by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
One hundred years ago, on Feb. 13, 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster created the Negro National League.
As Ernie Suggs eloquently wrote in an article this month for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was Foster’s attempt to formally give Black men like “Cool Papa” Bell, Judy Johnson, Martin Dihigo, Turkey Stearnes and Pop Lloyd a league to play baseball, since they and others were barred from the Major Leagues.
Here in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays, which were founded in 1912 by Cumberland Posey, was not part of the original National Negro League. Instead, the National Negro League had eight teams in places such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City and Indianapolis.
But Pittsburgh played a humongous role in the success of the Negro Leagues as a whole, which was highlighted during the City of Pittsburgh’s annual Black History Month celebration, held Feb. 4, at the City-County Building. The “Pittsburgh Negro League: Hall of Fame” exhibit will be on display at the City-County Building until Feb. 28.
There, one can read about Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Willie Foster and Jud Wilson.
Charleston was regarded as the “best center fielder of all-time,” and was often called “The Black Ty Cobb.” He played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords from 1932-1937.
Foster was the youngest half-brother of “Rube” Foster, an outstanding lefthanded pitcher who played with the Grays in 1931 and the Crawfords in 1936.
Wilson was a premier hitter in the Negro Leagues, his batting average topping .420 in six seasons. He played with the Grays in 1931-32 and 1941.
And James “Cool Papa” Bell, considered the fastest man to ever play baseball, could hit with considerable power. He played with the Grays in 1932 and from 1943-46, and with the Crawfords from 1933-38.
Gibson came to Pittsburgh in 1924, and played with the Grays in 1930-31, and 1942-46, and with the Crawfords from 1932-36. Gibson is widely regarded as among the best power hitters and catchers in the history of baseball of any league.
Some call the early 1930s to the mid-1940s as the glory years of the Negro Leagues. In 1931, the Pittsburgh Crawfords were formed, owned by Gus Greenlee. In their years in Pittsburgh, from 1931-1938, they were one of the strongest forces in the Negro Leagues. Iconic pitcher Satchel Paige was a member of the Crawfords, along with standouts like Gibson, Johnson, “Papa” Bell, Rap Dixon, Sam Bankhead and Ted Radcliffe.
Meanwhile, the Grays were always a force, so long as they had a team. Posey entered the Grays in the Negro National League in 1935 and, with power hitter Buck Leonard, won nine consecutive Negro National League Championships and three Negro League World Series titles.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, established in 1990, is located in Kansas City, in the heart of the city’s 18th & Vine Jazz District. It’s two blocks away from the Paseo YMCA where “Rube” Foster established the Negro National League, 100 years ago.
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: SEAN GIBSON, the great-grandson of Josh Gibson, stands next to a custom-made board honoring the accomplishments of his star baseball grandfather. It’s currently on display at the City-County Building, Downtown. – Photos by Courier photographer J.L. Martello)