The Pittsburgh Crawfords were named after the Crawford Grill, a club in the Hill District of Pittsburgh owned by Gus Greenlee. It became one of black Pittsburgh’s favorite night spots. Black stars like Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were some of the entertainers that the club regularly featured.
Greenlee bought the team in 1931 and immediately signed the top Negro League star, Satchel Paige. The next year, 1932, Greenlee hired Oscar Charleston as player-manager, and added stars Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell. Thanks to Greenlee, the now-stacked Crawfords immediately established themselves as the best black team in the country.
In 1933, Greenlee founded a new Negro National League, with the Crawfords as charter members. They played at Greenlee Field, one of the few parks built and owned by a Negro League team. The league was structured with a first-half winner and a second-half winner. The two teams played at the end of the season for the Negro National League pennant. The Crawfords narrowly lost the first-half title to the Chicago American Giants and the pennant that year was never officially decided.
The next season, 1934, the Crawfords were near the top of the overall standings, but won neither half, even though they had the best overall record. In 1935 Paige skipped most of the season. Even without their ace pitcher, the Crawfords finally lived up to their promise, taking the first-half title with a 26–6 record, then defeating the New York Cubans in a close seven-game series for their only undisputed Negro National League pennant. Many baseball historians consider this 1935 edition of the Crawfords to be the greatest Negro league team of all time.