Pittsburgh boasts rich Negro Leagues history

December 22nd, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have played in the National League since 1887. They took part in the first World Series, as well as the first baseball game broadcast on the radio. They can claim five World Series championships, and some of Major League Baseball’s greatest players proudly wore a Pirates uniform.

The full history of professional baseball in Pittsburgh, however, includes far more than just the Pirates’ past. This city was once the center of Negro Leagues baseball.

One hundred years after the founding of the Negro National League, Major League Baseball officially acknowledged that the Negro Leagues’ segregation-era circuits were comparable in talent with its contemporary American and National Leagues. Calling it “long overdue recognition,” Commissioner Rob Manfred declared that seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948 -- and approximately 3,400 players along with them -- have received Major League status.

This means that Pittsburgh is not just home to one Major League team with a history of championships and star players. It can claim two more, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, and all the championships and future Hall of Famers who once took the field for those clubs.

“Our jobs in baseball operations are to look forward and find ways to get better and build a team, but I think we have to also honor where the game has come from,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “In Pittsburgh specifically, that is a really critical part of the city’s history with baseball and something we should be proud of.”

There is so much to chronicle involving Pittsburgh and the Negro Leagues that we can’t possibly cover it all here, but it only takes a quick look at Pittsburgh's Negro League teams and stars to see the role the city played.

The Pittsburgh Keystones played seven games as part of the National Colored League in 1887. In 1922 they reformed and joined the Negro National League, played their games in Pittsburgh’s Central Park and went 14-29-3, according to Seamheads.com, before disbanding.

But here we’ll focus on the city’s two legendary Negro League teams: the Crawfords and the Grays.

In 1920, Rube Foster led the founding of the Negro National League at a meeting of owners in Kansas City. The league lasted until 1931, unable to survive the economic impact of the Great Depression, but a second Negro National League rose up in its place in 1933. That league was founded by Gus Greenlee, an African American businessman in Pittsburgh.

Greenlee had previously purchased the Crawfords in 1931 as an independent team, and financed the construction of Greenlee Field, the first Black-built and -owned baseball field in the U.S., in the Hill District a year later. What followed was a brief but incredible run sparked by future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, “Cool Papa” Bell and Judy Johnson. The Crawfords won consecutive league championships in 1935-36, with the ’35 club -- considered by some to be among the greatest baseball teams of all time -- finishing 51-26-3.

Many of those stars left the Crawfords in the late 1930s and Greenlee sold the team, which moved to Toledo in 1939 and disbanded only a year after that. But Pittsburgh could claim another championship baseball team in the Negro Leagues: the Homestead Grays.

Founded by Cumberland Posey and based just outside Pittsburgh, the Grays joined the second Negro National League in 1934 and remained until the league dissolved in 1948. During that time the Grays played their home games in Pittsburgh, at the Pirates’ home of Forbes Field, in addition to Greenlee Field. In 1940 they began splitting their home schedule between Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium in Washington.

Among the Grays’ greatest players were Gibson, Charleston, Bell, Johnson, Buck Leonard, Martín Dihigo, Ray Brown, Jud Wilson and “Smokey” Joe Williams, Hall of Famers all. The team won nine straight league titles from 1937-48 and three Negro World Series titles during that stretch.

Pittsburgh also played a significant role in chronicling the history of the Negro Leagues and the eventual integration of the Major Leagues.

As Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said, it was the Black press -- particularly the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper -- that pushed for an organized baseball body for Black players, supported the historic achievement of Jackie Robinson and covered it all for an audience of Black readers. The journalist Wendell Smith, who traveled alongside Robinson as he broke the Majors’ color barrier, worked for the Courier covering the Pirates, Crawfords and Grays.

“The Pittsburgh Courier was, in essence, USA Today for many Black folks,” Kendrick said. “It wasn’t just a Pittsburgh paper. It was America’s paper for Black folks. So was the Chicago Defender, and those great Black papers would eventually make their way all over the country. The Black press was the voice of the Negro Leagues. Had it not been for the Black press, we’d know very little about the Negro Leagues.”

Pittsburgh is still filled with reminders of its Negro League tradition. Sean Gibson, Josh’s great-grandson, runs the Josh Gibson Foundation. There’s a historical marker for Gibson near a baseball field named in his honor. There are also markers for Greenlee Field and the Homestead Grays. The Homestead Grays Bridge crosses the Monongahela River.

The Pirates once displayed bronze statues of Gibson and other Negro Leagues legends at Legacy Square inside PNC Park but have since removed them. The players are still represented at the ballpark with banners and virtually through the Ballpark App, and the club continues to celebrate Pittsburgh’s Negro League tradition during Heritage Weekend and through educational programs at local schools. The Pirates are currently discussing new ways to celebrate the rich history of the Negro Leagues and their legacy in Pittsburgh.