PHASE I

The Josh Gibson Heritage Park

Negro League baseball in Pittsburgh offered an arena where African Americans could display their grace and competence despite segregation. The city’s teams emerged from local sandlots in the early 1900s, reflecting the commitment of countless individuals, families, and neighborhoods. Josh Gibson Jr., who like his father played for the Homestead Grays, created the Josh Gibson Foundation in 2001 to preserve the city’s rich black baseball history and to use sport to build social capital in today’s youth. In 2006, Dino Guarino, an artist whose work focuses on sport, approached Sean Gibson and the Foundation to suggest a public installation celebrating the Negro Leagues’ role in the larger story of Pittsburgh baseball. Landscape Architect Frank Dawson worked with Guarino to create bronze castings of these original oil paintings. The property provided by Forest City and Fed Ex Ground was the park’s main sponsor.

 

Rob Ruck  University of Pittsburgh

 

 

The Homestead Grays

In 1900, black youth in Homestead formed a club called the Blue Ribbons. They became the Murdock Grays and in 1910, the Homestead Grays. The team was made up of “Old Pittsburghers,” as the migrants from the upper South and their descendants were known. Many of them held skilled jobs at the Homestead Steel Works.

 

Cumberland Posey, Jr. became their star player and ultimately the team’s owner. As the Grays became the best independent club in Pittsburgh, Posey cast a wider net for his players and brought Smokey Joe Williams, Oscar Charleston, and Willie Wells to town. Black baseball’s champions in 1930, the Grays came into their own during the late 1930s.  Playing in Pittsburgh and Washington D. C., they won nine Negro National League pennants in a row (1937-1945), as well as the last Negro League World Series ever played, in 1948. With Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson anchoring their feared line-up, the Grays became a black baseball dynasty.

 

Rob Ruck  University of Pittsburgh

 

The Pittsburgh Crawfords

Bill Harris and Teenie Harris formed the Crawfords in 1925 by combining the black players from the Watt and McKelvey School teams on the Hill. Most were the sons of migrants from the deep South. They played under the sponsorship of the Crawford Bath House, a public facility that helped newcomers to Pittsburgh adjust to life on the Hill. City league champs, they became known on the Hill as the little Homestead Grays. After Harold Tinker and teammates from the Edgar Thomson Steelworks club joined the Crawfords, Tinker became the club’s captain. He recruited Josh Gibson to catch for them and the Crawfords soon rivaled the Grays.

 

In 1930, Gus Greenlee took on the team and signed Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and other stars. He re-formed the Negro National League and built Greenlee Field, the finest black-built ballpark in the nation, on the Hill. The Crawfords, black baseball’s answer to the 1927 Yankees, might have been baseball’s best team ever. The club fell apart after many of its players jumped to the Dominican Republic in 1937.

 

Rob Ruck  University of Pittsburgh

 

The Negro Leagues in Pittsburgh

During the half-century that sport in America was divided by race, African Americans created a baseball world of their own. During the 1930s and ‘40s, with Cool Papa Bell flying around the basepaths, Josh Gibson hitting balls further than anyone had before, and Satchel Paige intentionally loading the bases and telling his fielders to sit down while he struck out the side, Pittsburgh became the center of black baseball in the Americas. Pittsburgh alone had two Negro League franchises, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Together, these two clubs 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 them. And stories about their exploits were told and retold throughout the country and across the Caribbean.

 

Rob Ruck  University of Pittsburgh

 

 

Leroy Robert ‘Satchel’ Paige July 7, 1906 – June 8, 1982

From his birth in a shotgun house in Mobile, Alabama in 1906 until his election to the Hall of Fame in 1971, Satchel Paige embodied Negro League baseball. During more than 40 seasons, from 1924 until his last summer riding the bus in 1967, Paige played before an estimated 10 million fans. His athletic prowess, phenomenal durability, and incredible showmanship guaranteed crowds whenever he played. Paige estimated that he pitched in about 2,500 games, winning over 2,000 of them.

