Tag Archives: Showboat Thomas

“You Could Feel his Resentment”

22 Feb

After spending years as one of the loudest voices for the integration of professional baseball, Wendell Smith broke his own color barriers. He was the second African American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America–after Sam Lacy– and the first to have a byline in a big city white daily paper leaving The Pittsburgh Courier and joining the Hearst owned Chicago Herald-American in 1948.

Smith

Years later, William Rhoden quoted Smith’s widow Wyonella in his column in The New York Times regarding smith’s move:

“When he came to Chicago to write, he told the Hearst people. ‘I will not be your black writer. I’m not going to just write about blacks in sports. If you want me to be a sportswriter here, I’m going to right about all sports, and I’m going to do it fairly.’”

In 1963 he became a sports anchor, first at WGN-TV and later WBBM-TV in Chicago.  He also began writing a weekly column for The Chicago Sun-Times; but never gave up his new crusade for the recognition of Negro League stars; in 1971 he made the case for Josh Gibson’s enshrinement in Cooperstown:

“He hit home runs higher and farther than any batter of his time, including George Herman (Babe) Ruth, whose feats are immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

“He was a big, strong, intelligent catcher. He was as magnificent behind the plate as any of his major league contemporaries, including Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Gabby Hartnett, all of whom have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

“He played someplace summer and winter, spring and fall over a span of 16 years. He had the endurance and stamina of Lou Gehrig, who played in 2130 consecutive games from 1925 to 1939, a major league record. Gehrig is in the Hall of Fame. He is not.”

Gibson

Smith said of Gibson’s presence in the batter’s box:

“When he planted his immense, flat feet in the batter’s box, bent his knees slightly and cocked his bat with the most muscular arms and hands in baseball, apprehension invariably seized the defenders in the field.”

Because, said Smith, ”There are no authentic records, unfortunately to substantiate the thunder in Josh Gibson’s bat, nor his skills behind the plate,” he turned to “reliable former teammates who were there with him,” and other contemporaries to tell his story:

Roy Campanella told Smith about the night Gibson hit three home runs off Andy Porter in Wheeling, West Virginia. Campanella told a slightly different version of the story than he had 12 years earlier in his book “It’s Good to be Alive:”

“’He hit three home runs that night,’ Campanella recently recalled, with a note of awe and excitement in his highly pitched voice. ‘Each one was farther than the other.’

“’There was a mountain there, a good distance behind the left field fence…His first drive landed at the bottom of the mountain. The next one landed dead center, and the next almost cleared the mountain. When he came to bat the fourth time, I said to Porter, ‘what are you going to do with him this time?’ He said, ‘I’m going to walk him. ‘And we did.’”

In the book, Campanella said Gibson hit four runs in four at-bats, with each being longer until the fourth cleared the hill.

Bill Yancey told Smith about another Gibson three-home run performance, this one in New York:

“He walloped three that day and one of them was the quickest home run I ever saw. It was out of the park before the outfielders could turn their heads to watch it. It landed behind the Yankee Stadium bullpen, some 500 feet away. He didn’t loft it, he shot it out of there.”

Alex Pompez the one-time owner of the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans, then a scout for the Giants, and had just joined Smith as a charter member of the Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, told a story about a game at the Polo Grounds:

“Dave Barnhill was pitching for the Cubans. There were two on in the ninth and we were leading 3 to 2. Showboat Wright [sic, Dave “Showboat” Thomas] our first baseman, called time and walked to the mound. ‘Let’s walk him’ he said to Barnhill.

“Barnhill as a cocky pitcher. He refused (the) suggestion and insisted on pitching to Josh. He threw Gibson a curve ball and Josh hit it in the top tier of the left field stands. The last we saw the ball was when it went through an open door up there and disappeared.”

Pompez

After Pat Scantlebury gave up three home runs to Gibson in another game, he told Pompez:

“I pitched him high the first time and he hit it out of the park. So, the next time I pitched him low and he hit that one out, too. The third time, I pitched him tight and it followed the others out. When he batted the fourth time, I started to roll it to him, but instead I walked him.”

Smith also sought out Gibson’s sister, Annie Mahaffey and Ted Page who was “closer to Josh than any other player.”

Smith visited Mahaffey in her home in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s Northside. He noted “Strangely, there are no pictures of Josh Gibson,” in her home:

“The resemblance between Annie Mahaffey and her brother, Josh, is striking indeed. She has the same round, brown face. Her gentle smile is contagious.

“’He’d come here whenever he was in town,’ Annie recalls with a note of pride in her voice, ‘and he’d have us laughing about the funny things that happened on the road. He would sit here and talk, have a sandwich maybe, and just keep us amused with his stories. He loved life, Josh did.’”

Page said:

“He’d never talk about himself. I never heard him say one thing about himself that was intended to impress someone.

“He was extremely modest. I roomed with him in this country and South America and got to know him well.  If he hit four home runs in a game—which he did many times—you’d never know anything about it if you were getting your news of the game from him. He’d never walk up to you and say, ‘Well, I hit four of ‘em today.’”

Page

Page said Gibson was the opposite of Satchel Paige:

“When Satch pitched a no hitter, he told the whole world about it. We got little or no space in the daily papers, so he’d sit around and those third-rate hotels we lived in, and in taverns and restaurants, and tell everybody about his achievements. Everyone would gather round Satch and he’d spin tall tales for them, and they’d go away laughing and talking about him. Josh would never do that.”

Sportswriters, Page said, “always complained that he wouldn’t open up and talk about himself.”

Gibson’s sister said “he talked baseball all the time at home. He talked about other players and how good they were, and how many games were won or lost on certain types of strategy…Josh used to laugh so hard when telling a story he’d shake all over.”

Page said Gibson “loved baseball, never got bored with the game nor the terrible conditions we had to tolerate at times.”

Gibson also did not join his teammates “playing cards or meeting girls,” Page said:

“Josh was seldom with them. We’d go to an ice cream parlor or some other harmless place and talk baseball.”

Gibson’s sister and Page saw his reaction to baseball segregation differently.

Mahaffy said:

“There were all kinds of racial problems in those days, but Josh never let them get him down. If they ever bothered him, he never said so. He never once mentioned the fact that the color bar in the majors was a terrible injustice. He laughed off most of the things that happened to him.”

Page said:

“Josh never talked about the organized baseball ban against us. But he was always aware of it and it finally killed him. He kept things to himself, but if you knew him you could feel his resentment. We went to see a lot of big-league games and when he saw players who were inferior to him, he became sullen and the bitterness seemed to just ooze from him.”

Both agreed that Gibson didn’t drink until his final years.

After Jackie Robinson signed, his sister said:

“This was just about the time he started having dizzy spells and blackouts. He also became a heavy drinker.”

The dizzy spells, said Page, caused him to “stagger and stumble, whenever he looked up,” and “Josh’s drinking was a symptom of his affliction. He knew his time was short and that he’d never get a break in the majors…He tried to submerge his misfortune in drink.”

Smith closed:

:”The deadly curse that had been upon Josh Gibson all his life finally claimed him…Eighty days later Jackie Robinson became the first Negro player in modern big league history.

“That was 23 years ago.

“Josh Gibson should be immortalized in Cooperstown.

“What price, Hall of Fame?”

Less than a year later, Gibson was enshrined along with Buck Leonard; Smith died nine months later, he was 58. He was awarded the JG Taylor Spink Award 21 years after his death.