SANTA FE -- Kids across New Mexico have heard of Joe Bauman, a minor-leaguer who tasted national fame by swatting 72 home runs one glorious season for the Roswell Rockets.

Not as many know about Josh Gibson. Some who do call Gibson the black Babe Ruth.

It is a comparison demonstrating that baseball was the most racist of sports, and also the sport that did the most to combat racism in America. Too bad it didnít happen in time for Gibson.

He was a legend of the Negro Leagues. Gibson might have been a legend of the major leagues too if not for one Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Landis was commissioner of big-league baseball from 1920 until his death in November 1944. He did everything he could to keep the major leagues all white. By succeeding, Landis kept the world from discovering Gibson.

A catcher with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues, Gibson was no secret to the country's best black sportswriters at the Pittsburgh Courier. In a time of virulent racism, these writers pressed the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign Gibson.

And the Pirates seemed willing to do it, even though other team owners were sure to protest that one rebel club was contaminating the game.

Landis, who was a federal judge before becoming commissioner of the major leagues, quietly refused to authorize a contract for Gibson.

After Landis' death, a former Kentucky governor and U.S. senator named Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler was hired as the new commissioner.

Chandler's streak of decency is often overlooked in the integration of baseball. He said that, because black soldiers had just fought in World War II, no one should deny black players the opportunity to make it to the big leagues.

Landis had always claimed there was no rule, written or unwritten, to keep out black players. Chandler actually meant it.

The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a minor-league contract soon after Chandler said skin color should not and would not be a barrier to the big leagues.

Robinson played a season in Montreal, Brooklyn's top farm team. The next year, 1947, he became the Dodgers' starting first baseman and the first black man of the century to play in the major leagues.

Gibson might have relished the moment. Just 35, Gibson died three months before Robinson became a Dodger.

Gibson was from Pittsburgh, but it was Robinson who was made of steel. The slurs, the taunting, the denial of service in hotels and restaurants shook Robinson. Nothing broke him.

He became major-league baseball's first rookie of the year and a hall of fame player.

Gibson in 1972 also was elected to the hall of fame, acknowledgement of his wonderful play in the Negro Leagues.

Could Gibson have been as successful a pioneer as Robinson? Landis made certain that question was never answered.

But there is no denying that Robinson cracking the big-league barrier was the beginning of social change in America.

The next year, President Truman integrated the military. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools with a landmark decision, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.

The Boston Red Sox were the last big-league team to hire a black player, doing so in 1959. The University of Alabama desegregated in 1963, even as Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway to show his disdain.

Alabama football coach Bear Bryant finally offered a scholarship to a black player in 1970, some 30 years after Gibson was on the cusp of becoming a big-leaguer.

On these crisp October days, baseball parks are packed for the postseason. The Pirates made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

Gibson waited longer for a chance that never came. Those who saw him play swear by his talent. They say Babe Ruth was the white Josh Gibson.

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at