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Meet Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues player who just replaced Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb atop the MLB record books

Commonly referred to as the "Black Babe Ruth," Gibson was a force to be reckoned with in the Negro Leagues, and now his statistical legacy is properly being included in baseball history.
Josh Gibson Negro Leagues
Posted at 1:25 PM, May 30, 2024

Widely considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, the legacy of Josh Gibson transcended the sport over seven decades ago. However, his accomplishments were never properly recognized in Major League Baseball.

This week, that all changed.

That's because for the first time in history, the previously excluded statistics of more than 2,400 Negro Leagues ballplayers have now been incorporated in the MLB record books. And combining the records from both leagues has put Gibson ahead of all-time greats like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and others.

In a move deemed decades overdue by many fans, combining the records from both leagues has made Gibson the new MLB all-time hitting leader with a career batting average of .372, surpassing Cobb's .367. Gibson was also crowned the new career leader in slugging percentage (SLG) and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), topping Ruth in both hitting categories.

A bronze statue of Negro Leagues baseball legend Josh Gibson in Legacy Square when it was unveiled at PNC Park, the home of Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates.
A bronze statue of Negro Leagues Baseball legend Josh Gibson in Legacy Square when it was unveiled at PNC Park, the home of Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates.

Commonly referred to as the "Black Babe Ruth," Gibson was a force to be reckoned with in the Negro Leagues. He played for three teams over the course of his 17-year career in the 1930s and '40s, was a 12-time All-Star, and is widely regarded as one of the best catchers and most fearsome sluggers in all of baseball history.

However, Gibson was never allowed the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues because his entire career happened at a time when professional baseball was still segregated. It wasn't until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in April 1947 with his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers that it set the stage for more Black athletes to integrate into what was previously an all-White league.

Gibson died just months earlier due to complications from a stroke. He was 35 years old.

The gravestone for baseball player Josh Gibson.
The gravestone for baseball player Josh Gibson.

MLB announced in December 2020 that it would reclassify the Negro Leagues as part of the major leagues, paving the way for players like Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and more to have their stats from the Negro Leagues be included in the MLB record books. And after three years of historical research, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said it was a move the league was proud to finally announce this week.

"This initiative is focused on ensuring that future generations of fans have access to the statistics and milestones of all those who made the Negro Leagues possible," Manfred said in a statement. "Their accomplishments on the field will be a gateway to broader learning about this triumph in American history and the path that led to Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Dodger debut."

Baseball game at a renovated former Negro Leagues stadium in Paterson, New Jersey

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An updated version of MLB's historical database is expected to be made public during a Negro Leagues tribute game on June 20 between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. Phil Dixon, a Negro Leagues expert who served on the statistical review committee for the project, lauded the decision but admitted that the historical research is still far from complete.

"Working with this expert group of baseball historians has been an honor. This is a great effort," Dixon said. "There is so much work to be done and so many stories to be told through the numbers, the articles and the box scores — found and yet to be found. The future of Black men in baseball has never looked brighter."