By now I sure hope you’ve had a chance to see the new and improved Baseball-Reference site, featuring Negro League statistics and newly integrated leaderboards. Here are your top single seasons for OPS, for example.
Critics are sure to see the faces and assert that some don’t belong.
- Barry Bonds famously achieved his marks at the height of the PED era
- Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby competed in segregated leagues that led to weakened competition
- Even Ted Williams, whose second season on the leaderboard (1957) came after Larry Doby joined the American League, competed against teams with little to no black players on the mound or in their lineups
So yes, the new leaderboards present a mixed bag, but the truth is they did even before the recent Baseball-Reference updates. While we like to think of baseball as “the one constant through all the years,” the truth is its record books didn’t just incorporate but often resulted from differences in eras, leagues, schedules, ballparks, and rules.
The question I’ll look to answer today, however, is more practical than philosophical. It’s simply how many MVP awards Josh Gibson would have won had this been a thing in the leagues he competed in. One way, the much more difficult one, is to approach this question by asking which seasons he was the very best player in all of Baseball, Black or White. While I’m not so sure the answer would differ, this is not the approach I’ll take. Rather, since MLB (or rather the BBWAA) today selects MVPs in each league, I’ll simply count up how many times Josh was the best player in his own league, which for all but a handful of at-bats in 1930 was the league now known as the Negro National League II (or NN2 in Baseball-Reference).
Before jumping in, I’ll point out that five seasons of Josh’s career will not be considered.
- 1930-1931 Homestead Grays – not officially recognized (yet?) as major leagues
- 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords – not officially recognized (yet?) as major leagues
- 1940-1941 – played in Mexico
This leaves me with a dozen seasons to consider: 1933-1939 and 1942-1946.
The first thing that jumps out about this seven-year stretch is that Josh led the league in home runs every single season, making him the only player other than Ralph Kiner to do so. Also like Kiner, the feats occurred in what MLB now designates as Josh’s first seven full MLB seasons. Of course, a home run title isn’t all it takes to win the MVP. Where necessary I’ll also look at other factors such as the following–
- Batting average
- Runs batted in
- Defensive position and ability
- Team success
Two seasons I think we can call definite MVP seasons are 1936 and 1937 where Josh not only won the batting crown but won the Triple Crown AND his teams (Crawfords in ’36, Grays in ’37) finished in first place. Add to that Josh’s position behind the plate as one of the most important on the field (and one disproportionately represented in NL/AL voting of the era), and there’s not even the need to consider other offensive candidates. Taking a quick look at pitchers, there were of course several strong performances (1936 leaders, 1937 leaders) but none that I believe would have unseated Josh.
Josh also won the batting crown and the league in 1939, but he missed the Triple Crown in the category of runs batted in. Therefore, the champion in that category at least warrants a look. The 1939 RBI leader was none other than Josh’s Homestead Grays teammate Buck Leonard, who topped Josh by the narrowest of margins (48 to 46). Notably, Buck also tied Josh in home runs while finishing second in batting average (.385 vs .402). While we can imagine some “Josh fatigue” adding votes to Leonard, I’ll regard Josh’s defensive position and .400+ batting average as tiebreakers in his favor. Once again, I don’t believe any pitcher had a dominant enough season to challenge Josh, though I did learn the victories leader had the very cool name Henry McHenry. (I’m sorry to say his middle name was Lloyd rather than Henry.)
I’ve now looked at the three seasons with the most “black ink” among Josh’s first seven and declared him the MVP in each of them. Now we’ll just progress chronologically through the other four.
1933 featured home run and RBI crowns as well as a first place finish for the Crawfords. The natural category to look at, therefore, is batting average. Here the BR site gets a little confusing, at least to the casual user. If I go to the “Standard Batting” area and filter out all non-qualifiers, Josh tops the list at .395–i.e., seemingly completes his Triple Crown.
However, if I head to the area of the site that breaks out leaders by category, I get Jabbo Andrews of the Columbus Blue Birds.
I believe this has to do with the first list using minimums from the league average number of games while the second list uses the number of league box scores available for the player’s specific team. Potentially, we may see MLB take a different approach than BR in this area, in which case Josh may well be awarded yet another Triple Crown.
For my purposes, however, let’s just say the difference between .398 and .395 is too small to swing the MVP award from Josh to Jabbo. Once again, no pitcher appears to have been dominant enough to pose a challenge. Rack up another trophy for Josh!
1934 was a rare “off year” for Josh, his (officially recognized) sophomore slump, in that he batted only .317. Josh’s Crawfords won the league comfortably, but we will definitely want to take a look at the top batting averages around the league.
While any “modern analytics” approach would (probably) still give Gibson the nod among position players, I’ll nonetheless assume another player would have taken home the 1934 trophy. Aside from the batting leaders listed above, the pitching season Slim Jones put together is of particular note.
