It’s 4 p.m. and maintenance man Walter Gibbons is finishing up sweeping the floors. Students pass him, some offering a pleasant “hello” in his direction. But others walk by, barely acknowledging his presence. To Gibbons’ credit, he remains positive and upbeat. He always has.
He always had to.
But Gibbons is unlike most maintenance men. He’s had a life that few have known about until recently-a life of athletic achievement and of even more courage.
Pitching in Tampa, Gibbons was impressive, even at 18. He was smart, getting a good read on the mannerisms of different hitters. If a batter was fortunate enough to get a hit off him, he took notice, but he didn’t try to intimidate. When the player came to the plate again, he just tried to outmaneuver him. He wasn’t cocky, just self-assured. His silent confidence made him one of Tampa’s best pitchers.
“I just didn’t believe that anyone was better than me,” he said. “You see, I carried that attitude, but I wasn’t the type that would brag about it. And I had to have that attitude.”
He had to have that attitude to persevere through intense racism, rampant in the South.
When the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, came to Tampa, a local team was put together to face them. Gibbons joined the squad and faced off against the same team that would later produce home run king Hank Aaron. In Gibbons’ mind, it was a chance to prove himself. And he made quite an impression.
“I was trying to prove a point,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I had to look good, that was my big break to do what I wanted, to get to the Negro leagues, and then possibly, I would get a chance in the majors.
Following the game, he was asked to join the Clowns, and be a member of the Negro Leagues. Gibbons was elated, but one thing held him back from committing to the team on the spot.
“Once my mother says it’s ok, I’m ready,” he said.
And she did.
There were no words of advice from his mother, or anyone else for that matter. The off-the-field issue of racism and segregation was the price the Negro League players paid to play the game. Gibbons had a lifetime of dealing with it.
“Being down South, and even some parts up North, you ran across people who were (racist),” he said. “All of it was no peaches and roses, you know. I trained myself to expect certain things.”
From the pickup games in the sandlots to Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field, the team performed in front of packed houses.
“We played in the White Sox stadium, and we had 50,000 people watching us play,” he said. “Then Chicago played, and they didn’t have half as many as we did. After that, they stopped us from using the stadium.”
Life on the road was anything but simple. Racism was rampant, and the ballplayers saw a lot of it. Being spat at and ridiculed went hand and hand with a 2-0 fastball. The teams were looked at as a circus, nothing more than a sideshow to a game that only white players should play.
Even now, a pain comes across Gibbons’ face when looking back at those times.
“Oh man! You should hear some of the stuff they said to us and stuff they called us,” he said.
There’s one moment that Gibbons recalls instantly. Preparing to play a game one afternoon, it was pouring rain. In normal circumstances, the game would have been called off. But these were not normal circumstances.
“People thought the game was cancelled,” he said. “And they said ‘No, you niggers are going to have to stay here and play in the rain. But you’re playing against each other. I’m not going to let my hometown boys get wet. You play.'”
And they played. With rain pouring down on them, and the stands full mock cheering, they played the game that they loved. While the ones who watched, hated them for it.
“‘You niggers get out there and run’, that’s what they told us. ‘We spent our money, we’re going to see you play. And we you get done, get on the bus and leave.'”
Retaliation was not an option. In the face of such hostility, they were forced to burry the anger deep down. Letting their emotions out, opened up the possibility of death.
“What are you going to do?” Gibbons said. “They’d catch you down the road somewhere and burn the bus with you in it.”
Gibbons traveled with the Clowns and got some experience. Following the disbandment of the league, he headed even further north to an unlikely baseball region, Canada. It was here where he hit his prime, firing away brilliant games, one after another. In 1949, went 19-5 with 229 strikeouts, on route to a league title.
With a supreme confidence, Gibbons returned to Tampa. A team of black players from the Major Leagues were touring towns, referred to as “barnstorming,” and made a stop in Gibbons’ stopping grounds. Faced with yet another opportunity, Gibbon’s jumped at the chance.
Toeing the rubber in the shadows of UT, Gibbons watched as an intimidating and iconic figure made his way to the plate. The right-handed hitter was making a name for himself for the Brooklyn Dodgers with his quick speed and high batting average. It was also the man who broke the color barrier in baseball and provided opportunity for all black athletes, including Gibbons.
While others may shy away in the face of challenges, Gibbons’ welcomed it.
“I was just a kid who believed in himself, and I challenged anybody,” he said.
Depending on who you ask, he even caught the future Hall of Famer looking at a called third strike.
“I thought I had him, but the umpire didn’t agree with me,” he said with a laugh.
Robinson made a point to visit with Gibbons following the game. Face to face with Robinson, Gibbon’s received another opportunity. Impressed with what he had shown on the mound, Robinson asked him to join the traveling team. Their next stop was Puerto Rico. Gibbons eagerly accepted the offer and patiently waited for his plane to arrive that Saturday.
The ticket came, and Gibbons prepared to leave that Monday.
He was packing Monday afternoon when he was met with an unexpected surprise from the mailman.
It was a draft letter from the Army. Gibbons’ was being asked to serve his country in the Korean War. The chance of playing in the Major Leagues vanished almost as quickly as it had arrived. The news was devastating to the young pitcher.
“It kind of put me down a little bit,” he said. “If I was on the tour with them, in my heart, I believe I would have made it.”
But, Gibbons faced the new challenge the same way he treated all the other ones he faced throughout his life. He accepted it, and he met it head on.
“I was drafted and my country called me to war,” he said. “I could have done what a lot of other people who didn’t want to go to service had done and go AWOL. But that’s doing no good, you’re just putting yourself in trouble.”
He served threw years in the Army, and when he returned home, for various reasons, he wasn’t the same pitcher he was before. Serving his country had given him an honor like nothing else, but robbed him of his prime years.
Now 78-years-old, Gibbons’ upbeat personality is contagious. Few understand the incredible courage he has shown in his lifetime.
Spartans baseball coach Joe Urso understands that the Negro League ball players changed the landscape of the game forever.
“It was the beginning of what has now become lot of minorities in the game,” he said. “It all started with those guys.”
And Gibbons, despite all the hardships he’s faced, is a true bright spot in the athletic department.
“Just a class act and a guy who’s able to talk to all our players, since he was one of the best players when he pitched back in the Negro Leagues,” Urso said. “It’s special having him on campus.”
Former women’s soccer coach Bobby Johnston notes with all his accomplishments, he remains grounded.
“That just goes back to him being so humble,” said Johnston. “He doesn’t go out of his way to
brag about his accomplishments. It says a lot about him as a person.”
Just last year, Gibbons received some unexpected recognition. Half a century after performing his best baseball ever, he was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame. It was his proudest moment as a baseball player.
“I never thought I’d be going back to that place,” he said. “They showed me a nice time and presented me with a beautiful trophy. I’ll never be able to get a Hall of Fame Trophy in the States, but I got mine now. I’m satisfied.”
Baseball recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first black player to play in the Major Leagues. At UT, we have our own hero who is worthy of a similar recognition. He faced racism in the eye, everyday, and continued to play the game of baseball. For Gibbons and all the Negro League ballplayers, they never let their love of the game be wavered, despite such horrible treatment. In Gibbon’s view, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I enjoyed every bit of it, even the segregated part,” he said. “I didn’t put myself in position to draw attention. All I wanted to do was draw attention to what I did on the ball field.”