 

Satchel played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords during the 1930s, as well as the Kansas City Monarchs and other Negro League and Caribbean ballclubs. He debuted in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians as a 42-year-old rookie in 1948. His first three starts drew over 200,000 fans and his 6-1 record helped the Tribe win the championship that season. Aficionados throughout the hemisphere were mesmerized by the gangly 6’ 3” Paige and his ‘bee ball,’ ‘hesitation pitch,’ and pinpoint control. As teammate Jimmie Crutchfield said, “When Satchel got to that ball park it was like the sun just came out.”

 

Rob Ruck  University of Pittsburgh

Josh Gibson December 21, 1911–January 20, 1947

Josh Gibson came to Pittsburgh’s Northside in 1924 after his father left sharecropping in Buena Vista, Georgia to work for the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. He played for Gimbel Brothers and Westinghouse Airbrake before Harold Tinker recruited the 16-year-old catcher to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, then a sandlot club. By the time he was 18, Josh was anchoring the Homestead Grays. A fine defensive catcher, Josh is remembered best for blasting balls out of parks across the U.S. and the Caribbean. His homeruns at Forbes Field and Yankee Stadium are thought to be the longest ever hit at each and fans often said they had never seen a ball hit that far.

 

Josh never played for a losing team. He starred twice for the Crawfords and twice for the Grays, leading each club to multiple championships. After rejoining the Grays in 1937, Josh was the catalyst to their streak of nine consecutive NNL titles. Hailed throughout the Caribbean, Josh might have been baseball’s greatest hitter ever. He died suddenly at the age of 35, just months before Jackie Robinson broke the color line.  Inducted Hall of Fame: 1972.

 

 

Rob Ruck  University of Pittsburgh

 

Cumberland Willis Posey, Jr. June 20, 1890—March 28, 1946

 

Cum Posey was the architect of sport in black Pittsburgh. A Homestead native and the best all-around athlete in the black community, he joined the Grays as a player in 1911. After a long career as the Grays’ leadoff hitter and centerfielder, Posey had an even longer one as the manager and later owner of one of black baseball’s flagship franchises.

 

Hall of Fame sportswriter Wendell Smith called Posey “perhaps the most colorful figure who has ever raced down the sundown sports trail,” while his colleague Romeo Dougherty lauded him as "America's greatest Negro basketball player." He is the only person inducted into both the baseball and basketball halls of fame. Art Rooney, his life-long friend and patriarch of the Pittsburgh Steelers, considered Posey his sporting mentor. Posey wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier and served on Homestead’s school board. “In his death,” John L. Clark wrote in the Courier, “the race lost one of its most dynamic citizens, baseball lost its best mind, and Homestead lost its most loyal booster.” Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: 2006; the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: 2016.

 

 

 

Cool Papa Bell May 17, 1903–March 7, 1991

Perhaps the fastest man to ever play baseball, Cool Papa Bell could hit, not only for average,but with considerable power.  An artist in the outfield, Bell distracted opposing pitchers from Pittsburgh to Santo Domingo with his uncanny base-running. Clocked circling the basepaths in 12 seconds flat, Bell was a lifetime .343 hitter, 7th all-time in Negro League homeruns, and batted over .400 several times. He hit .395 against white big leaguers and in 1940, won the Triple Crown in Mexico, leading the circuit in homeruns and RBIs along with his league-leading .437 batting average.

 

The Starkville, MI native worked at a creamery and played semi-pro ball before joining the Negro Leagues in 1922.  He played and managed in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the United States until retiring in 1950. Tales about his speed have become legendary, the residue of fans dazzled by his instinctive flair for the game. As Satchel Paige famously quipped, “That man was so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark.”  Retiring from baseball in 1951, Bell scouted for the St. Louis Browns and worked as a guard at City Hall in St. Louis. Inducted Hall of Fame: 1974.