An Historic Day In ‘The Hill’

By Kevin Kirkland
Updated: July 21, 2009

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords pose in front of Greenlee Field in the Hill District.

The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords pose in front of Greenlee Field in the Hill District.

PITTSBURGH — Greenlee Field stood on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District for only six years. But the black-owned ballpark was home to one of the best baseball teams ever, the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, and was a source of pride not only to African-American Pittsburghers but to the players who pitched, hit and dashed across its emerald expanse.

“It was beautiful. It had lots of grass and you almost felt like you were playing in a major league park,” said the late James “Cool Papa” Bell, who played center field for the Crawfords and their owner, William “Gus” Greenlee, in the 1930s, including that 1935 team that won the Negro National League championship.

“The best thing for me was the big outfield. It gave me lots of room to run,” Bell, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, said in the book “The Pittsburgh Crawfords” by James Bankes.

This past Friday, a Pennsylvania historical marker was unveiled at the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Junilla Street near the spot where the brick, steel and wood stadium was demolished in 1938 to make way for the Bedford Dwellings public housing project.

The marker is co-sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Senator John Heinz History Center, the Josh Gibson Foundation and the Society for American Baseball Research. Museum officials were waiting for the right time for the marker’s dedication.

Last week was it, with the museum hosting a national Negro Leagues conference capped by an awards banquet tomorrow for the Gibson Foundation.

The 12th annual Jerry Malloy Negro Baseball League Conference took place at the History Center in the Strip District. Negro Leagues historians gave presentations and a question-and-answer session with a panel of former players was also held there.

Among the guests were Lou Brock, the Hall of Fame left fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, who was the keynote speaker at the “Remembering the History” awards banquet. The fundraiser included appearances by former players and their families and a silent auction of Negro Leagues items.

The two-sided historical marker says Greenlee Field was the first African-American-owned park in the Negro Leagues and mentions that Bell, Gibson and pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige had played there. Paige was on the mound for the Crawfords on opening day, April 30, 1932.

Allegheny County commissioners and Pittsburgh’s mayor and city councilmen watched from field boxes as the Crawfords lost, 1-0, to the New York Black Yankees, according to “Sandlot Seasons” by Rob Ruck.

Ruck, a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, was at the dedication along with Charles Greenlee Sr., nephew of the field’s namesake; Sean Gibson, director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and great-grandson of the Crawfords and Homestead Grays catcher; Samuel Black, curator at the History Center; state Sen. Jim Ferlo; and city Councilwoman Tonya Payne.