A month ago I pulled the trigger on an eBay lot of 150+ Josh Gibson cards, literally thinking I might turn four or five of them into Heavy J Studios cards. Boy was I wrong!
They say necessity is the mother of invention but sometimes surplus is an even greater motivator. Initially I just started doing my usual thing, creating Josh Gibson cards from my newfound largesse.
Soon after I started thinking about a conversation my friend Scott and I had often–the “updating” of various classic baseball card sets to include Negro League greats. Perhaps I’m the only one to see the connections, but this card was made with the 1934-36 National Chicle “Diamond Stars” set in mind. (Credit Dick Perez with the huge assist, obviously.)
From there I wondered if I could tell more of a story. With MLB actively considering if and how to count the Negro Leagues as official “major leagues,” I turned my cards into mini-campaign posters for full acknowledgement of the Negro Leagues.
For my 1933 Goudey Josh Gibson, I did my best to create a mirror image of one of the set’s famous Ruth cards, and played off the ® symbol to caption the card “BIG LEAGUE-R.”
For my next card I combined elements of the 1934 Goudey design with a mirror image of Lou Gehrig’s 1933 Goudey card. Again I used the ® symbol, this time to make the case that “RECORDS R REAL.”
A couple other cards in my series attempted similar storytelling. On one Babe Ruth stood surrounded by adoring fans–Black and white–while Josh Gibson remained mostly anonymous to much of America. On another, the caption “No slugger comes close” was originally intended for Ruth but in my version applied to Gibson.
I did a couple of larger pieces as well in this same spirit. This mini-poster, made from baseball card packaging and baseball cards, flipped the usual notion of Josh Gibson as the Black Babe Ruth. The idea of flipping the script did not originate with me, to be clear, and I was simply putting my own visuals around it.
Another script I wanted to flip was the idea of players being banned for life. When we hear the phrase we typically think of the Black Sox or Pete Rose. However, none of these players was truly banned for life, seeing as they all enjoyed Major League Careers prior to their expulsion from the game. Josh, meanwhile, was never allowed to play, dying three months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s famous color barrier. An alternate reading of the captions is “BANNED SOX” and “BLACK FOR LIFE.”
What all of these cards had in common–besides Josh of course–was an attempt to re-write (or just right!) the history. Where I wanted to go next was to bring Josh a little more into the present, using Hip Hop as my time machine.
The natural place to start was with the classic Public Enemy anthem, “Fight the Power,” which made a huge impression on me as a college student in 1989. Two lines from the song, “Swinging while I’m singing…” and especially “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” seemed perfect for what I wanted to do. A Yo! MTV Raps card of Public Enemy and a Josh Gibson postage stamp later, I had the first card in the series.
Next up was a return to the question of whether the Negro Leagues should be recognized as official major leagues, or to put it another way, the question of who got game. If you know the song’s chorus then you know my personal answer: “Damn the game if it don’t mean nothin.”
At present, of course, the records of the Negro Leagues and the (currently accepted) Major Leagues are kept separate but not equal. Josh Gibson appears nowhere in the MLB record book, but its Josh-less records are (generally) deemed legitimate. So what of the Ruth-less records where Josh’s name does appear many times over? Just as NWA knew “nothing in life but to be legit,” the message of this card is that Gibson’s Ruth-less records BE LEGIT!
Ditto this next one.
Another Hip Hop act I listened to back in the day was Naughty by Nature of O.P.P. fame. I had a few ideas changing O.P.P. to O.B.P. but ultimately grabbed a line from “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” If you look closely you can my tribute to the line, “I COULDN’T GET A JOB. NAPPY HAIR WAS NOT ALLOWED,” which was certainly the case when it came to Josh and Major League Baseball.
This next one had two influences. One was the Frank Thomas card that oldmanalan just dropped for Topps, and the other was my near-namesake Heavy D. You want a swing? Give me a ring!”
My final card (so far) in the series drew from the Digable Planets hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That).” The statement here is simply that Josh Gibson was all that: funk, phat, in, cool…you name it!
I remember back in the eighties and early nineties how so much of Hip Hop was braggadocio and superlatives (e.g., “I’m the greatest but not Ali…I’m Kool Moe Dee!). I think that was just one of the many reasons adults hated it, but it was an aspect I enjoyed. It’s also the only way to truly give Josh Gibson his props.