By Daniel Brown - San Jose Mercury News

Sunday, May 7, 2006

San Francisco — Without reliable statistics, the best way to measure Josh Gibson is by the legend.

Bob Kendrick, a spokesman for the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo., tells the one about the rookie who found a broken bat during batting practice and asked if it belonged to Gibson. Gibson, the hulking catcher, grabbed one of his bats and pointed to the well worn sweet spot. “Son, I don’t break bats,” he told him. “I wear them out.”

San Francisco State history professor Jules Tygiel prefers the tale about the rookie who was dumb enough to get caught stealing with two outs in the ninth and Gibson at the plate. The kid told Gibson he was just trying to get into scoring position. “When I’m at the plate, kid,” Gibson replied, “anywhere is scoring position.”

How good was Gibson? It’s impossible to know. A glimpse at what might have been is outside AT&T Park as the Negro Leagues’ mobile museum, “Times of Greatness,” arrives in San Francisco as part of its 30-stop tour.

Items on loan from the main museum in Kansas City, Mo., include photos, video and other memorabilia — and might draw at least one famous visitor.

“I’m going to have to check that out,” Barry Bonds said Monday, when told of the exhibit. “I like the history.”

Were it not for the color barrier, which kept baseball segregated until 1947, the Giants left fielder might be chasing Gibson’s record and not Hank Aaron’s. “The Black Babe Ruth,” as he was known, is credited with more than 900 home runs and a lifetime average higher than .350 during a career that spanned from 1930 to ’46.

There are reasons to be dubious of those numbers. Tygiel, an expert on the Negro leagues, notes that those totals would have counted any game Gibson ever played, including exhibitions and games against semipro teams.

Still, plenty of Gibson’s feats were verifiable. The right-handed batter blasted a ball at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall behind the center-field bleachers — about 580 feet from home plate. Hall of Fame executive Bill Veeck said Gibson was the greatest hitter he ever saw.

Countless others around the Negro leagues said the same thing, which is saying something since the leagues’ alumni include Aaron (Indianapolis Clowns, 1952), Ernie Banks (Kansas City Monarchs, 1950-53) and Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Bears, 1948-50).

“There were guys that came out of the Negro leagues we all know were just as good or even better than guys who became Hall of Famers,” Kendrick said. “But people are skeptical. They think that if it happened in the Negro leagues, it didn’t happen. But it wasn’t that these players weren’t talented — they weren’t allowed.”

Gibson teamed with Satchel Paige over parts of the 1936 and ’37 seasons with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, giving the Negro leagues their most famous battery. But for the most part the two superstars of black baseball spent their careers going head to head.

Bob Paige, son of the longtime pitcher, said, “It’s hard to describe the admiration my father had for Gibson. They were your quintessential rivals.”

In a phone interview from St. Louis, Paige said Satchel once walked two batters on purpose just to get to Gibson — then struck him out with a showman’s flair. (Hard to imagine a pitcher trying that trick with Bonds.)

“My dad used to say that the only times Gibson hit a home run off of him were the times that he let him do it, to give the fans something to enjoy,” said Paige, 64, who works for the Roadway company that is sponsoring the traveling exhibit.

Gibson’s health deteriorated rapidly late in his playing days. A stroke felled him on Jan. 20, 1947 — a month after his 35th birthday and three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

What might have been?

“We can only measure Gibson by what his peers said about him — and they said a lot about his home run prowess,” Tygiel said. “You would have to think he would be up there with Mays and Aaron. We would have to assume he would be in that category.”