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Negro National League Centennial Celebrations Especially Significant In Pittsburgh

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A statue of baseball great Josh Gibson in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum inside the Heinz History Center. Gibson was a superstar of baseball in the early 20th century, but because of segregation, was never allowed to play for the major leagues.

A youth baseball tournament, historical symposium and statues of Negro League players are among the local events that will commemorate the 2020 centennial anniversary of the Negro National League. The full celebration lineup was announced Tuesday at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

Pittsburgh had two talented Negro League teams in the early 20th century, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays. Both brought the city acclaim and league pennants and are considered among strongest baseball teams to have ever been assembled. Josh Gibson played for both teams and is often called the “black Babe Ruth” for his estimated 800-home run career (records weren’t always kept back then). His great-grandson, Sean Gibson, continues his legacy through the Josh Gibson Foundation. The foundation will hold the Josh Gibson Youth Classic next summer for area players.

“[We want to make] sure that young people today make sure to carry on the legacy of not only Josh Gibson, but also the other great Negro League baseball players and the importance that they played here in Pittsburgh,” Gibson said. 

The June 2020 tournament will bring together youth baseball teams from across the country, all sporting throwback Negro League team outfits.

The National Negro League was formed in 1920, but had to fold under the pressure of the Great Depression. The league was revived in the 1930s by Pittsburgh’s Gus Greenlee.

The Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays played home games at Greenlee Field in the Hill District. The facility was the first black-built park and black-owned major league baseball field in the United States.

In October, Duquesne University will host a symposium featuring Rob Ruck, baseball historian, speaking about the history of the league. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
Sean Gibson, executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and great-grandson of Gibson, speaks to the press during the celebration events announcements on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

“The Negro Leagues were one of the first national black institutions to emerge after slavery,” Ruck said. “They lent cohesion and identity to black America. They displayed its competency and its grace and made men like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige heroic icons.” Paige, a pitcher, started his career in the Negro Leagues before joining the Cleveland Indians in 1948.

The Homestead Grays, who often went by the alternate title the Washington Grays (where they also played), hold the record as that town’s winningest baseball franchise. That record garnered attention recently after the Washington Nationals won the World Series. 

In addition to the symposium and tournament, the Josh Gibson Foundation will have its annual gala in October. Last year, the organization took students from the city’s Housing Authority facilities to a trip to Washington D.C. where the kids were able to learn more about Negro League history. Other related events include the construction of Negro League players’ statutes and a park on Station Square, replacement of memorial banners on the Homestead Grays Bridge and marking of Josh Gibson’s gravestone site.