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When The Depression and WWII defined a nation, two teams from Pittsburgh defined the heyday of the Negro Leagues
Sunday, July 09, 2006


Josh Gibson, hailed by many as the black Babe Ruth, not only helped put Pittsburgh on the Negro Leagues map, but he was also from here.
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Negro Leagues: The ones we would have missed

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The exhibit wends the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum visitors past a half-century of mostly overlooked exploits until it spills them onto a Field Of Legends that immortalizes, in bronze statues, another time in another city.

In the batter's box digs in Martin Dihigo, one-time member of the Homestead Grays.

In left field lounges Cool Papa Bell, longtime Crawfords and Grays star.

In center field stands Oscar Charleston, of the Crawfords and Grays.

At third base awaits Judy Johnson, of the Crawfords and Grays.

At first base hunkers Buck Leonard, of the Grays.

On the mound gyrates Satchel Paige, of the Kansas City Monarchs, though he played almost as long with the Crawfords.

And behind the plate, with his catcher's mask resting on his right knee and his eyes casting a menacing glare, probably at a cross-legged and too-Cool Papa, squats Josh Gibson, of the Crawfords and Grays.

Seven of black baseball's 10 greatest.

All enshrined in Cooperstown.

All played Pittsburgh.

Theirs wasn't merely a flash across the three-rivers firmament, either. These stars put in 69 combined seasons, mostly the pinnacle years of their careers. They shared glory across the Depression and World War II years of the 1930s and '40s, winning three Negro League World Series in five tries, sweeping 11 Negro National League pennants and offering for perpetuity an argument over which franchise fielded the greatest black baseball team of all time.

Pittsburgh's part in this period of segregation and social unrest and slow-rolling change wasn't players only. In fact, it is about to send another local figure into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Homestead native Cumberland Posey, Grays owner and longtime league officer. He was a trailblazer who brought to the Negro Leagues marketing savvy, rules of discipline and a national aura of a Grays club that could play home games to teeming crowds in Forbes Field and Griffith Stadium in Washington.

The call of Cooperstown

When the Hall of Fame first began to induct black players, many of the first to enter had Pittsburgh ties (with Hall class and Pittsburgh years):

Satchel Paige -- 1971 -- Crawfords 1931-37

Josh Gibson -- 1972 -- Raised on North Side; Crawfords 1930-36, Homestead Grays 1930, 1937-46

Buck Leonard -- 1972 -- Grays 1934-50

Cool Papa Bell -- 1974 -- Crawfords 1933-37, Grays 1943-47

Judy Johnson -- 1975 -- Grays 1930 and 1937, Crawfords 1932-36

Oscar Charleston -- 1976 -- Grays 1930-31, Crawfords 1932-38

Martin Dihigo -- 1977 -- Grays 1928

Note: Others with Pittsburgh ties: 1996 Willie Foster (played briefly for Grays in 1931 and with Crawfords in 1936); 1997 Willie Wells (Grays 1932); 1999 Smokey Joe Williams (Grays 1925-32). 2006 inductees with Pittsburgh ties, elected in February by special committee and enshrined July 30: Ray Brown (Grays 1932-45), Jud Wilson (Grays 1931 and 1940-45, Crawfords 1932), Cumberland Posey (Grays player/owner 1910-46), Pete Hill (Pittsburgh native).

 

Another local owner contributed still more.

Build a black-owned ballpark in the East? Started in Pittsburgh. Gus Greenlee spent $100,000 to construct a stadium off Bedford Avenue that opened in 1932 and was immodestly named after him, Greenlee Field. He spent another $6,000 on lights for night baseball.

Buy a winner? Started in Pittsburgh. Greenlee in 1931-32 lured the bulwark of the Grays' lineup -- Gibson, Charleston, Johnson -- and stars from other teams, such as Paige, to his Hill-based Crawfords with wads of cash. But Posey was the one who, at an owners' meeting Jan. 28, 1937, bought back a championship club by offering Greenlee a then-exorbitant $2,500 for Gibson, the cornerstone of a Grays franchise that reeled off nine pennants in a row.

Revive the Negro National League? Started in Pittsburgh. Greenlee brought to life a league that expired in 1930 after founder Rube Foster's death and failed in 1932 after a three-month comeback bid as Posey's East-West League. This new Negro League from 1933-39, with Greenlee as president, was run from an office space amid the second-floor adding machines of this numbers banker's Crawford Grill.

Launch an all-star game? Started in Pittsburgh. Greenlee brought that to life as well, one month after the major leagues' created its annual event. He got help from Nashville owner Tom Wilson and the Pittsburgh Courier's Roy Sparrow plus William G. Nunn, among others.

Break the color barrier? Started in Western Pennsylvania. A Pole from Erie, Eddie Klep, played with the Cleveland Buckeyes for a couple of months in 1946. He wound up in Pittsburgh -- at Western State Penitentiary after being convicted of burglary and receiving stolen goods.