How about 1935? Josh’s Crawfords won the league handily, and his own average rebounded to a healthier .369 to go with his home run and RBI crowns. A look at the league’s top position players, sorted by batting average, will give us a better idea of Josh’s overall standing relative to the league.
I’d personally vote for Josh here, but I could certainly foresee the MVP going to either Buck Leonard or Turkey Stearnes without causing any massive uproar. That said, I’d be remiss not to point out the per 162 game 30-30 season Josh put together, his home run and steals numbers projecting to 37 apiece…at catcher no less!
Having already looked at 1936 and 1937, we now skip to 1938. Again Josh led the league in home runs and RBI, and again his team, the Homestead Grays, won the league. In something of a repeat of 1935, however, I can once again see the MVP trophy going to another player, perhaps fellow “Thunder Twin” (now that they’re teammates) Buck Leonard.
We previously examined 1939, the last full season before Josh took his talents south of the border to Mexico, so we are now ready to embark upon the homestretch of Josh’s career, 1942-1946.
Josh’s 1942 season was his lone full season out of a dozen where he did not lead the league in home runs, finishing one behind Lennie Pearson, at least barring the discovery of additional box scores. While Gibson’s numbers are very, very good, Pearson in fact won the Triple Crown, at least based on the BR data in front of us. As such, I’ll declare Pearson the 1942 NNL MVP.
Now 1943 was an altogether different story and may well represent THE most dominant season by any player ever. Josh as usual won the HR title with a career high 20 home runs (matching 1937) in 69 games. Second place was 4. Yes, you read that correctly. Four. Josh out-homered every single Negro National League team except his own, which of course is not even possible. You might (and should) ask if the other players simply don’t have anywhere near the number of box scores Josh had, but here’s a look at the leaderboard. Josh definitely registers more games than most other players, but not by anywhere near enough to explain the ridiculous difference in home runs.
This is probably the one year where I’d give Josh the MVP off his home runs alone. However, I’d be remiss not to mention is runaway RBI title, league championship, and…no, that can’t be right!…his .466 batting average! While this mark is good for second highest all-time, it was not quite enough to win the 1943 NNL batting title. This distinction goes to Tetelo Vargas, who BR has at a record .471. (This is yet another case where we may see MLB add a Triple Crown that BR does not in that the Vargas average comes from far fewer games. The averages are also close enough that a single newly discovered box score could swing the title to Josh. Regardless, the MVP here unanimously goes to Josh.)
There was no way Josh could top his 1943 numbers in 1944, but he still put in a nice season for a 32-year-old backstop. Josh (of course!) led the league in home runs once again while batting .333 and once again his Homestead Grays cruised to the league title. Overall the race might have had numerous contenders, but I’ll single out Josh’s battery mate Ray Brown for the MVP trophy. Brown not only went a league leading 11-1 on the pitcher’s mound but batted a very healthy .321, logging additional playing time as an outfielder.
Josh upped his average to .372 in 1945 while pacing the NNL in home runs once again. Oh, and of course the Grays ran away with the pennant. Might Josh have won the MVP? Possibly. However, there were enough excellent seasons by other players that I might put my money elsewhere. Of particular note is a 22-year old catcher who like Josh would ultimately have a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Roy Campanella of the Baltimore Elite Giants.
This takes us to 1946, Josh’s final season. While Josh’s 13 home runs were nearly twice that of his nearest competitors (Johnny Davis, Larry Doby, and Buck Leonard each had 7), the Grays sputtered to a disappointing third place finish, barely winning 50% of their games. Henry Kimbro, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Buck Leonard are just four of the position players who might challenge Josh for the MVP award, but perhaps the greatest threat would come from the mound where Leon Day of the Newark Eagles went 11-2 while batting a non-qualifying but still impressive .407.
Where, then, have we ended up in terms of MVP awards? Recognizing this is a subjective venture and that others could get different results, here is a summary of Josh’s 12 full seasons as an official major leaguer.
- 1933 – Definite MVP
- 1934 – Possible MVP
- 1935 – Possible MVP
- 1936 – Definite MVP
- 1937 – Definite MVP
- 1938 – Unlikely MVP
- 1939 – Definite MVP
- 1942 – Unlikely MVP
- 1943 – Definite MVP
- 1944 – Unlikely MVP
- 1945 – Possible MVP
- 1946 – Unlikely MVP
My count, therefore, is five MVP trophies in twelve seasons, with the possibility of up to three others. Of course a check of the record books will reveal that neither Josh nor the men he competed against won an actual MVP trophy any of these seasons, not due to any lack of ability but simply the color of their skin. As the BBWAA looks for a new name to put on Baseball’s MVP trophy, I’m not sure there’s any better candidate than Josh Gibson. If the Negro Leagues are now major leagues, Gibson’s record of achievement cannot be ignored. On the contrary, we need to find a lasting and suitable way to recognize it.