Past Meets Present: Washington Unveils The Josh Gibson Exhibit

By Carla Peay
Updated: June 11, 2007

Sean Gibson and former Josh Gibson teammate, James Tillman.

Sean Gibson and former Josh Gibson teammate, James Tillman.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Four generations of black baseball history were represented on the podium at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. as Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Negro League great Josh Gibson, stood next to James Tillman, who was once a teammate of Gibson’s.

Sean Gibson is the president of the Josh Gibson Foundation, a non-profit corporation with the goal of reaching out to the families and communities through educational programs. The foundation’s history and learning center is headquartered in Homestead, Pa., located near the city of Pittsburgh.

On display was an exhibit of memorabilia from Gibson’s career in the Negro Leagues, including Gibson’s jersey and a collection of photos.

Items from the Josh Gibson exhibit.

Items from the Josh Gibson exhibit.

“We want to bring the history of the Negro Leagues to the D.C. area. With the help of the Nationals, we hope that can take place,” Sean Gibson said. He added that he would like to see a permanent display of Negro League baseball memorabilia at the new Nationals stadium, which will open at the start of the 2008 season.

Josh Gibson, who played catcher, along with pitcher Satchel Paige, were among the two greatest players in Negro League history. Gibson led the Negro leagues in homeruns for 10 consecutive years, and was credited with 75 homeruns in 1931.

Born on Dec. 21 in 1911 in Buena Vista Georgia, Gibson played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1930-37, then played for the Homestead Grays in D.C. from 1937-46. Gibson died of a stroke in January of 1947 at the age of 35, without living to see baseball’s color barrier broken by Jackie Robinson just three months later.

“Josh Gibson played a big part in the history here in D.C. and that history should be told here. The goal of the Josh Gibson Foundation is to bring to this area of the rich history of Negro League baseball,” Gibson said.

Gibson posed for photos, signed autographs, and spoke proudly of his great-grandfather’s legacy.

“People ask me how I feel about Josh Gibson never having the opportunity to play Major League Baseball, and I tell them we’re not bitter about that.

I don’t think Josh Gibson was bitter about that. He is in five Halls of Fame. There are players playing today who will not make one Hall of Fame,” Gibson said.

Although the statistics are unofficial, Gibson is estimated to have hit more than 800 home runs during his 17 year career. Tillman recalled a favorite memory from his playing days as Josh Gibson’s teammate.

Josh once told me that you can tell when you’re going to hit a home run by the feel of the bat when it hits the ball. Sure enough, it stayed with me, and he was right,” Tillman said.

Representing modern baseball in D.C. were members of the Washington Nationals, who coincidentally were hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates in a three game series. Coordinating the Nationals community relations programs is team executive Alfonso Maldon, who echoed the concern many have about the decreasing numbers of blacks in baseball.

“In 1975, 27 percent of the players on the field in major league baseball were African American. Today, we have about 8 percent. So it’s been an unbelievable dwindling of the numbers of African American players on the field. That’s one of the reasons why I think this is so important,” said Maldon, who serves as president of the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.

Maldon is also a partner in the Lerner Group, which owns the Nationals. Prior joining the team’s ownership group, Maldon is best known for serving for five years at the White House from 1993-1998 as the Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States for Legislative Affairs.

“We need to help tell the story of just what has happened to baseball. When you look at these great people who have contributed so much, we need to do all we can to get more people to come to the stadium, to watch the games, to encourage minority interest and participation in baseball,” Maldon said.

Maldon hoped that the Gibson exhibit is one of the things that will help jump start that interest. Tillman agreed.

“Josh was a baseball player, and he was a gentleman also. He didn’t take a lot of foolishness. When he played ball, he played ball. He was one of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. But Josh knew how to let himself go. If he said he was going to do something, he did it,” said the 87-year old Tillman.

Sean Gibson with Nationals interim hitting coach Lenny Harris.

Sean Gibson with Nationals interim hitting coach Lenny Harris.

Representing the Washington Nationals along with Maldon were relief pitcher Ray King, interim hitting coach Lenny Harris and center fielder Nook Logan.

“The Negro Leagues paved the way for guys like me. Jackie [Robinson] played in the Negro Leagues, and Jackie got to the major leagues and paved the way for guys like us to be able to play. If it wasn’t for that, who knows how long it would have been before minorities would have had the chance to play in the big leagues,” Logan said.

“When Jackie Robinson got to play in the big leagues, it brought blacks and whites together, sitting in the same stadium, cheering for the same people. It’s a bigger deal than what people make it, and not just for people who play baseball,” added Logan.

The Josh Gibson exhibit will be on display in the nation’s capital until June 30.