Few people can say they saw Joshua Gibson, Johnny Bench, and Ivan Rodriguez play. One of those lucky ones is Freddie Thon Jr.
A family member with solid roots in Puerto Rican baseball, his father, of the same name, was a prominent pitcher and ranger with the San Juan Senators. He also managed the championship team in the 1952–53 season. In turn, Thon Jr. was a batboy for the San Juan Senators until he went to study in the United States, where he played college baseball. He is also the father of Dickie and Frankie Thon and grandfather of Frankie Frankie, a scout with Seattle; Freddie Frankie, a scout with Minnesota; and Dickie Joe Thon, recently appointed manager of Corpus Christi in the Houston Astros organization at Double-A.
Thon Jr. is a baseball connoisseur, and we recently talked about this Star Hall of Fame catcher trilogy.
Joshua Gibson was extraordinary offensively, batting for average and having great power—perhaps the greatest hitter in history. And I’ll tell you one thing: Pancho Coimbre is also in that group. But going back to Gibson, he was a tremendous catcher, had a powerful arm, and moved well around the plate. Also, he ran the bases very well. Roy Campanella had a style of play very similar to Gibson’s.
Freddie Jr. and his father with San Juan BBC.
“While I was a bat boy with San Juan, I remember the home run that Gibson hit on my father, a 600-foot laser through the right center of Sixto Escobar. The ball went over the pine trees. In the dugout, I overheard comments of amazement. Never before had Puerto Rico seen such a long bat, surpassing the one everyone remembers—the one connected by Frank Howard that was 536 feet in the 1960–61 final between Caguas and San Juan.
Josh Gibson 600ft blast at Sixto Escobar Stadium, San Juan, Puerto Rico (Photo Ryan Christoff Collection).
Elaborating on Gibson’s speed, Negro League historian Scott Simkus found that on August 22, 1935, Gibson ran the bases in 14.7. Despite his corpulence, he moved his legs well. Centerfielders like Tris Speaker and Earl Combs recorded 14.6 at any given time.
As for the defense, Thon Jr. said that “all three of them fielded and had great arms, but Iván was more daring; he threw to any base and accurately. Iván had a better caught stealing percentage than Bench.” Here, Thon Jr. hit the nail on the head again as Ivan caught stealing 47% of the runners while Bench was 43%.
Summarizing Thon Jr. with his valuable story ended by saying: “We could say that Gibson and Iván Rodriguez were five tools, not so bench because he did not run so much and did not bat for average.” But Bench had more power than Ivan but less than Gibson. “But Ivan is as good as any of all time.”