"Pittsburgh is a key city for black baseball," said Phil Dixon. He should know. This Kansas City, Mo.-based author and historian is working on an encyclopedia and multi-volume history of the Negro National and American leagues.

"Actually, Pittsburgh was a better Negro League ball town than the Major Leagues," said black-baseball ambassador and longtime Monarchs star Buck O'Neil. Wartime attendance figures bear it out. "Ooooh, man ... they filled a ballpark."

"You could make an argument that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum should be here," added Dr. Evan Baker, a great nephew of Posey.

Tomorrow night at PNC Park, sluggers will participate in a Home Run Derby at a major-league level where Gibson, one of the most prodigious homer-hitting stars of all time, black or white, never got a chance to gleam. Tuesday night, they will contest the 77th Midsummer Classic where no black player was permitted to tread for the first 16 years, until 1949. With Pittsburgh welcoming the white-hot glow of the All-Star weekend starting today with the Futures Game, it seems fitting to return to the partially forgotten yesterday when black baseball blazed here.

Hail to The Chief

Start with the sandlots of Pittsburgh and Art Rooney Sr., the man who founded the Steelers.

Rooney and Posey grew into fast friends from playing on and later promoting baseball teams that barnstormed around the area for money. Posey, a former Duquesne and Penn State University basketball player, began as a player on the Murdock/Homestead Grays team that recruited black workers from the steel mills on the Monongahela River. He assumed control of the team as its owner in the early 1920s and often came to Rooney cash-strapped and needing help.

"The Chief would be the bankroller for Cum's team," Art Rooney Jr. said. "Between $5,000, $10,000, was a lot of money in those days. He did that for a number of years, so Cum came to him and said: 'Art why don't you have a part of the team; I'll never be able to pay you back.' My dad said, 'I have a team [in the NFL], and you have your team. I don't need the publicity.' He thought Cumberland Posey was one of the smartest business guys he knew. That takes in a whole lot of people."

Publicity was an aspect that Posey generated for himself. For years, he wrote a column in the prestigious Pittsburgh Courier titled "The Sport of Realm." With the Grays, he showed a keen eye for talent and business, assembling such a potent independent ballclub that Negro National League teams would travel to New Castle, Sharon, anywhere, to play it, and Posey was guaranteed money even in the event of a rainout -- an unheard-of practice in those days. So the Grays rode buses and played games, sometimes three in a day.

"An amazing entrepreneur," said Rob Ruck, the author and historian from Pitt who sat on the special committee that elected Posey into the 2006 Hall of Fame class to be enshrined July 30.

In a golden age of Fritzie Zivic and Billy Conn and Jock Sutherland and Pop Warner, "I always thought [Posey] was one of the most important but least appreciated members of the Pittsburgh sports community," Ruck said.

Posey snagged for his Grays a star named Martin Dihigo, the finest ballplayer of his day, later commemorated in his native Cuba by a statue that reads simply "El Inmortal." He lured Judy Johnson and Oscar Charleston from the Hillsdale Daisies. And on the North Side, in an area called Pleasant Valley, he found a teenager whose parents moved north from Georgia in the early century's Great Migration: Josh Gibson, who came out of the stands to replace an injured Buck Ewing in a Grays game at age 19.

Meanwhile, in the Hill District, the old Crawford Bath House team rose to new heights. Players Teenie Harris, later famous as a photographer, and the Rev. Harold Tinker solicited donations from a local big businessman, who just happened to run an illegal lottery called numbers and perform personal banking in the black community: William A. Greenlee, but everybody called him Gus. By 1930, they turned the team over to him, and soon it was serendipity, with Greenlee owning the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team and the Crawford Grill -- a Wylie Avenue hangout where jazz and blues singer Billie Holliday started and celebrities such as Rooney loafed.

As a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum display says of Greenlee, "Only when he realized that he owned a team with great social and economic potential did he become interested in baseball."

Buck O'Neil put it another way: "Gus had to do something about that [numbers] money. When the government came in, he would say he made his money with baseball." O'Neil chuckled. "He was in competition with the Homestead Grays. But Gus had the money, so he hired all the players." Mostly Grays.

Gibson, Charleston and Johnson all crossed town because of Greenlee's money. Legendary Satchel Paige left Cleveland in season for Pittsburgh. Cool Papa Bell, considered the fastest man in baseball, left Kansas City. By 1932, Greenlee could put those five future Hall of Famers on the same field ... his own, Greenlee Field. "That was amazing during that time," O'Neil said of a black owning a ballpark.

No wonder the owner wanted to see the Negro National League reborn, even if it meant his crosstown rival, Posey's Grays, didn't join for a few years (the Crawfords, in turn, weren't part of Posey's East-West League failure, hence the feud between the owners). That 1933 season, Greenlee the league president instituted the East-West all-star game, which was outdrawing its major-league counterpart in a decade.

