This past spring, two statues depicting Negro Leagues baseball legend Josh Gibson were on the move. In Washington D.C., the Nationals quietly relocated a Gibson statue along with two others to another section of their ballpark; in Pittsburgh, the Pirates tried to throw theirs away.
Specifically, the Pirates gutted Legacy Square of its seven statues of Negro Leagues ballplayers along with the associated interpretive panels. As Opening Day approached, the Pirates were set to destroy the statues after having already destroyed the large Legacy Square baseball bats. Purely by coincidence, Sean Gibson–great-grandson of Josh Gibson and executive director of the non-profit Josh Gibson Foundation–was offered a chance to rescue the statue of his great-grandfather. With insufficient storage or transportation, Gibson initially balked at the offer, instead suggesting the statues be redistributed throughout PNC Park, but once he realized the urgency of the situation, Gibson informed the Pirates that he would take the Josh Gibson statue–as well as the six others.
Legacy Square is technically still part of PNC Park of course, but it now looks very different, very empty, and very sad. Gone are the statues and the oversized bats, only to be replaced by simple banners depicting both Negro league and present-day Pittsburgh ballplayers. Further, speaking from personal experience, these banners are very easy to overlook. Legacy Square was originally designed to be a place to exclusively interpret and educate fans on Pittsburgh’s Black baseball past, and that is quite simply no longer true.
What’s most shocking about the Pirates decision to purge local African-American history from PNC Park is that since the 1970s the Pirates have been leaders in embracing diversity within Major League Baseball (MLB). The Pirates were a bit slow to field a Black ballplayer (1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson), but in 1971 the Pirates fielded the first all-minority starting lineup. So how does a franchise clearly aware of its past in a city with incredibly rich Negro league history simply remove the permanent exhibits of Legacy Square? Now that the Pirates season is officially over, perhaps the spotlight can be turned to these questions.
1988 to 2005
The odd thing about the Pirates’ modern-day Legacy Square actions is that, in addition to its 1970s diversity, the club was once at the forefront in acknowledging Major League Baseball’s role in segregating America’s sporting past. Toward the end of the 1988 season, the Pirates–led on the field by a young Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla–commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the Homestead Grays victory in the last ever Negro League World Series. A pregame ceremony honored living members of the Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the club raised a pennant banner for the 1948 Grays atop Three Rivers Stadium. The banner only remained for a week, but for that week the banner placed the 1948 Grays on equal status with the Pirates own World Series champions. Further, during the ceremony, the Pirates team president apologized for the role played by the Pirates and by Major League Baseball in perpetuating segregationist practices in baseball. Commissioner of Major League Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti also spoke, saying of MLB’s role in segregation: “We must never lose sight of our history. Insofar as it is ugly, never to repeat it, and insofar as it is glorious, to cherish it.” (Rob Ruck, Sandlot Seasons, xvi).
With this moment, the Pirates became de facto leaders in navigating the complex relationship between professional sport and race, and this comparatively small ceremony was, at the time, a truly groundbreaking moment for professional sport in America. Over the next two decades, the Pirates continued what they started by holding annual Negro Leagues nights and installing permanent Grays and Crawfords championship banners at Three Rivers Stadium in 1993. The Pittsburgh-area community embraced this past as well; most notably, the city of Homestead changed the name of the Homestead High-Level Bridge to the Homestead Grays Bridge in 2002.
Most MLB teams did not follow the Pirates’ example with large public events and apologies, but all engaged race in other ways: pre-game ceremonies to honor former Negro League players, the funding of inner city baseball programs, and, of course, the marketing of each respective city’s Negro Leagues past in the form of throwback jerseys and ballcaps. By 2004, honoring Black baseball history became formalized with MLB’s creation of annual Jackie Robinson Day celebrations for April 15. The Baseball Hall of Fame also revived the dormant Special Committee on the Negro Leagues Committee in early 2006 to enshrine seventeen players and executives for their contributions to Black baseball. However, these efforts in the 1990s and 2000s came during a time when baseball executives fretted over declining game attendance, especially among African-American fans, not to mention public criticism of MLB’s declining numbers of Black players, lack of Black managers and executives, and total absence of minorities among ownership groups.But even with the most cynical of analysis, MLB’s acknowledgement of the Negro leagues had (and still has) great cultural importance, especially to the Negro Leaguers themselves who were long discriminated against and then summarily ignored. As Hall of Famer and former Negro Leaguer Monte Irvin stated in 1988, “I’m glad they are finally getting recognized, because 20 years from now most of them will be gone.”