The Man Known As ‘Big Red’

By Tony McClean
Updated: May 21, 2005

Gus Greenlee

Gus Greenlee

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — He was known throughout the sporting circles in Pittsburgh as “Big Red”. Depending on which side of the track you were on, he could be looked upon as a shrewd businessman or a ruthless racketeer.

William Augustus “Gus” Greenlee was many things to many people. He built his own ballpark (Greenlee Field), ran a famous nightclub, and was a heavy power broker in black Pittsburgh’s racketeering and politics during the 1920’s.

Even though his association with Negro League Baseball was brief, Greenlee’s impact was felt for many years to come. He was the creator of the East-West All-Star Classic. He also was the George Steinbrenner of his day, owning one of the greatest teams in black baseball history during the 1930’s.

Greenlee also owned a stable of boxers and later became the first black manager of a black boxing champion. All of this while also serving as president of the National Negro Association, which later became the Negro National League.

Greenlee was born in Marion, North Carolina in 1897. Standing 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, he first came to Pittsburgh in 1916. After serving in World War I, Greenlee returned to “The Hill” and worked as a cabdriver and shoe shiner.

He began bootlegging liquor and opened up his own speakeasy, the Crawford Grille. Among some his most influential friends was Art Rooney, who would go on to own a certain football team in that area called the Steelers.

In 1930, Greenlee took over a local amateur baseball club and named them the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The team joined the Negro Leagues two seasons later. That same year, Greenlee organized the first East-West All-Star Classic at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

In the ’30s, the East-West Classic drew over 50,000 black and some white fans often more than major league games. It was clearly the annual showcase for the Negro Leagues and their followers.

Also in 1932, Greenlee opened the country?s first black owned baseball stadium, Greenlee Field. At a cost of $100,000, the park also hosted boxing matches, black college football games, and other sporting events.

To compete with the crosstown rival Homestead Grays, Greenlee starting raiding the Grays roster of their star players. With his deep pockets, he acquired such superstars as Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, and the immortal Satchel Paige.

It all came to a head in 1935, when Greenlee fielded what many historians feel is one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Managed by the great Oscar Charleston, the Crawfords went 34-17 that season.

They defeated the New York Cubans four games to three in a playoff and were crowned league champs. The Crawfords would win the East again in 1936, but their championship was contested because of an alleged betting scandal.

Ironically, Greenlee’s and the Crawfords’ run would end due another owner raiding Pittsburgh’s talented roster. Just before the opening of spring training in 1937, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo enticed eight of Greenlee’s players to sign with his team overseas.

Gibson, Bell, and Paige along with five others followed the money and literally left Greenlee holding the bag. He was forced to disband the team in 1939 and demolish Greenlee Field in the process.

Greenlee attempted to put together another Crawford franchise in the 40’s, but the team didn’t have the impact on or off the field as the previous version did. However, Greenlee tried to make one lasting impression on the diamond.

Along with Branch Rickey, he helped formed the short-lived United States Baseball League in 1945. The intention was to use the league as a way to launch a widespread talent search for black players.

However, many have felt that Rickey used Greenlee on this venture. There were those who said Rickey was merely trying to corner the market on the last unmined source of baseball talent at the time. The league only lasted two seasons. Greenlee still kept his ties with the Negro League during the ill-fated venture until his death in 1952.

While Andrew “Rube” Foster is recognized as the “Father of the Negro Leagues”, it’s safe to say that Gus Greenlee’s impact clearly puts him in a very similar category.

NOTE: The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro League’s; Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game; and the Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball all contributed to this article.