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Pittsburgh’s deep history of black baseball

The history of black baseball runs deep in the Steel City. 

1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords

Yesterday my colleague Bill Thompson profiled the importance of Kansas City in the history of black baseball. KC is home to the Negro League Hall of Fame, and the famed Kansas City Monarchs. Right up in terms of its importance in the history of black baseball is Pittsburgh.

A few years ago I was fortune enough to visit Pittsburgh’s Heinz Museum, which hosts an extraordinary exhibit on the history of the Negro League in the Steel City.

I had some familiarity with black baseball in Pittsburgh, as I knew a little bit about the history of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, but I didn’t know the city was home to the Negro National League headquarters, nor did I realize it was the only city with two professional black teams. I had some familiarity with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, but as often as I had heard about players on the Hometown Grays, if asked, I would have had no idea they called Pittsburgh home. The Grays were one of the most successful Negro League teams, winning nine consecutive league championships.

Over the course of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, fans of black baseball in Pittsburgh got to see some legendary players including Satech Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard.

The history and importance of black baseball even predates the 1930s, as Cumberland Posey, a prominent black player / manager from the 1910s helped the Homestead Grays become a staple of the Pittsburgh baseball community. Josh Gibson grew up in Pittsburgh from time he was 12, and is buried at Allegheny Cemetery which is within the city limits.

Following Rube Foster’s untimely death in 1930, it was Pittsburgh’s Gus Greenlee who picked up the torch for professional organized black baseball. As the owner of the Crawfords, Greenlee helped merge disparate leagues, bringing some much needed consistency and formality to a group of some of the most talented players the game has ever seen.

As black baseball gained popularity amongst fans, Greenlee worked out of Pittsburgh as he organized other events such as the Negro League East / West All Star Game.

Pittsburgh’s impact on baseball is evident in Cooperstown as well, as the Grays and Crawfords have 15 alumni that have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The city was also the first to field an all-black lineup, when the Pirates did it in September 1971.

If you ever find yourself in Pittsburgh, I would recommend visiting the Heinz Museum’s exhibit. It’s an impactful and interesting tour through the years of black baseball in the Steel City.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano