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Ryan And Josh: Two Men, One Lasting Baseball Legacy
By Tony McClean
Updated: November 20, 2006
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — There’s a distinctive sound that all baseball players and pitchers young and old are uniquely familiar with. Whether you’re sitting a home watching a game on TV or at a ballpark watching a game live, you know exactly what it is when you hear it.
The sound and fury behind it is violent for the pitcher, but for the hitter it’s what you seek to to every time you pick up a bat. For the hitter, it sounds is like a beautiful church hymn being sung by a large choir. As a fan, you can’t help but rise to your feet when you hear it.
58 times this past summer, Ryan Howard got a chance to hear and experience that sound. In just a short time, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound first baseman for the Phillies has become one of the game’s most prodigious sluggers and one of the most feared hitters in the game.
Fresh off his 2005 National League Rookie Of The Year campaign, Howard was named the league’s MVP Monday by the Baseball Writers Association of America. With 20 first-place votes and 12 second-place votes, Howard defeated last year’s NL MVP, the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, by a total of 388 to 347.
In his first full season, Howard’s 58 homers tied him for the 10th best single-season mark for homers. Also they were the most by a second-year player. His 149 RBIs were the second-most for a sophomore, behind Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. All that and he also finished with a solid .313 batting average.
The St. Louis native shattered the Phillies’ single-season homer record, previously held by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who ironically was the last Phillie to win the NL MVP Award. Schmidt won the last of his three MVP awards in 1986.
Howard also made his first All-Star appearance this summer, where he slammed his way to a victory in the Home Run Derby. Earlier this month, Howard added to his growing resume as he was named the MVP of the Japan All-Star Series.
The five-game series pitted major league all-stars against Japanese League all-stars. The major leaguers swept the series, mainly behind Howard’s bat.
During the series, Howard hit .558 with eight runs, three doubles, four homers and eight RBIs. One of Howard’s homers was a mammoth blast that was estimated at roughly 450 feet.
At 27, Howard is still somewhat of a baby in the baseball world. However, looking at his “John Henry” type frame and power, one can help but think of one of the game’s greatest sluggers. Although I never saw him play, when I see Howard, I envision him as a left-handed Josh Gibson.
The longtime Negro League slugger may have been more of a small and barrel-chested type (6-feet-1, 215 pounds), but there’s no doubt that the pair are brothers in arms when you talk about raw power. It’s safe to say that Gibson heard that unique sound a few times during his playing days.
Both Gibson and Howard used a short, compact stride and a massive upper body to crush long line drives and tape measure home runs in ballparks all over the country. While Gibson was considered more of a pull hitter, Howard has shown the ability to hit to all fields.
Much like Howard, Gibson began his career with a bang. Gibson batted an incredible .461 in his rookie year (1930) and was a key factor in the Homestead Grays win over New York’s Lincoln Giants in the Negro League playoffs for the Eastern Division championship.
In many ways, the original linking of Howard and Gibson may have came during this summer’s All-Star Game, which was played in Pittsburgh. Howard won this year’s Home Run Derby in the same city where Gibson starred for the Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
I’ve never been one to get into comparisons of players, especially those that have played in different eras. But I must admit in seeing Howard play numerous times this year, I couldn’t help put think about Josh Gibson and the many other sluggers from the Negro Leagues.
It seems as though the spirit of Gibson is now alive and well in the strength and power of the Phillies’ standout. Like I said earlier, I never saw Gibson play in person. But I know in my heart, I see his legacy in Philly and all around ballparks across the country and abroad.
Somewhere, Josh is looking down at Ryan and he’s smiling with pride.