Throughout his career—and his life—Josh Gibson strove to prove that “Black athletes could play baseball just as well as anyone else.” Some believe he paved the way for Jackie Robinson to become the first Black baseball player in the Major Leagues. Sadly, Gibson died three months before that momentous event occurred; he was 35.
Gibson might never have become a catcher for the Homestead Grays and be considered one of the greatest baseball players in America had his father not moved the family to Pittsburgh when Gibson was only 10. Railway workers would smuggle banned copies of the Pittsburgh Courier into the South. The numerous ads for jobs in coal mines, steel mills and other places led to a steady influx of Southern Blacks to the North, looking for work.
“What Josh Gibson did on the baseball field made White people comfortable with Black people at a time when they weren’t,” said WTAE anchor and Duquesne University adjunct professor, Mike Clark.
Clark’s News Documentary Production class, which he teaches with assistant professor, Dennis Woytek, produced a documentary, narrated by Duquesne alum, Bill Hillgrove, which chronicled Gibson’s life, both on and off the baseball field. The documentary premiered before an invitation-only audience in Duquesne University’s Power Center Ballroom Oct. 13, where guests were treated to popcorn and lemonade.
Gibson’s grandson, Sean Gibson, who is also the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, graciously helped the students gain access to other family members, friends and archived photographs and documents.
“I was honored that Duquesne University wanted to do a documentary on Josh Gibson,” he said.
Clark, an acquaintance of Sean’s, thought of Josh Gibson as the subject for his class’ documentary because “it’s a story that’s not widely told, and it’s one of the great injustices in life.”
Dean Al Labriola, who died of a heart attack shortly before the project was completed, was instrumental in getting the students the funding they needed for trips to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the unveiling of a statue of Josh Gibson at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and to Gibson’s birthplace in Buena Vista, Ga. Fittingly, the documentary was dedicated to Labriola.
“Without Dean Labriola, it couldn’t have been done,” said Sean. “He was the backbone on the financial side.”
Word of the documentary spread throughout the United States and around the world, and the students soon found themselves being interviewed by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times. They were also invited to attend a performance of Fred Newman’s play, “Safe at Third (or Josh Gibson Don’t Bunt),” which appeared Off-Broadway, Nov. 13-14. Gibson’s documentary was shown afterward, followed by a question-and-answer segment with the cast.
“It was a good experience for the students because some of them had no idea about the segregation,” said Woytek. Besides learning about segregation and the racial divide in America, the students also discovered the “benefit of doing stories that matter.”
Clark hopes to be able to get the documentary aired on local and national television and in elementary and high schools so Gibson’s story can “continue to touch people’s lives.” He’d also like for President Obama to see and comment on the documentary; his words would be edited in afterward.
“It really needs to be seen. It probably is one of the best explorations of someone’s life that I’ve ever seen,” said Woytek, proud of his students’ accomplishments.
The Josh Gibson Foundation, where some of the students volunteer as tutors, is currently in negotiations with the August Wilson Center to have a public screening of the documentary, along with an exhibit of photographs from Gibson’s life and career. In the meantime copies of the documentary can be purchased through the foundation’s website, https://www.joshgibson.org.
“My family and I felt that the students did a really great job. They did a lot of research, put a lot of time and effort into the story and the [quality] of the DVD is really great,” Sean enthused.