Pirates honor Grays with throwback unis

August 28th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates turned back the clock on Friday to represent a Negro Leagues powerhouse from western Pennsylvania.

The club honored the Homestead Grays -- a team with a rich history and a few of the greatest players in baseball history -- at PNC Park ahead of their Negro League Baseball Legacy Game with the Cardinals. Pittsburgh donned cream and navy Grays jerseys with “G” hats for the contest, while festivities at the ballpark also included a giveaway of Grays T-shirts, on-field Grays insignia in the foul-ground grass and a display of pieces of Negro Leagues history in the left-field corner.

Friday marked the first time since 2017 the Pirates donned the Homestead Grays uniforms in an MLB game, and the moment holds an enhanced significance after a recent MLB decision.

Last December, MLB announced that it officially recognized seven professional Negro Leagues that operated during 1920-1948 as Major Leagues. The Grays played in three recognized Negro Leagues: the American Negro League (1929), the East-West League (1932) and the National Negro League (1935-1948).

“[We] really appreciate baseball history, and Negro League baseball history is a big part of that,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “Of course, there are not many places where that was more important than in Pittsburgh. So to be a small part of honoring that, I think it’s meaningful, and I think it gives us a good reminder to go back and learn some more.”

The recognition of one Homestead Grays player has intensified both in western Pennsylvania and nationally since 2017: Josh Gibson. The Hall of Fame slugger and fixture of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Grays was honored last month in Monessen, Pa., where it was reported that he hit a 538-foot home run, not long after artist Jeremy Raymer painted a 27,000 square foot mural of Gibson in Homestead, Pa.

There may be more on the horizon, though. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted to remove the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner who kept baseball segregated from 1920-44, from its MVP plaques. There could be a new namesake chosen this year, and in Pittsburgh, his grandson, Sean, and the Josh Gibson Foundation -- which Sean serves as executive director -- have helped organize a big push to rename the MVP Award after Josh Gibson.

“Pittsburgh is the heartbeat of Negro Leagues baseball,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Having two teams here and having maybe one of the greatest players of all time in Josh Gibson, it’s very special.”

Among the pieces of that legacy displayed at PNC Park on Friday was a Negro League contract signed by Gibson and a Westinghouse Air Brake replica employment card from 1930, which was believed to include one of Gibson's first signatures.

Sean dubbed the events over the past few months “The Summer of Josh” in a recent interview with MLB.com. On Friday, he and the foundation were recognized for their efforts with a $15,000 check presented by Pirates president Travis Williams.

“Everything that’s happened since the 16th of December [when the Negro Leagues were officially called a Major League],” Sean told MLB.com in July, “it’s been a wave that we’re going to ride with Josh.”

But as much of a focal point as Gibson is in the Grays’ legacy, it goes much deeper than that. It’s an organization of great men who played the game of baseball amidst segregation and whose recognition in the official records, as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred put it, was “long overdue.”

When the Pirates put on their Grays jerseys on Friday, they’re putting on not just a team’s letters, but a rich history and a living community.

“It’s our way of saying thank you to those that came before us, also to the family members that are here who are carrying on the legacy and the traditions of these fine men,” Pirates first-base and outfield coach Tarrik Brock said. “It’s our way of our city saying, 'We see you, we appreciate you, we love you for what you’ve done and what you’ve provided.'”