didn’t know the significance of Josh Gibson until middle school. How that came about was that I was in the library doing a school project and me and my partner were going through the books and he finds this book on Josh Gibson and he brings it back to the table. He said, “Hey man, this is a book on your grandfather.” I was like, “Wow. I didn’t know there was a book on Josh Gibson.” So, I think that’s when it hit me that there’s more to just family stories about Josh Gibson. It’s something that’s more just your aunts and uncles talking about someone in the family. That was when I realized that he was someone in this world who had done something significant.
The great Josh Gibson always did swing a big bat
What were the stories in your family like growing up?
A lot of the stories that you hear about Josh are baseball stories. They don’t talk much about him as a person and those are the stories that I like. He was a big family man and loved taking care of the kids. His wife died giving birth to twins. My grandfather, we called him Junior, used to say he felt bad for his sister because she didn’t have a chance to spend much time with her father because he was playing baseball pretty much all year round. My grandfather spent time with him because he was a bat boy all summer. He would tell me stories about racism and things like that. They had to stay at certain hotels. Sometimes they couldn’t stay at hotels so the owner Cumberland Posey, who was with the Grays, would call a friend and they would stay at somebody’s house.
I also liked the stories of Josh playing multiple sports. He ran track and was a great swimmer. He wasn’t just a baseball player. Those are the stories that our family talked about. In our family, he was known as Big Josh. We would never say Josh. When you heard someone in our family say Big Josh, they were talking about Josh Gibson.
Your grandfather, Josh Gibson Jr., had to have some great stories too.
Junior played in the Negro Leagues as well. He played in 1949 and ’50 with the Grays. My grandfather always used to say he would hate being compared to his father. He was nowhere near the player that his father was. His stature wasn’t as big as his father. He played infield and didn’t hit the ball like his father did. He would hate when people tried to compare him to his father because there was no comparison. He was a decent player, but he couldn’t compare to his father. Not many could. He would hate it when there would be an article about him and compare him, but he understood that’s what people wanted to hear. That’s a story. I remember one time he got pissed off at a local reporter in Pittsburgh because he wrote something that he didn’t actually say. It was something to the effect of, “He wished he was as good as his father.” That might not have been the exact words, but it was something like that. He said that he never would say that. He didn’t compare himself because he was his own person.
There were just a lot of stories. I was always interested in how they got to Pittsburgh. They came from Buena Vista, Georgia. They came up here for work. Mark Gibson, who was my great-grandfather’s father came up and started working for the steel mills in Pittsburgh. That was during the Great Migration and I would always think, “Why did they pick Pittsburgh? Why didn’t they go to New York or Washington DC? But nobody knew how they decided on Pittsburgh. That’s one question I could never figure out.
We could probably sit for days and talk about the Negro Leagues, but what are some things that stick out to you in general about the Negro Leagues and the eventual integration of baseball?
One thing I definitely want to say about this is that Rube Foster, even now with the whole Centennial, Rube Foster doesn’t get enough credit. If it wasn’t for Rube Foster, there may have never been a Josh Gibson, a Satchel Paige, a Jackie Robinson. He was the mastermind that said, “OK well if they’re not gonna let these guys play in the Majors, I’ll create my own league.” He doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done. That’s why I want to mention Rube, because he doesn’t get mentioned enough. We wouldn’t be talking about these guys if it wasn’t for Rube Foster.
Another thing I like to say when it comes to Jackie Robinson. People say that he wasn’t the best player taken at the time. He might not have been the best player at the time, but he was the right player at the time. The other thing is that people sometimes don’t look at it this way, but what if in 1947 Jackie would have failed? You know what those owners would have told Branch Rickey? “We told you so.” That would have added ten more years or longer before another Black player had a chance to play in the Majors. So, Jackie had all the pressure in the world. If Jackie would have been a bust, it would have taken a long time before another Black player had a chance.
What are some thoughts or sentiments you’d like to leave our readers with about Josh Gibson?
One thing that always bothers me, if you read about Josh, people used to say that he was on drugs or that he was an alcoholic. My grandfather used to say his father never did drugs. He said he would drink, but he wasn’t an alcoholic. Did he get drunk? Yes, just like anybody else. You’re a normal person, and you drink sometimes you get drunk. OK, but that doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic. That’s one of the stigmatizations they tried to use on Josh. Being a drug addict or alcoholic. The one thing I hear a lot, a question I get a lot is, “Did Josh die of a broken heart?” I’m like, “Where do ya’ll get this from?” Josh was one of the greatest players that played in the Negro Leagues. He had a great career. People say he died of a broken heart. How would you know that unless Josh told you that? Back then, yes granted, all of those guys would have loved to play in the Majors. At that time in society that was their choice. It was Black and it was White.
As with many organizations, the Covid-19 shutdown has hurt the Josh Gibson Foundation. You can help the Foundation by purchasing an exclusive Josh Gibson Foundation Centennial shirt or by donating to them directly. You can do so by visiting this link: https://www.joshgibson.org/merchandising
You can learn more about the Josh Gibson Foundation here: https://www.joshgibson.org/