He was the black bambino before the great Bambino.
A production highlighting Pittsburgh baseball player Josh Gibson is premiering at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan from April 19–May 7. “Josh: The Black Babe Ruth” follows the short life of the popular baseball player who could have been the first to integrate the sport before Jackie Robinson did. The play will highlight who Gibson was and his journey to stardom, because many people do not know who he is, said the playwright.
“Some say he was the best baseball player ever and I’ve also heard someone say he was best baseball player you never heard of,” said Michael A. Jones, the play’s screenwriter.
The play documents the baseball player’s life from entering Pittsburgh as a child, and trying to break into major league baseball to encountering segregation, said Jones. But it also makes light of his life off of the field as well.
“In this play, we get to see his quest as a young man and as an adult trying to get into major league baseball,” he said. “Unfortunately at that time because of the gentleman agreement to not let black people into major leagues, this play doesn’t just chronicle baseball — it actually sheds light on his personal life and his struggles.”
He said before greats such as Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, there was Josh Gibson, a Negro league baseball player with a stellar statistics, who is not well known outside of Pittsburgh, he said. And retelling his story is his way of giving recognition and sharing it with new audiences.
“If you speak to baseball historians about eight out of 10 of them will mention Josh Gibson as one of the best sluggers and I think that’s important,” said Jones. “This is third time the play is being produced and a lot of people walk away learning all about what was going on in that time period.”
The play has a cast of five, including Jones who plays Josh Gibson for an hour and a half show with an intermission. He describes it as a drama and comedy, exploring all the details of that era.
“We touch on all sides — the music of the era, the fashion, and some struggles that some black people were going through at that tumultuous time in history,” said Jones. “This is another untold story and a rich story.”
But Gibson’s story is important to black people because often times important black figures are not taught about, said Jones. And the play’s cast learns something new every rehearsal, he added.
“For me, this is American history — a lot of us grew up while learning American history but not learning about our stories,” he said. “Every night the cast has a discussion about this amazing story and what new things come out on their own history because they get a chance to shed light.”
Jones said his play was bigger than the sport of baseball and can serve as an inspiration for audiences.
“I’d like this to encourage people to reach for the stars and anything that one sets their mind to — reach for stars and go for it,” he said. “Even despite the obstacles put before us, still go for what you want.”
“Josh: The Black Babe Ruth” at the Theater for the New City [155 1st Ave. between E. 9th and E. 10th streets in East Village, (212) 254-1109, www.theat