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Josh Gibson's new place in the record books


Baseball is a sport that is always in conversation with its history, and that conversation is mostly rooted in statistics. Fifty-six straight games, 4,256 hits, 73 home runs in a single season. Those stats tell an instant story to the fans who know what they mean. So even though the Negro Leagues have gotten more and more recognition in recent decades, its stars were still in some ways on the outside looking in when it comes to Major League Baseball's statistical records. This week, that changed.

After a lengthy and rigorous process, Major League Baseball merged Negro League statistics and recognized them as official MLB stats. And that means Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson now sits at the very top of baseball's record books, with the highest career batting average at .372. What does this mean for his legacy and for the game? We've called up his great-grandson, Sean Gibson, to talk about it. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SEAN GIBSON: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: I understand you're talking to us from the sidelines of a baseball tournament. That feels right.

GIBSON: Perfect setting, right? My grandson is playing in a travel team tournament. They won their first game, so now we're on the second game.

DETROW: Well, good luck to him and his team. You know, that's a good way into the first question. When you were first telling your grandson or when you talk to younger people and tell them about Josh Gibson and they don't know who he is, how do you tell that story about Josh Gibson and his accomplishments?

GIBSON: For our family history that I teach my grandkids and my kids is that he was not just a great baseball player, but he was a great family man who endured and had to overcome a lot of trials and tribulations. I mean, you know, Josh was a 18-year-old father. His wife died giving birth. My great grandmother died giving birth to her twins. She was 17 years old.


GIBSON: He was blessed that he had his in-laws, who raised the twins while he continued playing baseball. So, you know, our family is deep-rooted in Josh's story as the man because the story of him being a man really resonate with the Gibson - the hard work of the Gibson family.

DETROW: What is this week been like for you, this recognition in the record books and all of the attention that it's gotten?

GIBSON: Well, I'll tell you one thing. May 29, 2024, will never be forgotten in our family or other Negro League family members. It's a historical day. It's a day we've been waiting for for a long time. So I'm excited about the lesser-known names in the Negro League. Of course, we know about the Gibson and the Pages and the Cool Papa Bells and the Buck Leonards, all the Hall of Famers. But for the lesser-known Negro League baseball players, it's great for their families as well.

And when you talk about Josh Gibson, I mean, now he's the new career batting leader, surpassing Ty Cobb, you know. And now he's the single season batting career .466, also career slugging percentage, passing Babe Ruth. And, you know, when you're passing names like that, those are well-known names in the baseball industry whether you're Black or white.


GIBSON: And so now Josh Gibson sits on top of both of those names.

DETROW: At the top, I talked about the all-time batting average record. Is there any one of these that really jumps out to you because of the achievement or because of the player who Josh Gibson has now surpassed?

GIBSON: All of them.



GIBSON: You know what? No, seriously though, all of them because the one stat that he's known for, he doesn't have, and we're fine with that.

DETROW: Right. I wanted to ask about that. I think you're referring to the fact that he probably hit more home runs than anybody who ever lived...

GIBSON: Right.

DETROW: ...But because a lot of them were exhibition games, that's not a stat that's going to be recognized. You're okay with that?

GIBSON: Scott, listen. You just named six of them he's No. 1 at. Why wouldn't I be? I mean, somebody asked me this question, would you take the home run record or the six No. 1s? I'm taking the six No. 1s.

DETROW: That's a good way to think about it.

GIBSON: No, I mean, we know his power, his home run greatness, the stories you hear about his home runs.

DETROW: He's probably the only person who hit a home run entirely out of Yankee Stadium.

GIBSON: Exactly. So that always will go down in history. But no, I mean, these stats that are here, what it proves to us and everyone else is that Josh Gibson was an all-around baseball player, right? Probably, you know, based off his stats, you can consider him one of the greatest baseball players on the offensive side in history, right? And so, no, we're fine with this. He's still known for his home run greatness. I mean, his plaque still says Josh Gibson hit almost 800 home runs on his Hall of Fame plaque. So we're fine with that.

DETROW: Yeah. And baseball fans have a long history of cranky arguments about statistics and records, and sometimes it's a really bad look. I think everybody is well aware of the racism that came Hank Aaron's way when he passed Babe Ruth. I was - it seemed to me that, by and large, the response was almost overwhelmingly positive, almost overwhelmingly.

GIBSON: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: Of course this makes sense. Is that how you took it?

GIBSON: Very. I mean, the positive outweighs the little bit of negativity. And I'll be honest with you. I have not received or seen any negativity. It's just what my family has seen on - and I said, don't read everything on social media, right?

DETROW: Yeah. Which is a good all-around rule, no matter who you are, I think.

GIBSON: Exactly. But From the standpoint of it, it's been all positive. I mean, from all the, you know, it's been all over the place, and it's all been positive. And like I said, man, it's great for the Gibson family. But like I said, I'm just as more excited for all of the family members because this is a team sport.


GIBSON: This is not golf. This is not tennis. This is a team sport. And Josh could not be a great player without his teammates.

DETROW: You have a few other immediate goals when it comes to cementing the Negro Leagues and your great-grandfather's place in baseball history. Can you tell us about them?

GIBSON: For sure. Our next goal is to rename the MVP. In 2020, Mike Schmidt and Barry Larkin and Terry Pendleton was a couple players that decided they should move Kenesaw Mountain Landis' name off of the MVP award. And the names they considered was one of - was Josh Gibson. And we've been a big advocate that we felt that it would be a great honor, No. 1. And I think also, too, if Josh Gibson's name was on that award, it represents all those players that Kenesaw Mountain Landis denied an opportunity to play baseball. He denied over 3,400 African American men. And so now it's our opportunity that Josh Gibson will represent all those men. And then lastly, how ironic would it be for Josh Gibson to replace the same man who denied him the opportunity to play baseball?


GIBSON: That's poetic justice.

GIBSON: Sean Gibson, the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and Josh Gibson's great-grandson, thank you so much.

GIBSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.