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Pittsburgh-area Negro Leagues baseball player graves marked in special ceremony

 A grave marker in the dirt.
Shreya Singh
90.5 WESA
The grave marker for Ernest E. "Pud" Gooden at the former Negro League baseball player's burial site at the Monongahela Cemetery in North Braddock, Pa.

The lives and careers of western Pennsylvania Negro National Leagues baseball players are being recognized through a new initiative to mark their graves. Ernest E. “Pud” Gooden played for the Pittsburgh Keystones, Homestead Grays and several teams in Ohio and Michigan before his death in 1934. The dedication Friday is the first in a project spearheaded by the local Josh Gibson Foundation to commemorate the legacies of the former league for Black players.

“It's a part of our history, African American history. It's a part of baseball history. It’s a part of the Negro League history,” said Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson and president of the namesake organization. “And especially in Pittsburgh, we are a sports town. It's part of our history in the city of Pittsburgh.”

 A black and white photo of a man.
Courtesy of the Josh Gibson Foundation

Pittsburgh once was considered the center of Negro National League baseball, with the city historically having some of the best talents in the sport. Future Hall of Famers, including Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell and Buck Leonard won pennants for the Homestead Grays in the 1930s and ’40s. The initiative to recognize other players, however, began when high school teacher and history writer Vince Ciaramella of Bethel Park took a walk with his family through a cemetery in the early days of the COVID pandemic.

“We started looking for baseball players, and over the course of one summer, we found about 206 players, managers, umpires, front-office folks, owners — all buried in Allegheny County,” he said.

From there, he started researching Negro Leagues players and their burial sites. He was able to discover the locations and noticed that many of the former players had no official marker — especially notable because they were part of a historic baseball league. His book, Greats in the Graveyard, was published in December 2020, and he soon connected with the Josh Gibson Foundation.

“Who knew that a chain of events three years later of just walking around cemeteries for exercise and to kill boredom during the pandemic would bring us here, you know?” he said.

Gooden himself was an only child and never had children of his own, so Ciaramella said he and the foundation weren’t able to find living relatives to take part in Friday’s ceremony. But he said he hopes they'll be able to connect with descendants in the future. They’ve identified 18 former players with unmarked graves, and they plan to put signs on all of them.

 Two adult men and a child hold a small black blanket.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Enzo and author and teacher Vince Ciaramella (left and middle), and Chris Cox with the Josh Gibson Foundation and Pittsburgh Opera during the unveiling of Ernest Gooden's grave marker.

“If it wasn’t for these guys, we wouldn’t have people like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Andrew McCutchen,” Ciaramella said Friday before the marker unveiling. “Gooden paved the way for them in an era when baseball was segregated due to the gentleman’s agreement.”

The agreement to which Ciaramella refers kept baseball teams racially segregated until, of course, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Locally, Pittsburgh produced a powerhouse of players, including Josh Gibson, who many referred to as the “Black Babe Ruth” for his incredible batting abilities.

Other local Negro League players slated to receive markers include Herbert Franklin “Laudie” Walker, Emmett J. Bowman and Seward Hayes “See” Posey. More information is available at the foundation’s grave marker dedication website.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.