The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story performed by the Pittsburgh Opera tells the story of baseball’s Negro League hero whose life ended too soon

There’s a lot more that is different about baseball and opera than is similar.

But beginning April 29, the two are joining forces to tell the story of Pittsburgh’s greatest baseball player at the Pittsburgh Opera’s World Premiere of The Summer  King – the Josh Gibson Story.

Who was Josh Gibson?

Gibson is well-known in baseball circles for his amazing skills both at the plate and behind it as a power hitter and catcher. He played at a time when it was becoming apparent that major league needed to be integrated, but his star had just started its descent when then commissioner Branch Rickey decided to take that most important step.

“Many people thought it should have been Josh who broke the color barrier,” said Chris Cox, director of Marketing and Communications for the Pittsburgh Opera. “But he was just a few years too early from an historical sense and he was on the decline when Rickey really got serious about breaking the color barrier.”

Negro League slugger Josh Gibson’s life is retold through song in the Pittsburgh Opera’s World Premiere performance of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story photo provided by the Josh Gibson Foundation collection

But if nothing else, Gibson certainly helped pave the way for Jackie Robinson, and the other pioneering black baseball players in the major leagues. And it’s for that reason, and the off-field tragedies of his life, that composer Dan Sonenberg created The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story.

After moving to Pittsburgh from Georgia at the age of 12, Josh Gibson grew up on the North Side, where he started his baseball career playing pick-up games in the sandlots that dotted his neighborhood. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he joined organized baseball at 16, and began playing semi-pro ball for Pittsburgh’s Crawford Colored Giants in 1929. As the story goes: “He became a professional by accident July 25, 1930 while sitting in the stands. When Homestead Grays catcher Buck Ewing injured his hand, Gibson was invited to replace him because his titanic home runs were already well known in Pittsburgh,” the website stated.

Gibson grew into one of the Negro Leagues’ most respected and celebrated hitters, but was sadly denied the chance to ever play in the major leagues due to the color barrier. He died at the young age of 35 from a brain aneurysm.

An Opera? About Baseball?

The opera, which runs a total of 2 hours and 12 minutes (including a 20-minute) intermission, tells the story of Gibson’s life through song. It may seem like an odd intersection, baseball and opera, but really it isn’t, Cox explained.

“Dan is a drummer in a rock band, he’s a music professor, so he’s very literate when it comes to music and felt that opera was the best vehicle to tell Josh’s story – moreso than a play, a musical or a documentary,” he said. “He felt that Josh is almost a Tragic Hero, as it were, where he had accomplished all of these great athletic feats but at the same time in his personal life he was going through a lot of tragedy.”

While it may have a reputation for being “high-brow,” at its core, Cox explained, opera is really just another way to tell a story.

Just Telling a Story

“Fundamentally, an opera tells a story. The way an opera does it is to set these stories to beautiful music with wonderful singing to make it more interesting, engaging, powerful and compelling. So there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re coming to hear beautiful music – like the soundtrack to this story – and instead of regular dialogue, they’re singing their lines instead of speaking them. It will be very powerful and very compelling.”

Josh deserved to be as famous and celebrated in his day as Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig

And while many people believe that all opera involves a woman in a horned helmet holding a spear and singing in Italian – that’s just a stereotype this performance is happy to break. Many operas deal with timeless concepts like love and loss and life, people feel its inaccessible because it takes place in a bygone era, Cox said. That’s what makes The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story perfect as a person’t first adventure into theater.

“If you’ve never been to an opera, but have always thought you should give it a try at some point, this is the one to try. The subject matter is very immediate, very relevant and it’s pertinent to Pittsburghers and baseball fans,” he said. “The themes it deals with are timeless and universal, as many are – but here we’re exploring those themes through a story that is much more contemporary and local. There is an immediacy and connection to the present day through this story that you might not find in others.”

No Black Tie Required

There are four performances of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story, at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh. And ladies, don’t worry, you can leave the furs at home.

“Opera has a perception of being elitist with people in fancy ballgowns and the Duchess up there in the box with her opera glasses. That’s really not the truth of the matter anymore,” Cox said.

