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The story of Josh Gibson delivers a grand slam (OPINION)

By Constance Alexander | April 22, 2024

Dorian Hairston’s poems in “Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow” should be required reading for everyone, especially those who strive to outlaw the concepts of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion in education and everyday life. This striking debut collection introduces readers to Josh Gibson, the greatest catcher ever to play the game and one of the foremost power hitters in the Negro Leagues and in all baseball history. 

For decades, players like the Negro Leagues’ Gibson and Satchel Paige were breaking records, yet their achievements were not elevated to Hall of Fame status until 1962, when Jackie Robinson was the first Black to be inducted. Ten years later, Josh Gibson was finally elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously. 

Like so many aspects of our nation’s history, even sports was permeated by bigotry and exploitation. Righting those wrongs begins with knowledge and awareness through books like this one. 

According to Dorian Hairston’s introduction to “Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow,” a quote from baseball great Willie Mays provides context: “Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business. But what it most truly is is disguised combat. For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps.”

Each poem in this unique collection is presented by an individual voice. Readers encounter Gibson himself, as well as his wife; his children; and Hooks Tinker, the scout who discovered him. A bat even speaks, describing Gibson’s gentle grip as he lifts it off the ground and swings. 

When we finish up with our little dance

he likes to toss me off to the side

so he can take a quick lap around the bases.

“As you read these poems,” Hairston says, “I implore you to consider why there was a need for the Negro Leagues in the first place.”

Advised to “steal bases like they/ stole this country” and “belt ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ during they national anthem,” Gibson urges his Negro League team members to “…pretend the ball is named/ jim crow.” 

The biography is laced with Gibson’s tragic family history. His father moved the family north, from rural Georgia to the Allegheny and the Monongahela, for grueling work in a steel mill. At first following his father’s footsteps, Josh got a job in the mill at 17, likening the whistle announcing his shift to the rooster crowing before sunup.

Some of the most moving poems feature the love story of Josh and his wife, Helen, who died in childbirth after delivering twins. The boy and girl, Josh Jr. and Helen Jr., were named after their parents and their laments are stitched into the fabric of Gibson’s tale.

“Home Run #1” addresses Helen and captures the sadness of her death, prompting Josh to “pretend/ each ball can fly its way through/ the stars to you.” 

“The Magician,” spoken by Josh Jr., reveals how the son’s connection to his father and “the best Negro League stars as uncles,” makes him a top choice in pick-up games in the neighborhood.

Helen Gibson Jr. confesses to a longing for the mother she never met in the poem, “Mama and Her Daughter.” The mother, in a stylish dress with white buttons, resembles a goddess to Helen Jr. who daydreams about a mother-daughter relationship she will never have. 

From one poem to the next, the stunning collection is a crash course in baseball’s past and Jim Crow, giving voice to a voiceless generation of African Americans, including Josh Gibson.

In “Pregame Prayer,” Hooks Tinker quotes an obscure lyric from “The Star Spangled Banner,” that states, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

Tinker also describes an advertisement for a traveling circus that lures crowds with the promise of, “a jolly darkey target game.” 

…a wide hole with no teeth

outlined by crimson swollen lips

means the player must pretend

a black man’s head pokes

through the open hole.” 

Helen Gibson almost gets the last word in “Pretend the Ball is Jim Crow,” when she admits, “The cruelest part about this afterlife/ is being outside of time to see in this form/ that I am everywhere for you and not nearly/ close enough in the same moment…”

With baseball season just starting up, National Poetry Month in full swing, and legislatures around the country determined to enact laws against telling stories like those in “Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow,” the book is timely and relevant. It breathes life into the past and raises questions about how we can do better now to ensure an inclusive future.

Published by University Press of Kentucky in February, “Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow” is available through the publisher, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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