Josh Gibson with a crowd of young fans. Image from the Josh Gibson Collection of the Rivers of Steel Archives.
The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.
By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer
Connecting a New Generation to the Negro Leagues and Baseball Great Josh Gibson
In 1972, Josh Gibson became only the second Negro League player ever to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And even though it took the MLB another 42 years to recognize Negro League stats as “Major League,” Gibson’s records stand up as some of the greatest of all time. Gibson, who played for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, is credited with some of the greatest career numbers of any hitter in the game’s history, with a .365 batting average (second only to Ty Cobb), a .449 on-base percentage, and 1.139 on-base plus slugging percentage. And his .441 batting average in 80 games in 1943 is now the best in baseball history without needing a qualifier.
To honor that legacy and to highlight the accomplishments, triumphs, and barriers Gibson experienced in his life, members of the Josh Gibson Foundation set out to create a virtual platform that would educate users about the Pittsburgh legend and the Negro Leagues.
“The whole concept began during the COVID pandemic, when everything became this whole new virtual thing—everything was on Zoom, a lot of kids weren’t in school,” says Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson and executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation. “So we had made a decision to do something educational but also fun—virtually—so it doesn’t have to be something that has to be played in person or in school, and it can reach not only the people in Pittsburgh but also through other cities and the surrounding areas.”
With funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, the Gibson team linked up with Tea, a creative agency based in Los Angeles, to begin the process of creating a virtual tour, with the final product evolving along the way. The end result is the Josh Gibson Virtual Baseball Game, an app that features trivia questions about the famed player and the Negro Leagues, that is played like a game of ball.
The Josh Gibson Foundation
Rooted in the experiences Josh Gibson lived while in Pittsburgh, the foundation in his namesake is dedicated to the improvement of the lives of young people in the city, ensuring that the youth of our communities remember the legacy of Gibson while providing life-skills coaching and educational support.
The organization offers several programs for kids aged 6 – 14, including after-school programs, mentoring partnerships, summer camps, a Business of Sports Academy, and a S.T.E.A.M. program for 8th grade boys in partnership with Pittsburgh Classical Academy.
The current S.T.E.A.M. class was a key focus group as the Virtual Baseball Game was being developed. The kids had an opportunity to test the app while having their questions answered as they interacted with the developers and creators of the game. This direct interaction provided them the insight to understand the software and programming they were using as well as the issues the team faced while creating the app.
“The main goal that we wanted, for middle-school and high school-aged groups, was something to be of course educational, to learn about Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues, Homestead Grays . . . but we also wanted it to be entertaining,” says Gibson. “Our 8th grade S.T.E.A.M. boys were our testers, and they had some great feedback.”
Gibson noted with laughter some of the things the boys pointed out that the development team hadn’t thought of. “You know how when you go to a Pirates game, or you go to a baseball game, and when somebody’s batting up they have music when they come to the plate. One of the boys was like, how come they don’t have music as they’re coming to the plate? And I had to explain to them, well you know, I know you guys are thinking of today’s times, but you’ve got to think about this history is back in the 1930s and 40s!”
It was important to the team to layer in those teachable moments. “Even though we are going to add some components of today’s era, we still wanted to have that rich tradition of the Negro Leagues era of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s,” continues Gibson.
A Sense of Place
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame induction, which Sean Gibson finds fitting for the rolling out of this new game. While the development team is putting the finishing touches on the app, Gibson is brainstorming ways it can be utilized as part of his outreach programs with regional schools.
On the heels of the Centennial Celebration of the founding of the Negro Leagues, Gibson is thrilled to also see other initiatives popping up to honor the legend, including a mural of Josh Gibson on the Voodoo Brewery building in Homestead by Pittsburgh artist Jeremy Raymer that was completed last spring.
“It’s important to us that we work on connecting the community to see and understand the rich history of southwestern Pennsylvania,” he says. “The creation period brought forth a larger learning platform that has reached people that never knew about the Negro Leagues and Josh Gibson. We’re able to teach people not only about the player, but also the landmarks where he played and lived.”
To learn more about the Josh Gibson Foundation, its educational programs, and upcoming events, visit joshgibson.org.
About the Mini-Grant Program
Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. The Josh Gibson Foundation is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.
Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.
If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about the digitization of the Donora Historical Society’s collection of glass plate negatives.