By Bob Nightengale |
They are the most prestigious individual honors in baseball, but for the first time since 1944, the American League and National League Most Valuable Player awards will have no name.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the MLB commissioner from 1920 to ’44 who prevented the game from being integrated during his reign, will no longer have his name on the MVP awards following a resounding vote by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
There wasn’t enough time for the writers to vote on a new name to be attached to the awards this year, with Jose Ramirez of Cleveland and Freddie Freeman of Atlanta favored to be named the winners Thursday in the American and National leagues, but there’s a perfect option out there starting next year.
Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest slugger of ’em all.
Gibson never played in Major League Baseball because of Landis, so wouldn’t it be appropriate that the greatest player Landis denied would now represent baseball’s best annual players?
“I think that’s a spectacular idea,’’ said Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, whose father played with Gibson in the Negro Leagues, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s such a tremendous award, but for it to be called the Josh Gibson award would really make a significant difference.
“I can’t think of a better guy to name it after.’’
Jackson, who like Gibson grew up in Pennsylvania, knew all about Gibson’s feats from listening to stories from his father. Gibson hit 800 home runs in the Negro Leagues, maybe even more, with a career .359 batting average. He won nine home run titles and four batting titles for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays. He was easily considered the greatest power-hitting catcher in major league history, once hitting a 580-foot homer in Yankee Stadium, legend has it.
“Josh was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or anybody else I’ve ever seen,’’ the late Cleveland Buckeyes manager Alonzo Boone said.
Hall of Famer Satchel Paige simply said: “He was the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
Gibson, widely considered the greatest player to never play in Major League Baseball, died of a brain tumor at the age of 35, just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 15 years after his death.
“You sit back and hear those Josh Gibson stories,’’ Jackson said. “It would be, ‘Satchel Paige struck out the side that day, and Gibson would hit two more home runs.’ Having Josh Gibson on that plaque would bring great recognition to the Negro Leagues.’’
The BBWAA, with 89% of the voting body approving to remove Landis’ name, likely will vote next summer on a replacement.
The Gibson family is now hoping the writers do the right thing.
“It’s an honor to be even be considered,’’ said Sean Gibson, 52, Josh Gibson’s great grandson, who runs the Josh Gibson Foundation in Pittsburgh. “It would be more of a redemption, a poetic justice-type story. The guy who denied all of the opportunities to African-American players to play Major League Baseball would be replaced by the guy that he denied.’’
There’s little question that Gibson would have been a huge star, a multi-MVP winner, if he played in the major leagues. Even Time Magazine wrote about Gibson’s historical feats, saying he would have been the most famous player in baseball. Once baseball integrated, 11 of the next 16 MVP awards in the National League went to Black players.
Williams, in the summer of 1966, then opened the door for baseball immortality by campaigning for the greatest Negro League players to be inducted into Cooperstown during his Hall of Fame speech.
“I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way,’’ Williams said, “could be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.”
It was groundbreaking, and five years later Paige became the first Negro League player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with Gibson joining a year after.
“My grandfather, Josh Gibson Jr., would always talk about Ted Williams’ speech,’’ Sean Gibson said. “He always thanked Ted Williams for that. If not for that speech, who knows what would have happened?”
And, if not for a country being woke this summer, who knows how long Landis’ name would have remained on the MVP plaque?
Now, Landis’ name is erased from the plaque, and Gibson’s is the perfect replacement.
This is a man who was legendary on the field, and off it, still raised two kids on his own after his wife dying during delivery of twins, while dealing with the everyday hatred of racism.
“The way we look at it,’’ Sean Gibson said, “the MVP won’t stand for Josh Gibson, but it would stand for all of the great players who were denied. It would stand for Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Turkey Stearnes, Ray Dandridge, and all of the families of great Negro League players denied of this opportunity.
“This would be a great honor, right next to being inducted into the Hall of Fame, carrying his legacy forever.”
Let this be the final time there is no name on these plaques.
And, beginning in 2021, let it forever be known as the annual Josh Gibson MVP awards.