What did Josh Gibson look like when he rifled the ball down to second to catch a would-be base-stealer?
That was the predicament facing staffers of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and LifeFormations, the Bowling Green, Ohio-based company that created the lifelike figure of the famous Negro League catcher that was unveiled Thursday at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
When Sean Gibson, executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, pulled the cloth from the statue, it was obvious he resembles his great-grandfather. But does this figure look like the real thing?
"Wow! There's a lot of family resemblance," said Melva Brown, 64, a granddaughter visiting from Atlanta. "He looks like my mother," Josh Gibson's daughter, Annie.
So they got the face right. What about the rest of him?
Luckily for LifeFormations, it had casts taken of an Ohio bodybuilder's arms for another project years before. It's his bulging biceps peeking out from under rolled-up sleeves of a reproduction 1940s Grays jersey.
The figure, made of silicone and fiberglass on a steel-reinforced frame, is the centerpiece of "The Story of Negro League Baseball: We Are the Ship," an exhibition that opens today and continues through Aug. 26.
Its name comes from a quote by Andrew "Rube" Foster, founder of the Negro National League, and the title of a children's book by illustrator/author Kadir Nelson. Fifty paintings and sketches made for the book are on display in the sports museum, including one of Gibson for the cover and a depiction of Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee, counting the proceeds of his "numbers" game. Revenue from gambling and the Crawford Grill allowed Greenlee to sign Gibson, pitcher Satchel Paige and other top black players in the 1930s and to build Greenlee Field in the Hill District.
Also on view at the center are a glove used by Paige, a vintage Grays uniform belonging to backup catcher Euthumn Napier and Gibson's employee identification card from Westinghouse Air Brake Co., for which he worked and played ball in an industrial league in 1930. It's believed to have the earliest known signature of the slugger who was known as the "Black Babe Ruth."
Those artifacts will remain in the Negro League area of the museum after the exhibition closes as will the statue of Gibson, who died at age 36 in 1947, just months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
Anne Madarasz, co-director of the center with Ned Schano, said they had planned for years to have a Gibson figure made this year, near his 100th birthday. The traveling exhibition of illustrations for "We Are the Ship" were the perfect companion. The staff also decided early on that Gibson would be shown as a catcher rather than a batter, as he is depicted at PNC Park's Highmark Legacy Square and Nationals Park in Washington.
"We wanted to give him his due as a catcher," Madarasz said. "Of course he was a great hitter, but he was a great catcher, too."
They could find no action pictures of him behind the plate, so they sent photos to LifeFormations of Craig Britcher, a curatorial assistant at the center, posing as a catcher throwing to second base. They also sent to LifeFormations 1940s pictures by Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris of Gibson in catcher's gear. Britcher was also responsible for scouring eBay and other sources to find the 1940s catcher's equipment that the figure wears.
"The first shoes we bought were cracked and broken," Madarasz said. "This stuff is not easy to find."
"The Story of Negro League Baseball: We Are The Ship" will be on display on the History Center's fourth floor through Aug. 26. The exhibit is included with regular admission ($10 for adults, $9 for visitors age 62+, and $5 for students and children ages 6-17, History Center members and children age 5 and under are free). Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
For a video from the Josh Gibson statue unveiling, take a look at the Post-Gazette videos online.
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published June 29, 2012 4:00 AM