by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
February 13, 2020, marked exactly 100 years since the Negro National League was established at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo. It was the first African American professional baseball league. The accomplishments and bravado of the Negro Leagues were celebrated at the Negro League Centennial Commemoration, held Feb. 13 at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. It was a partnership between the Pittsburgh Pirates, Josh Gibson Foundation, and Carnegie Museum of Art.
Oliver, the Pirates’ 1971 World Series-winning outfielder, told the audience a story about his playing baseball in Gastonia, N.C., in 1965, before he made it to the big leagues.
“Of course, segregation was real big back then,” Oliver said. “You would hear the catcalls from the stands, but you dare not look up in the stands, because you didn’t want to instigate anything. I came up and I often thought about what the Negro League players had to go through back in the day.”
Oliver’s stories continued: “In the early ‘70s, we used to have these old timer’s games, and the Negro League players would always come out and watch us play, and they would tell these stories. Now, at the time, I’m saying to myself, ‘these had to be some of the greatest players who ever lived.’ As it turned out, I did some research, and they in fact were some of the greatest players to ever play baseball. To prove how great they were, I was in Houston, with the Pirates, and Satchel Paige was in the dugout. Someone asked Satchel Paige, ‘how would you pitch Al Oliver?’ And he said, ‘high and tight.’ And I said, it better be high and tight, because if it’s low, I’m going to take you out of here.”
Oliver told the crowd of 250 that with everything the Negro League players went through, “they had fun. The bus rides, they played two or three games a day. If you ask players to play two or three games in a day today, they’ll have a heart attack. I have total appreciation for the Negro Leagues, these guys enjoyed playing baseball.”
Others on the panel at the event included Sean Gibson, executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation and great-grandson of Josh Gibson (legendary Negro Leagues player); Rob Ruck, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Raceball;” Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Programs at the Heinz History Center; and Charlene Foggie-Barnett, the Teenie Harris archive specialist at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Sean Gibson is nonstop in his quest to keep his great-grandfather’s name and legacy alive and well in Pittsburgh and beyond. The Josh Gibson Foundation has been in existence since 1992 (started by Josh Gibson Jr., Sean’s grandfather). “The most thing about the foundation is not only recognizing Josh Gibson, but all the great Negro League players as well as the family members of the great baseball players who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays.”
Sean Gibson told the crowd he believes the Pittsburgh area had the best Negro League teams of all-time. “I go back and forth with guys from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, but I feel as though this (Pittsburgh) is a sports town. What I like the best about Pittsburgh is that they don’t forget about the Homestead Grays or Pittsburgh Crawfords, and they’ve always made sure they’ve included the Grays and Crawfords into their sports history.”
There’s a mural of Josh Gibson and other Negro League players on Ross Street, Downtown, the Homestead Grays Bridge, Josh Gibson Field in the Hill District, and there was a local opera on Josh Gibson in Pittsburgh. It’s just proof, Sean Gibson told the crowd, of how entrenched Josh Gibson and the Negro Leagues are in Pittsburgh.
Ruck, the Negro League historian, said that the Negro Leagues were important in more than just a baseball manner. He said that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would tell “Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron and others how important they were to the struggle he was helping to advance.”
Ruck said many Whites believed that watching Major League Baseball become integrated with exceptional Black players helped to show that other parts of American society should, in fact, become more integrated.
Major League Baseball, to commemorate 100 years since the beginning of the Negro Leagues, will designate June 27 as the day in which all players, managers, coaches and umpires will wear a symbolic Negro Leagues 100th anniversary logo patch during all games.
The MLB Network will, throughout the upcoming season, air vignettes voiced by Major League players like the Pirates’ Chris Archer, to pay tribute to certain Negro League players. Archer’s vignette will pay tribute to Smokey Joe Williams.
When the Negro Leagues dissolved in 1948, “we lose Black teams, Black general managers, Black owners, most Negro Leagues lose their jobs,” Ruck said. “The Major Leagues, which were very reluctant to accept Jackie…they’re afraid they’re going to lose revenue,” with the loss of the Negro Leagues. “They’re not going to have Negro League teams to rent their ballparks to, there’s going to be Black fans so White fans will stay away…”
Ruck said ultimately, it worked out well for the Major Leagues, as its revenues only increased. However, when the Negro Leagues went under, “the Black community loses control over its own sporting life. And I think the meaning of sport in Black America begins to change. And I think there’s a loss there,” Ruck explained. “This was a world African Americans had created, and maintained, and made excellent. And integration doesn’t give the opportunity of Black teams joining the Majors…even though the Negro Leagues petitioned the Majors, ‘accept us as a high minor league,’ that didn’t happen. And it took a long time to get Black managers (in the Major Leagues), and we’re still waiting for other changes.”
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: AL OLIVER, who won the 1971 World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates, speaks at the Heinz History Center, Feb. 13. – Photo by J.L. Martello)