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From Mound To Mainstage: ‘Summer King’ Captures Life Of Pittsburgh Baseball Player Josh Gibson

David Bachman Photography
From left to right: Alfred Walker (Josh Gibson), Denyce Graves (Grace, Gibson's girlfriend) and Sean Pannikar (Wendell Smith, Pittsburgh Courier reporter). The trio are leads in the upcoming Pittsburgh Opera premiere of The Summer King.

When Sean Gibson was first approached by a musician wanting to write an opera about his great-grandfather, he was a little skeptical.

“I remember talking to my family, thinking, ‘How’s that gonna work?” Sean said. “'Cause you look at the opera, you think of old ancient things, Italian singers, not too many operas about African Americans.”

Sean’s great-grandfatheris Josh Gibson. Many considered him to be one of the greatest hitters in baseball history

In Pittsburgh, he played for the Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Records from those days are inconsistent, but some estimate Josh Gibson hit more than 800 home runs in his career, before he died in 1947.

Credit Niven Sabherwal / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of slugger Josh Gibson, speaks about the collaboration between the Pittsburgh Opera, the Josh Gibson Foundation and his family ahead of a preview event on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

Sean said, after mulling over the opera offer, it occurred to him: Josh’s life was anything but ordinary, and a tribute to him should be just as unique.

“This is not a traditional opera story,” Sean said. “This is more of a sports story, a Pittsburgh story, an African American history story.”

The show features a nearly all-black cast.

Sean also contacted composer Daniel Sonenberg, who had originally pitched the idea, and "The Summer King"was born.

That was in 2007. This week, "The Summer King" will be performed for the first time by the Pittsburgh Opera.

Scoring Tragedy

Sonenberg said while composing "The Summer King," he thought about Josh as a Moses-like figure, who led the way toward integration in professional baseball. Josh died of a brain tumor at 35, months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Josh’s experience kind of stands for the entire Negro League experience,” Sonenberg said. “He was really symbolic of that first thing that had to happen before there could be a Jackie Robinson.”

Negro League teams were especially strong in Pittsburgh, which was the only city to have two ball clubs. Josh started with the Grays, but also played for the Crawfords, as well as teams in Mexico and Central America. Sonenberg said "The Summer King" visits all these places, including the historic Crawford Grill in the Hill District and sandlots on the North Side.

Credit Margaret Sun / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The historic Crawford Grill in the Hill District was once a legendary jazz club, hosting greats like Art Blakey, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Society granted it a special marker in 2001.

From these various locations, Sonenberg said he tried to add distinct styles like jazz and mariachi to match where Josh was playing. But as Josh’s life declined, he crafted emotion into the libretto.

“I was drawn to Josh as a tragic figure and I knew that there was going to be some very intense music later in his life,” Sonenberg said.

Credit David Bachman Photography
In describing his approach to playing Josh Gibson in The Summer King, baritone-bass Alfred Walker says "the hardest thing about it is to make him human and to make him so you can see the everyday life of this heroic player."

Josh’s tragedies were not limited to his early death. In August of 1930, about a month after Josh played his first game with the Grays, his wife, Helen Mason, went into premature labor. She was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl, and did not survive the birth. Many trace the incident to the origination of Josh’s mental health struggles.

“He checked himself into a sanatorium several times,” Sonenberg said. “One of the most memorable images for me in my early research was people saying they had overheard him having imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio, and I know that was something that had to happen in the opera.”

Inviting All To Celebrate A Hometown Hero

When "The Summer King" debuts, the songs may be familiar to some Pittsburghers. The Pittsburgh Opera promotes free community events, which included a preview of "The Summer King," to introduce a new audience to Josh’s life and encourage attendance to the full show.

Sean Gibson said he wants to break stereotypes about the opera, and include people who might not otherwise feel drawn to the style. 

“You don’t have to have a lot of money, you can dress casually, you can come in jeans and a button-down shirt,” Gibson said. “I’m just trying to really give them a better understanding of what the opera is about.”

The community events, however, were somewhat daunting for Alfred Walker, who plays the lead role of Josh Gibson in "The Summer King." Walker said, for the most part, he has a great time exposing a new audience to the opera, but it can be nerve-wracking playing Josh Gibson in his hometown.

“I’ll come on stage, you know, playing this Pittsburgh hero, so it’s going to be challenging and it’s a little scary, but at the same time, I take integrity in and what I do,” Walker said. “So I’ll jump in with both feet.”

Credit Margaret Sun / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Josh Gibson Field along Bedford Ave. in the Hill District was dedicated in May 2009. It's been 70 years since Gibson died from a brain tumor at the age of 35.

Walker said his ultimate takeaway in playing Josh was that he should have been the first baseball player to break the color barrier. He said Josh was “born a couple years too soon.”

While Josh has since been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame—the second black player after pitcher Satchel Paige—and commemorated throughout Pittsburgh and the baseball community, he still was shut out from big league play based on his race.

“Josh didn’t really fail,” Walker said. “Society failed him.”

"The Summer King" is the first world premiere in the Pittsburgh Opera’s 78 year history. It opens Saturday, April 29 at the Benedum Center downtown.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.