MLB Pariah Hal Chase Really Liked Baseball HOFer Josh Gibson
Gibson was one of the biggest stars the game has ever seen and the catcher even caught the eye of a former player who had been banned from it
There are few figures in the history of baseball as frustrating as Hal Chase. “Prince” Hal was a star first baseman who had a 15-year big-league career (1905–1919) on the strength of an effective bat and a slick-as-oil glove. He was also effectively banned from the game due to his numerous connections to gambling, but he still stayed connected even after he was no longer allowed to play. In particular, he had some interesting observations about Negro League star catcher Josh Gibson.
Chase was one of the biggest stars of the Dead Ball Era. He played for five teams, which was the result of his perceived impropriety and frequent salary demands. In total, he hit .291 with 2,158 hits, 57 home runs, 941 RBIs and 363 stolen bases. After his banishment, he struggled to make a living, as he no longer had baseball to fall back on as his preferred profession. He passed away in 1947 in California at the age of 64, a baseball outcast and stripped of much of the fame and recognition he had previously enjoyed as a baseball player.
In an August 10, 1944 article that appeared in the Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, Chase corresponded with the editor with some of his baseball thoughts of the moment. In particular, he focused on Gibson, a star catcher for the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. Despite his famed power and ability as a hitter, he was barred from playing in the big-leagues because of his skin color.
At the time, Gibson wasn’t known on a national level, given racism and segregation. However, Chase singled him out as a player he was very impressed by. He wrote:
“I’ve seen about a dozen games this season. Even went out to see Josh Gibson play the other day. There’s a hitter. One of the greatest of all time. He hit two home runs and they were belts. Say, if he played in the Polo Grounds 75 games a year, he’d hit 75 home runs.”
Chase’s praise was high, but he went a step further and compared the backstop to the greatest hitters he had personally ever seen:
“That fat guy [Babe Ruth] was the greatest of all, of course. Nobody can come close to that Ruth. He was the greatest that ever lived, better than [Ty] Cobb or anyone else. If Ruth had ever shortened up on that bat, he’s have hit over .400 every year. But Gibson comes as close to Ruth as you’ll ever get.”
So impressed was Chase with Gibson, that he even had researched his background. As it turned out, his path to playing professional baseball was more whimsical and memorable than most players:
“You know how Gibson happened to start playing pro ball? Well, one day the old Pittsburgh Crawfords were moving out of Pittsburgh on a bus. They happened to stop alongside of a sandlot diamond on account of a traffic tie up, so they all took a look out of the window to watch a game in progress.
“There was a mighty loud crack and a couple of seconds later a ball bounced off the top of the bus from the home plate. Oscar Charleston, who managed the Crawford at the time, got right out of the bus and hot-footed after the kid who socked the ball. He signed the boy right on the spot, waited until he went home and got some clothes, and then took him along. The boy was Josh Gibson, just 16 years old. He’s over 35 now [he was actually 32 at the time], but he can still hit. And long, too.”
Unfortunately, Chase told an incorrect if not romantic version of Gibson’s origin story. In actuality, the young slugger was a well-known amateur player as a teen in Pittsburgh, even playing for a semi-pro team. His first Negro League game came when he was 16 and attending a contest of the Pittsburgh Grays. The Grays’ starting catcher, Buck Ewing, split his hand when receiving a particularly hard fastball. The well-regarded prospect was plucked from the stands, inserted into the lineup and the rest as they say is history.
In a professional career that spanned more than two decades, Gibson became famous for his hitting prowess; especially his prodigious power. He hit lots of home runs and he hit them far. This included when barnstorming against white teams and playing in such luminous venues as Comiskey Park and Yankee Stadium.
Although statistical records are far from complete, what has been put together credits Gibson with being a .345 hitter with 113 home runs and 361 RBIs in 1,957 at-bats. To put that in perspective, if you extrapolated that over 600 at-bats, roughly a full big-league season, that would correlate to 35 home runs and 111 RBIs.
Sadly, Gibson died in 1947, a month past his 35th birthday, because of Leukemia. He never got to play in the major leagues because of the color barrier, which was broken by Jackie Robinson just four months after his passing. Fortunately, he has only received more recognition as the years have passed, gaining induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.