Content courtesy of Rob Ruck, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh
During the half-century that a color line divided the nation, African Americans created a baseball world of their own. One of the first national black institutions to emerge after Reconstruction, the Negro Leagues helped knit together African American communities after the Great Migration out of the South. Black baseball was a source of cohesion and identity, an arena in which African Americans defined themselves with competence and grace at a time when the workplace and politics made it difficult to do either.
During the 1930s and '40s, with Cool Papa Bell gliding around the base-paths, Josh Gibson hitting balls further than anybody had ever seen before, and Satchel Paige walking the bases loaded on purpose, telling his fielders to sit down, and striking out the side, Pittsburgh became black baseball's crossroads.
Hall of Famer Cumberland Posey Jr. transformed a team that men at the Homestead Steelworks had formed at the turn of the century into black baseball's champion Homestead Grays. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Crawfords emerged on the Hill District, evolving from a sandlot squad into what might have been baseball's best team ever.
Together, they won over a dozen Negro League titles; seven of the first 11 Negro Leaguers inducted in the Hall of Fame played for one or both of these squads, including the men featured here. And stories about their exploits were told and retold throughout the country and into the Caribbean.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Kansas City Monarch shortstop Jackie Robinson to a contract with their top farm club in the fall of 1945, the Pittsburgh Courier wrote that Robinson carried "the hopes, aspirations and ambitions of thirteen million black Americans heaped on his broad, sturdy shoulders." Indeed, baseball's 'great experiment,' was a catalyst for racial change, making it easier for the Supreme Court to de-segregate public education in 1954, and energizing countless struggles that sought to change the racial landscape. Meanwhile, integration meant that the major leagues received their richest infusion of talent to date; African Americans changed baseball as men schooled in the Negro Leagues brought a revelatory combination of speed and power to the majors.
Baseball's integration, while important and long overdue, came with a cost-the end of the Negro Leagues. And black America suffered a profound loss of control over its own sporting life. As Robinson, the National League rookie of the year in 1947, showed the nation that African American players could hold their own in the majors, the Negro Leagues disintegrated. After losing players and fans to the majors, the Negro National League ceased play after the 1948 season, while the Negro American League lasted through the 1950s, mostly as a barnstorming circuit.