From left: Chris Cox, Sean Gibson, Rob Ruck, and Evan Backer.
by Thomas Leturgey
About 30 movie goers went to check out the third and final viewing of “The League,” a documentary about the Negro Leagues, which was shown at the Waterfront Theater in West Homestead. The one-hour and 43-minute Magnolia Pictures film chronicles the baseball league from beginning to end.
The Josh Gibson Foundation hosted the special screening and the baseball great’s great grandson, Sean, was on hand with others for a question-and-answer session afterwards.
“I thought the movie was very good,” said Gibson. “It’s one of the best.”
In addition to Gibson, Chris Cox, the vice president of the Josh Gibson Foundation, Negro Leagues historian Rob Ruck and Evan Baker, the great nephew of Homestead Gray’s principal owner Cumberland Posey, were also on hand.
“I thought that interest [in the Negro Leagues] would end at the 2020 centennial, but then [the death of] George Floyd happened,” said Ruck, a Professor of Transnational Sport History at University of Pittsburgh, author and documentarian in his own right with 1993’s “Kings On The Hill: Baseball’s Forgotten Men.” A lot of footage from Ruck’s film, and others, as well as discovered footage help comprise the new movie.
“There’s some [segments] I haven’t seen before,” said Gibson. “Some of the black and white footage, some of the players talking.”
Ruck said he was “astonished” by some of the new footage.
Baker said he was “extremely impressed” with the film. “It’s the most thorough, most complete film.”
They all agreed that Pittsburgh is the center of the film.
The movie starts from the very beginning of the “first” league, in the late 19th century, as well as the more recognized clubs from 1920 to 1948. The Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, their ownership (Gus Greenlee and Cumberland Posey), and Hall of Fame players were well-featured in the film.
Also detailed was the rivalry between Greenlee and Posey. When an audience member asked Gibson if he considered his great grandfather to be a Homestead Gray or Pittsburgh Crawford, he said “A Gray.” Ruck noted Josh started with the Crawfords, signed on with the Grays, was poached by Greenlee back to the Crawfords, but then went back to the Grays. Baker said Gibson was a Gray.
Cox noted that Josh Gibson never played on a team with a losing record.
Sean Gibson also told the story of how Josh Gibson, who was named to the inaugural Hall of Fame Class for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was nearly bumped from the honor before it happened. The legendary catcher was one of the high-profile faces of the team’s advertising campaign. Gibson asked how the Major League Club could honor a player who never played or worked for them. The great grandson suggested an “Honorary” Pirate designation and ceremonial contract signing, but the team initially rejected the offer. As a result, Gibson said they should “pull” the slugger from the lineup, but after frantic discussions, the two camps came to an agreement. Then, organizers framed the unsigned contract. Once the paper was removed from the frame, it was signed, and Josh Gibson was named to the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame.
Ruck recognized the Pirates as the first Major League Baseball team to honor the Negro Leagues, when in September 1988, the club showcased the 40th anniversary of the last Negro League World Series between the Homestead Grays and Birmingham Black Barons. “[Pirates General Manager] Carl Barger apologized for racism,” said Ruck.
The Pirates will host another Heritage Night on August 12, where scholarships will be given out, said Ruck.
The film was shown in selected theaters around the country, including Pittsburgh, as well as the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival to qualify for Oscar consideration.