In fact, here are four important things to know about how accessible the opera really is for everyone:

  1. All of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story is performed in English. No need to brush up on your Italian before hitting the theater.
  2. There are “super titles” – or the lyrics to every song being performed, projected onto a screen above the stage. “We do that for every opera so that you can still understand what they’re singing even if you don’t speak Italian,” Cox said. “And even when it’s in English, how many people understand every single world of every song you hear on the radio? No one. So it’s helpful for people to follow-along regardless.”
  3. There is no dress code. Some people like to dress up and make it a night on the town. But some people come straight from work, school or even a bike ride. “No one’s looking down on anyone who isn’t wearing a tuxedo or anything like that,” Cox said.
  4. It’s affordable. Tickets to The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story start at $12. More expensive seats are available, but in a 2,800 person theatre, there’s not really a bad seat in the house.

Spreading the Word

Alfred Walker makes his Pittsburgh Opera debut in the title role of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story photo courtesy Pittsburgh Opera

To promote the opera, employees with the Pittsburgh Opera, the cast, as well as members of the Josh Gibson Foundation, (headed up by his great grandson Sean Gibson), staged several events in and around the Pittsburgh area. During February they centered activities around places in Josh Gibson’s neighborhood, in Homestead where he played with the Grays, the Hill District where he played with the Crawfords and hung out at the Crawford Grill.

“We were picking locations that had symbolic importance and relevance to Josh’s life. And honestly, those parts of town do not have a lot of opera-goers in them,” Cox said. “We thought it was important to reach out to communities that might not already be familiar with the opera to let them know that, ‘hey we exist and hey, this is going on’.”

The opera is getting its fair share of support  from the Pittsburgh Pirates as well. Not only did Chairman of the Board Bob Nutting and President Frank Coonelly sponsor a table at the Pittsburgh Opera’s fundraising gala last winter, but they also lent space to promoters at PirateFest. On Sunday, April 23, four cast members clad in Homestead Grays uniforms will sing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch at the Pirates Yankees game. In addition, proceeds from that game’s 50/50 drawing will go to the Pittsburgh Opera’s Student Matinee performance of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story.

“We’ve got 2,600 school kids from all over the Pittsburgh area taking a field trip to come in and see the performance themselves with their teachers. It’s a big expense to put on a fifth performance. So the Pirates, who are are very committed to education, wanted to help raise some money to help put on the matinee and make sure as many children could come and see this story as possible,” Cox said.

A Pittsburgh Legend Gets His Due

In a perfect “hat tip” to a man who should have reached higher heights than he did, four Pittsburgh sports legends are also getting involved in the production.

In the Sunday, May 7 performance, former Pirates Al Oliver and Sean Casey and Steelers Charlie Batch and Franco Harris will all be appearing in a crowd scene in the opera.

“Josh deserved to be as famous and celebrated in his day as Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. But the mainstream media didn’t really pay any attention to the Negro Leagues like they did the majors,” Cox explained. “So to have these four Pittsburgh Sports legends of their own showing their support for the project by being in one of the performances is essentially saying, ‘Hey look, the mainstream media back then might not have given you your due – but we are. You belong “at the table” so to speak, of legendary sports champions.’”

Take Me out to The Opera

A total of four performances of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story are scheduled. They will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 29; at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 2; at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 7. For tickets, click here.

The production of The Summer King – the Josh Gibson Story, is the first world premiere for the Pittsburgh Opera in its 78-year history. And organizers could not be more thrilled at the piece they chose.

“It’s a Pittsburgh story and it’s a sports story and obviously Pittsburgh is a big sports town. But it’s also a civil rights and social justice story and it’s going to be amazing,” Cox said. “We’ve got a fantastic cast assembled of wonderful singers, we’ve got a great director and a great chorus and great musicians all working very hard to get themselves ready for opening night. We are excited to have all of Pittsburgh come and join us!”


Editor’s Note: The Pittsburgh Opera is a sponsor of Pirates Breakdown.

Joy Frank-Collins

Joy Frank-Collins is a Communications professional who got her start writing as a journalist at a daily newspaper in southeastern Ohio. She was born in Reds country, but "found" baseball watching the 1986 Mets win the World Series. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, with her family, who all share her passion for Pirates baseball. She loves the suicide squeeze, a crisp 6-4-3 double play and catchers (especially Russell Martin). When not obsessing over baseball, Joy likes to work out, travel and drink wine. Check her out on Instagram @JoyFC