The baseball season that opened on Monday is radically different from 80 years ago, when the nation’s pastime was segregated and the best team in baseball could be found in Pittsburgh, on the Hill.
In the decades following the Civil War, baseball became the national obsession. Blacks and whites played together until the 1890s, when racism drew a color line through the sport, said Rob Ruck, a professor of sport history at the University of Pittsburgh.
“African-Americans, when denied the opportunity to play in the major leagues, create their own sporting world on the other side of the racial boundary,” he said.
In the midst of a hostile society, African-Americans created their own cultural institutions, the Negro National League and Negro American League among them, said Ruck.
“In the 1930s with Cool Papa Bell flying around the base pass, Josh Gibson hitting home runs further than anybody had ever seen hit before, and Satchel Paige telling his fielders to sit down while he walked the bases loaded and struck them out, Pittsburgh became the crossroads of black baseball,” he said.
It was one of only a few cities with two Negro League teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. The Grays were originally skilled steel workers from Homestead; the Crawfords were a sandlot team from the Hill that Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawford Grille, turned into a professional team, said Ruck.
“Greenlee resurrected the Negro National League, which, while it had formed in 1920, collapsed during the late 1920s when the Depression hit,” he said. “He based it in Pittsburgh. He built the finest black-owned stadium in the Hill, Greenlee Field.”
Seven of the first eleven Negro League players later elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame played at least part of their career for the Crawfords or the Grays. When society told African-Americans they were lesser, baseball was a means of proving otherwise, said Ruck.
“They were not only equal; they were often more than equal. And that psychological impact I think is significant,” he said.
The leagues and teams weren’t created to combat racism, though they did, bit by bit. They were created to play baseball. Really great baseball, said Clarence Bruce, a player for the Grays, in Ruck’s documentary "Kings on the Hill: Baseball’s Forgotten Men."
“When we walked into a town, we walked with our heads held high, we knew we were great ball players,” he said. “And I think the fans knew it. I think the white fans knew it.”
In 1935 the Pittsburgh Crawfords fielded perhaps the best baseball team of all time, said Ruck.
“A roster of 16,” he said. “Five of those 16 men are in the Hall of Fame.”
The 1927 Yankees had six Hall of Famers — out of 25 men. The 1935 Crawfords were unstoppable and that year took the Negro World Series Championship. Monte Irvin, who played for the Newark Eagles, describes home run hitter and catcher Josh Gibson in "Kings on the Hill."
“Could run like a deer, had a rifle for an arm, and could really hit,” he said. “Josh was the most awesome hitter I’ve ever seen. He was like the black Babe Ruth.”
Sean Gibson is the great-grandson of Josh Gibson, and executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, which helps children reach their potential by providing opportunities Josh Gibson didn’t have, he said.
“My grandfather always felt that education was going to be the key for our youth,” he said.
The son of a sharecropper, Josh Gibson moved to Pittsburgh from Buena Vista, Georgia, and stopped going to school around the eighth grade. He grew up playing baseball on the city’s sandlots at a time when few options were open to him, said Gibson.
“These guys had to endure a lot of things. And overcome a lot of things,” he said. “He was born in a time where just things were different. He made the best of it, and he still accomplished a lot.”
Gibson, like many of the great black baseball players of his time, never got the chance to play in the Major Leagues. But they are legends even so, said Ruck.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of self-awareness when you’re able to do something or not able to do something,” he said. “And sport is very unforgiving in that respect: You’re only as good as what you’re able to do.”
There was nothing Pittsburgh’s black baseball players couldn’t do, except prove society wrong sooner.
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