As the weather gets warmer with trepidation in the northeast, my thoughts turn to baseball. I grew up in Flushing, Queens, home of the New York Mets. When I was very young, I thought the Mets were the only baseball team in existence, their opponents merely random contestants who happened to organize enough to get uniforms together. On rare occasions when I would see someone wearing a Yankees cap in my neighborhood, I assumed the “NY” logo was a rip off of the Mets’ serifed logo. I could see the annual Fourth of July fireworks display at Shea Stadium from my bedroom window. However, despite the fact that I was surrounded by the Mets and even owned my own mesh-back Mets cap with a foam rubber front, when I was very little, I didn’t give a fuck about baseball.
Sports weren’t really watched in my house. My dad and brother liked professional wrestling (though my dad was always clear to note that it was “entertainment” and not an actual “sport”) and my brother watched football starting around 1987 when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl (as a result, he was a lifelong Redskins fan). However, my brother didn’t watch football regularly and I suspect he didn’t know all the rules. Sports in my house were mainly relegated to my NES, where I would put a clinic on motherfuckers in Double Dribble and Nintendo Ice Hockey. I did make an attempt to be a fair-weather fan of the Rangers when they won the Stanley Cup in the early 1990s, but it was a half-hearted attempt, at best. I don’t think there’s many things more lame than a half-hearted fair-weather fan.
I didn’t really get into baseball until I moved away from my neighborhood of origin into then uncharted areas of Queens. I wanted everyone to know that I was from Flushing, no fooling around, and wearing the logo of the baseball team which claimed that town as its home was my birthright. Around this time, in 1998 or so, the Mets were a pretty good team and would contend against the Yankees for the first time in post-season play for the 2000 World Series (Mets got destroyed, four games to one). Oddly, my need to identify as being from Flushing spurred on my love of baseball, not the other way around. In my typical fashion, I voraciously consumed every scrap of information I could about the sport, until I became an overbearing stats-quoter in hardly any time at all.
Of course, one of the things I like best about baseball is its rich history. I’m a few pages away from being done with Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues by William Brashler, and it’s a pretty solid book. That the historical record of the Negro Leagues is less than substantial is a crying shame: there’s a dearth of statistics, and therefore literature about these teams, and a lot of misinformation is touted as fact in order to spice up the legends of this time period. There can be no doubt that many black baseball players could have contended well in the white-only Leagues, however the way some of these narratives of the Negro Leagues tell it, games consisted of spindly black player after spindly black player stepping up to the plate with a bat in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, slapping walk off, five-hundred foot home runs without looking at the ball and lazily strolling around the bases while dancing soft shoe for the fans. And of course, the black pitcher would throw 100 mph heat unflinchingly for eleven straight innings without any signs of tiring. And the outfield caught every fly ball, except for home runs, of which there were three to a player.
William Brashler helps dispel many of these ridiculous myths, having spoken to Negro Leagues legend “Cool Papa” Bell when researching his popular 1972 novel, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Brashler is able to shed light on some erroneous claims, but the substantiated hits that remain are still staggering. The author also potentially corrects a long-held misconception about Josh Gibson: later in his career, when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers and ended segregation in baseball, Josh was a heavy drinker, prone to dementia and violent outbursts. The romantic, bittersweet reason has always been that Gibson was depressed over missing his chance to play in the Major Leagues and let himself go to pot, but Brashler shows that Josh’s decline began before Robinson was signed to the Dodgers. It is even implied that he may have had a brain tumor.
Josh Gibson is a pretty well-written book that isn’t given to a lot of hyperbole and speculation. It’s also not incredibly stats-heavy like a lot of baseball books. However, it’s not such a rollicking read that casual fans of baseball, or people interested in the time period of segregation and Jim Crow laws should pick it up. It’s a baseball book, not a social study of the politics behind racism. I mean, if you’re reading a book about the Negro Leagues, then it should be inferred that you understand the systemic reasons behind why such a league existed in the first place. If you’ve never heard of Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues, or the game of baseball, or if you can’t read, then this book is not for you.