Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

"Some people say Josh Gibson died of a brain hemorrhage. I say he died of a broken heart," claims Ted Page in Josh Gibson. Page had been an outfielder and teammate of Gibson, and the two had palled around for many years. Page reports Gibson's ill health, but remarks that...

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"Some people say Josh Gibson died of a brain hemorrhage. I say he died of a broken heart," claims Ted Page in Josh Gibson. Page had been an outfielder and teammate of Gibson, and the two had palled around for many years. Page reports Gibson's ill health, but remarks that the last he saw of Gibson, the big man still joked with him as he had when they played together. Holway gives to Page the chance to express what Satchel Paige and other players said of Gibson's death: He died of a broken heart.

Page is one of many colorful characters who populate Josh Gibson, as may reasonably be expected of an account of Gibson's flamboyant life. While these figures are not developed in depth, their interaction with Gibson is recounted in enough detail to make clear their importance in Gibson's life. For instance, there is Willie Wells, a brilliant shortstop and a dangerous power hitter in his own right, who invented the batting helmet by knocking the lamp off of a miner's helmet after pitchers kept throwing at his head.

Spoken of more often are the pitchers who had to face Gibson in ball games. There is Connie Rector, a "crafty" pitcher with a "tantalizing slow ball"; Joe Williams, "strictly a fireballer" who may have been the best pitcher of all; Chet Brewer, a "'sandpaper' artist," who made his pitches dance. (Pitchers often doctored baseballs in the Negro leagues.) Roosevelt Davis "was a wily cut-ball artist," and Bill Byrd was a "spitball specialist." Throwing fast balls to Gibson seems to have been a waste of effort, and pitchers threw off-speed pitches and "junk" pitches to him. In the book, Holway talks of Ted Trent who "had a legendary curve"; Ray Brown, who "had a dancing knuckleball to complement his fastball and curve"; Luis Tiant, Sr., who "was mainly a 'junkball' pitcher relying on slow curves, change-ups, and the like"; and Leroy Matlock, who "had almost perfect control."

These were the men charged with the task of getting Gibson out, a difficult task given that Gibson tended to hit balls to where no one could catch them. Indeed, Holway notes that Gibson hit more home runs than he had strike outs, an impressive feat for a free-swinging power hitter in any era. But among the pitchers Holway mentions, one stands out. As with other significant figures in Josh Gibson, he was interviewed by Holway, and he is allowed to tell about his relationship in his own words. He is Satchel Paige, the foremost celebrity of the Negro leagues, a man who drew fans of all ethnic groups by the tens of thousands to the games he pitched.

The sometime teammate and frequent antagonist of Gibson, Paige wanted every bit as much as Gibson did to be the first African American to officially cross the color line in major league baseball since the nineteenth century. Like Gibson, Paige expected to be paid well, and like Gibson, he was careless with his money, but he learned from his mistakes and learned how to profit from his celebrity. It is interesting to read Paige's remarks and to wonder about how Gibson might be remembered if he, too, had lived as long as Paige, being able to comment on his experiences as a ballplayer. As it is, Paige is remembered as a sage, as a man who intelligently worked his way through racism and discrimination to become important to the American community far beyond the boundaries of race and of baseball. In his playing days, he turned his confrontations into great shows, to the profit of not only Gibson and himself but of their teammates, as well.

Even though Paige is just about as colorful a sports figure as any America has ever had, Holway does not allow him to steal attention away from Gibson. In developing Gibson, Holway tries to paint a full picture of his development as a ballplayer. The common image of a tall, heavily muscled but somewhat clumsy man is belied by Holway's research. Yes, Gibson was tall and well built, and he hit tremendous home runs, but "Gibson could also run," and his high batting averages suggest that he had quick wrists and superior hand-eye coordination. Holway asserts that at his best, Gibson was a fast runner and a good defensive catcher who threw "light" balls that were easy for infielders to catch.

"He realized that he was just as good as Ruth. He changed from the Josh I knew— an overgrown kid who did nothing but play ball, eat ice cream, or go to the movies. He changed to a man who was kind of bitter with somebody, or mad with somebody," observes Ted Page. It dawned on Gibson that segregation was depriving him of the income a major leaguer with his talent would earn. Gibson's feeling that he was underpaid is emphasized in Josh Gibson, but curiously the fact that racism denied him the respect that was his due is not touched on. Money woes alone do not seem to adequately account for his changing from the ail-American ideal of an athlete to a heavy drinker and drug abuser.

To his credit, Holway does not gloss over Gibson's decline and the role alcohol and other drugs had in it. Gibson seems to abuse drugs to dampen anguish, a belief that he was not being treated fairly. He seems to have released his frustrations on baseballs, which he hit with rare fierceness during the last several years of his life. He became famous beyond Negro league fans at the time he was passing his peak. Page thinks Gibson knew that his skills were declining, that he was not going to be able to show what he could do in the major leagues and make the money he should. Hard drinks and drugs hastened his decline: He became a very slow runner; his defense became weak, with poor throws. Yet at the end, believing he had a brain tumor, unable to properly crouch behind home plate, and convinced that racists had defeated him and denied him his rightful place in baseball, he played his games with great vigor, making pitchers fear him until his sudden death from causes yet to be fully explained.

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