Film Takes New Look at Negro Leagues Star
by Sean D. Hamill, New York Times
Josh Gibson was one of the best baseball players ever, a catcher who hit as many as 800 home runs and was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, the second year that Negro Leaguers were inducted.
His life off the field was less well known. More often than not, Gibson has been characterized as a drunk and a drug user who was haunted by not making it to the major leagues with Jackie Robinson. Gibson was 35 when he died Jan. 20, 1947, three months before Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A new documentary, however, not only tells of Gibson’s legendary baseball accomplishments — historians and former players debate whether he actually hit a home run out of the old Yankee Stadium in 1934 — but it also tries to make the case that his drinking and apparent demons were a result of the brain tumor that eventually killed him.
“He was generally a happy, well-liked guy,” said Dennis Woytek, an assistant professor of journalism at Duquesne University, whose documentary production class put together the film. “But I don’t think he talked with anyone other than his family about what he was experiencing with his health. As a result, maybe he had a little bit of odd behavior, drank too much, and the rumors start. Then, how do you stop the stories from growing?”
The 50-minute Duquesne production, “The Legend Behind the Plate: The Josh Gibson Story,” was made over the past year by 12 students, with the help of Woytek and Mike Clark, an adjunct instructor who is a local ABC news anchor.
Woytek said he believed this was the first documentary to focus solely on Gibson, who played primarily for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays from 1930 to 1946. (Homestead, a small steel town, is about seven miles southeast of Pittsburgh.)
The documentary had its premiere at Duquesne on Tuesday. Woytek said he expected it to be shown eventually on local cable programs and possibly on some national history programs. Three previous documentary projects by Woytek’s students have been broadcast on local television and won awards for their production.
When the Gibson project began, “I had absolutely no idea who he was,” said Mary Jacquel, a 21-year-old senior, expressing a sentiment typical of her classmates.
After the students completed their research, she said, “my initial reaction was, Why wasn’t there a documentary on him done before?”
During spring break this year, Woytek and some of the students drove 14 hours to Buena Vista, Ga., where Gibson was born in 1911. (Twelve years later, Gibson’s family followed the migration of African-Americans north to Pittsburgh, where his father worked at a steel mill.)
Other members of the class drove 14 hours to Kansas City, Mo., to interview officials at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
At an important point in the documentary, it notes that the 1996 television movie “Soul of the Game” portrayed Gibson as an “emotionally erratic drunk.”
“I do think that his personal life has been very misconstrued,” said Bob Kendricks of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in explaining Gibson’s behavior later in life. “Josh Gibson had a brain tumor. He was having severe headaches. People have tried to paint him in a light we just don’t think is valid.”
William Brashler, whose 1978 book, “Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues,” is considered by many historians to be the best biography of the slugger, does not disagree.
“When he was a younger player, he was a quiet kid,” said Brashler, who was not part of the documentary but has seen it. “All the stories about his behavior, that all started in his later years.”
He said he thought the production could have more fully explored the weaknesses in Gibson’s character.
“I was doing a lot of research before I even found out about his physical problems, because no one would talk about it,” said Brashler, whose book describes the detection of a suspected tumor on New Year’s Day 1943. Gibson refused to have surgery for fear of becoming disabled.
The documentary also features some of Gibson’s few remaining teammates and opponents, as well as Gibson’s family. His niece Annie Delores Carter, now 72, remembers giving him a kiss as he lay in bed the day he died.
Also appearing in the documentary is Sean Gibson, Gibson’s great-grandson, who runs the Josh Gibson Foundation, which sponsors youth programs in Pittsburgh. He said he was pleased with the documentary despite its shortcomings.
“It’s not a big-budget documentary like for HBO or the History Channel, so, they didn’t get much into his life overseas,” he said, referring to the time Gibson spent playing winter baseball in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela. “Maybe this will convince a high-powered production company to do a piece on Josh Gibson’s life on and off the field.”