"Gus came on and revived it," O'Neil said of black baseball.

His amalgamation of stars ruled his league, even if, as happened in 1933, he had to fudge some of the statistics and discount Chicago American Giants victories to crown his Crawfords champions. In 1935, his team went 34-15 in league play; because of its lineup more than its record, those Crawfords often get compared with the 1927 Yankees.

"They weren't anything compared to that 1931 Homestead Grays team," demurred historian Phil Dixon. He said he has compiled most of the box scores that exist and found no data to concur with the claims that Gibson slugged 77 homers in 1931 or 80-plus in '36, merely 31 in as many league games. But he does state unequivocally, using his data, that the 1931 Grays went a gaudy 136-17 overall as a non-league independent that season. "The Crawfords had some good teams, but they didn't exceed the Grays."

Fly high the Pennants

Pittsburgh's Negro National League pennant winners:

1935 -- Crawfords

1936 -- Crawfords

1937 -- Grays

1938 -- Grays

1939 -- Grays

1940 -- Grays

1941 -- Grays

1942 -- Grays

1943 -- Grays

1944 -- Grays

1945 -- Grays

Note: Dating to 1922, Pittsburgh teams are credited with winning 24 pennants in NNL, East West League and American Negro League

 

"Particularly to the African-American community, the Grays were basically what the Steelers are now -- not just in Pittsburgh, but in all the cities they played," said Dr. Evan Baker. His great uncle ultimately took his team each week to Washington, on occasion to Yankee Stadium (where Gibson hit the longest-measured homer) and coal patches all around, once playing 136 of 160 games on the road. To keep the team afloat, Posey recruited a numbers banker as a co-owner, Sonnyman Jackson, though those Washington dates drew better than even the host Senators, by most accounts.

"A real dynasty," former Newark Eagles star Monte Irvin recalled of Posey's Grays. "Gibson, Buck Leonard, Raymond Brown, Sam Bankhead, Roy Partlow. ... They were the Yankees of the Negro National League; almost impossible to beat. Very cocky, too."

In early 1937, fortunes changed. Some historians blame it on Dihigo, others on Paige taking a suitcase full of $30,000 or so from an emissary of General Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic's rising dictator. Whatever the case, Paige along with Gibson and Bell migrated to the Caribbean to play baseball, and in the end 10 Crawfords took the same route. No matter, for Greenlee two months before sold Gibson's rights back to Posey and the Grays, who promptly embarked upon their run of nine consecutive pennants.

By the end of 1938, Greenlee's field was razed to give way to the Bedford Dwellings housing project, so the nightclub owner and numbers banker exited the black-baseball scene, concentrating on promoting champion boxer John Henry Lewis and selling the Crawfords to Toledo businessmen. He popped back in, on occasion: trying to rejoin the Negro Leagues in the 1940s, trying to start a United States League with Brooklyn's Branch Rickey in 1945. Yet Pittsburgh was down to being a one-team town in the Negro Leagues.

The end

The handwriting, if not on the wall, was on the contract. Jackie Robinson, a young East-West all-star from the Kansas City Monarchs, signed a minor-league Montreal deal with Rickey's Brooklyn in 1945. For Pittsburgh and black baseball, that signaled an approaching end.

The Grays continued to dominate, even after Gibson tragically died. He suffered a brain tumor earlier, but his January 1947 death -- which he predicted to his own mother -- was caused, at age 35, by what some believed was the pain and anxiety of being bypassed in the breaking of the color barrier. Robinson made his Dodgers debut four months after Gibson's passing.

Posey died a little less than a year earlier, in March 1946, and Rooney was an honorary pallbearer. With Greenlee out of the picture as well, Pittsburgh's flair was gone. Many of the thrills, too. "The Grays were still operating," said Bill Nunn, the son of the former Courier city editor and a Courier sports writer later best known as a scout for the Super Bowl-era Steelers. "But it wasn't the same."

The Grays finished their nine-pennant run by playing in five of the last seven Negro Leagues World Series. No other city had more World Series winners than Pittsburgh with the Grays' three: 1943, '44 and '48.

"The Pirates, who don't get a lot of credit, deserve a lot of it for being the first major-league team to honor a Negro League team," said Ruck. In 1988, the club had a promotion with Pittsburgh-themed trading cards of Crawfords and Grays stars in addition to celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Grays' last World Series championship. Then-commissioner Bart Giamatti was quoted as saying, "We must never lose sight of our history, insofar as it is ugly, never to repeat it, and insofar as it is glorious, to cherish it." In the early 1990s, in further efforts headed by the Pirates' Rick Cerrone and Al Gordon, the club draped Grays and Crawfords banners across Three Rivers Stadium upper-deck sections. Two weeks ago tomorrow, the team unveiled a Legacy Square that honors Gibson, Paige and the like.