Sports

Pittsburgh's modern social identity has roots in Negro Leagues

The professional sports teams in Pittsburgh today are responsible for much of the identity of the city as we know it; the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates are small market teams that punch upwards, defeating teams from much larger markets to win championships. Pittsburgh is a small city with an outsized national reputation, something that holds especially true in the sports world.

Pittsburgh has world-class universities. Popular movies and TV shows have been shot here. Google, Uber, and Lyft have important branches for the development of new technologies. There are a million other things that put Pittsburgh on an important global stage, and with a population smaller than Wichita, KS to boot. Not to mention, the population is declining. Pittsburgh, in spite of its massive economic decline following deindustrialization, is still a city with a national and global reputation, even if it wasn’t that way.

The story goes that Pittsburgh started to pull itself out of the post-industrial hole sometime around 2003, when it became an Act 47 city. Under Act 47, a state program to oversee cities with financial trouble, Pennsylvania appointed a committee to oversee the budget of Pittsburgh to help promote growth in the city. Since then, various organizations have exploded to make Pittsburgh into an important city again. Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, UPMC, and Highmark saw massive growth in the early 2000s, and most important to our city, so did all the sports teams. PNC Park and Heinz Field opened in 2001, and PPG Paints Arena in 2010. The Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004; the Penguins, Crosby and Malkin in 2004 and 2005; the Pirates, McCutchen in 2005.

All in all, these things did little for economic production in Pittsburgh, but sports have provided a unique and united identity for the city since the 1970s. All of the most renowned figures from the city’s sporting history won championships for the teams that raised them into stars. Roberto Clemente and Franco Harris were drafted by Pittsburgh teams and stuck with them. And this sporting and cultural identity — a small city of people born and raised here — was not created out of the heroes of post-industrial Pittsburgh. If anything, they capitalized on the existing reputation.

About 40 years before Clemente got his 3,000th hit, Pittsburgh was the home of the two best baseball teams in the Negro Leagues: the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Both of these teams held deep roots in the community, with everybody in the early years of the team working for U.S. Steel or other manufacturing companies in town; the teams played on a semi-professional basis. Even the owners, Gus Greenlee and Cumberland “Cum” Posey, worked closely with local economies. Greenlee was a racketeer in the Hill District, where the Crawfords played, and he often used the money from his schemes to fund the famous Crawford Grill and bigger and better Crawfords players. Posey owned a steel company in Pittsburgh and often worked alongside Henry Frick. Posey is also the only person in both the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame.

But the players on the Grays and the Crawfords in the late 1920s and early 1930s were the real nationally renowned powerhouses. Josh Gibson, often called the black Babe Ruth (really Babe Ruth is the black Josh Gibson), Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard are some of the best black players to ever play baseball, and all of them played in Pittsburgh at the same time. Gibson has reportedly hit the longest home run in baseball history, at 580 feet. The ball caromed off the top of the facade at Yankee stadium, traveling about 25 feet farther than Mickey Mantle’s Major League record of 565 feet. Satchel Paige was the oldest rookie ever in the Major Leagues, joining the MLB at the age of 42; he went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA that year. Sometimes Paige would tell the infielders behind him to take a seat and promptly strike out the side.

Cool Papa Bell’s claim to fame was his speed. Paige is quoted as saying, “One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit him sliding into second.” Bell’s plaque in the Hall of Fame says that he consistently hit over .300, sometimes jumping above .400. If Josh Gibson equates to Babe Ruth, then Buck Leonard is Lou Gehrig. Leonard hit consistently, drove in runs consistently, hit home runs consistently, and played a solid defensive first base.

And both the Grays and the Crawfords started out of a confluence of steel corporation teams, amateur sandlot teams, and local youth organization teams (e.g. YMCA).

Local historian and professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh Rob Ruck says, “Steel is what defined Pittsburgh. There’s a bend in Schenley Park where you could look across the Monongahela and see the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill. Today when you look across the river at that bend, you see the Steelers practice facilities.”

Steel was the foundation of cultural identity in Pittsburgh, but after the loss of iconic manufacturing work in Pittsburgh, sports took over as the core of that identity. The Homestead Grays are the epitome of that transition, caught somewhere between the origins of Pittsburgh as a steel city and its future as the City of Champions. The famous heroes of Pittsburgh in the 70s captured that same magic of the Grays and the Crawfords. Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Gus Greenlee, and Cum Posey are heroes of Pittsburgh of a time past, but they are as important to a Pittsburgh social identity as Bill Mazeroski, Honus Wagner, or Ben Roethlisberger.