Notable Alumni: James “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson and Satchel Paige
The history of the Pittsburgh Crawfords is not an extensive one, but what it lacks in longevity it makes up for in star power. Several of the most famous Negro Leagues players suited up together for this team, and the results were sensational, if fleeting.
Take the 1935 club. Behind the plate, you had the legendary Josh Gibson, who used his prodigious power to launch 10 home runs and slug .661 in the 44 games for which there are verified statistics available. At first base, 38-year-old Oscar Charleston -- an unparalleled all-around talent in his prime -- contributed on the field while also managing the club. At the hot corner, Judy Johnson was nearing the end of his storied career but served as team captain. And in center field, the fleet-footed Cool Papa Bell ran down fly balls while batting .345.
All four of those men would later make the Hall of Fame, and their names endure today. Regarded by many as the greatest team in the history of the Negro Leagues, the 1935 Crawfords drew comparisons to the heralded 1927 Yankees. They went 51-26-3 overall, won the Negro National League’s first-half championship, then defeated the second-half-champion New York Cubans in a hard-fought, seven-game championship series.
They accomplished all that even without another all-time talent: Satchel Paige. The Hall of Famer had pitched for the Crawfords from 1931-34 and did so again in ‘36, but not in ‘35 due to a salary dispute with owner Gus Greenlee.
It was Greenlee, a Pittsburgh businessman, who in 1930 purchased the semi-pro team that would become the Crawfords. Greenlee soon began snatching up stars from other clubs, including the aforementioned Hall of Famers. He also made history by building and opening the Negro Leagues’ first African-American-owned ballpark (Greenlee Field) in 1932.
The team and stadium weren’t enough, though. Greenlee also needed a new league in which to play, and he was the driving force behind the formation of what is now called the Negro National League in 1933, serving as its leader. The Crawfords thrived in this environment, winning the league’s pennant in three of the next four seasons.
After that, however, Paige, Gibson, Bell and other players left the franchise, and its fortunes dipped. Greenlee soon sold the team, which moved to Toledo in 1939 and disbanded after the ‘40 season. The Crawfords’ reign was over, but they had certainly left their mark.