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This work brings together for the first time the painstakingly assembled history of those games, including reconstructed play-by-plays and accurate ...
This work brings together for the first time the painstakingly assembled history of those games, including reconstructed play-by-plays and accurate statistical records. Larry Lester recaptures the vigor of black communities' united attention to the event, describes the players whose talent brought them to this pinnacle of achievement, and discusses the maneuvers of promoters, gamblers, and petty tyrants who cast an occasional shadow on the sunlit fields of Chicago.
The Guiding Light of Modern Negro Baseball
William Augustus Greenlee
BORN: THURSDAY, DECEMBER 26, 1895, MARION NC
DIED: MONDAY, JULY 7, 1952, PITTSBURGH PA
Many know of Rube Foster and his dictatorial rule of Western League baseball, but few know of his counterpart, Gus Greenlee, kingpin of the Eastern League. Although historians have given Foster the title "The Father of Black Baseball," Greenlee could fairly stake a claim to this epithet with the resurgence of interest in black baseball after Foster's death in 1930. When the two major leagues folded during the Great Depression, it was godfather Greenlee who resurrected the leagues to unprecedented popularity in the mid-1930s, and so Greenlee can be rightly called the "Guiding Light of Modern Negro Baseball" as well.
During his lifetime, Greenlee was called a baseball executive, a boxing promoter, a nightclub owner, a numbers runner, a banker, and also an entertainment entrepreneur. All these monikers are correct. Richard Powell, former business manager for the Baltimore Elite Giants, recalled: "Well, Gus was a [George] Steinbrenner-type fellow. Gus wanted to be the big shot, where everyone would say, 'There goes Gus.' There was nothing reserved in his attitude. In fact, he wanted to run the league, so to speak. 'Larry, call so-and-so and tell them Gus told you so-and-so,' and you would relay that message. That type of foolishness. But he wasn't a bad fellow. Many of us have ouregos."
Powell added, "If it were not for people like Gus Greenlee, there would have been no Jackie Robinsons, no Roy Campanellas or Don Newcombes. Because they [the owners] put their money in it to keep it going."
Greenlee was born in Marion, North Carolina, a small textile town about 30 miles east of Asheville, in the western corner of the state. While his two brothers, Charles and Jack, were formally educated and became medical doctors, the truant Gus learned the trades of the streets to become just as financially prosperous.
The son of a brick mason, Greenlee joined the Great Migration movement in 1916. At age 20, catching a train to Pittsburgh, he arrived at his uncle's home with few material possessions. He worked at various menial jobs, including shining shoes and working as a construction laborer, before the U.S. Army called on October 30, 1917.
After stopping a piece of shrapnel in his left leg at St. Mihiel, France, Private Greenlee, the World War I machine gunner for the famed 367th Regiment (92nd Division), was discharged on March 20, 1919, and shipped back to Pittsburgh. With the country in the midst of Prohibition, the six-foot-three, 200-pound "Big Red" (as light-complexioned blacks are often called) sold bootlegged whiskey from the trunk of his taxicab. Around town, he was known as "Gasoline Gus," selling to satellite mill towns like Homestead, Oakland, and Homewood.
Later, Gus opened several nightclubs. The first was called the Paramount, a dance hall featuring the Paramount Inn Orchestra, reputed by the Courier to be the city's best band. The club was shut down by the police in 1922. And then there was the bohemian Sunset Café, which featured pianist Duke Ellington on occasion. Greenlee also owned the swanky Working Man's Pool Hall on Fullerton Street. Of course, the immensely popular Crawford Grill was Greenlee's signature club. Greenlee, a local numbers baron, ran his office from above the Grill on Wylie Avenue, a mecca or "Little Harlem" for great jazz and appetizing food. The Grill was the nightspot for hanging out with Pittsburgh's biggest celebrities, athletes, politicians, and musicians. The Grill catered to the black Pittsburgh bourgeoisie, and the list of notable jazz musicians who visited the Grill includes drummer Max Roach and horn men Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords were formed in the mid-1920s. Named after the Crawford Bath House, a celebrated gathering place for African-Americans, they were originally a local amateur team organized by Charles "Teenie" Harris, Johnny Moore, and brothers Raymond and Willie Harris (no relationship to Teenie). Teenie later became the Pittsburgh Courier's eminent photographer and historian. In 1926, the Crawfords became champions of the city's racially mixed Recreation League. As their reputations grew as a quality team, they caught the attention of Gus "Big Red" Greenlee.
Soon after the depression, Teenie Harris, who had managed the semipro Crawfords A. C. (Athletic Club) since 1926, approached Greenlee as a sponsor. Teenie, 88 years old, remembered: "When I called him up and said I wanted some suits [uniforms] for the team, he said just go down to Honus Wagner [sporting goods store on Liberty Avenue]. He said, 'I'll call and let them know you're coming.' And he did! He paid for all the suits that day." Teenie added, "When I quit the Crawfords, I went to Gus and said, 'You can have the team and make a "big" team out of it.' And that's just what he did." For the price of uniforms and some baseball equipment, Greenlee purchased the Crawford "franchise." In 1930, under Greenlee's ownership, the Crawfords became a professional independent team, playing local and professional teams at Ammons Field and occasionally at Forbes Field, home of the Pirates. After two seasons of strong independent play, the Crawfords joined Cum Posey's newly organized East-West League in 1932.
The new league consisted of the Baltimore Black Sox, the Cuban Stars of New York, the Washington (DC) Pilots, Hilldale from Darby (Pennsylvania), the Cleveland Stars, the Newark Browns, Greenlee's Crawfords, and the Detroit Wolves (who later that year merged with the Homestead Grays, shortly before the league folded). Incomplete standings show that the Black Sox were leading the league with a 20-9 won-lost record. Greenlee's Crawfords were third, behind the Detroit Wolves/Homestead Grays, with a 32-26 won-lost record. After the failure of the short-lived East-West League, Greenlee took club secretary Roy Sparrow's suggestion of an East-West All-Star Game showcasing the best players from the league.
This promotional idea was not without critics, however. In an undated 1934 editorial by W. Rollo Wilson called "Sports Shots," Wilson offered his support of Greenlee: "They knocked him, they said he wanted to be a czar but they neglected to say, also, that it was his money that was paying salaries for other owners, that he was assuming bills for clubs other than the Crawfords. He conceived the idea of an East-West game, the players to be selected by the vote of the fans and he had to put $2,500 on the line weeks before the date of the game. All that he has received for his efforts has been ill-advised criticism from those unacquainted with the facts and even from the very men who accepted his money to pay their personal bills."
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 1932 that Greenlee said, "If it hadn't been for the numbers, my people would have been a lot worse off then they were." His numbers game was similar to today's lottery, albeit on a much smaller scale. His brother Charles stated that Gus and Alex Pompez (pronounced "Pom-Pay"), owners of the New York Cubans, had discovered the numbers game while vacationing in Cuba. Teenie added that Gus shared the numbers with his older brother Woogy and, together, Gus and Woogie controlled the lottery game around the tri-state area.
Greenlee's most popular game was to pick three numbers and hope for a match. He often used the last three digits of the last Wall Street Exchange bid for "butter and eggs" commodities. Or he would switch to something like a ballplayer's batting average. His weekly take was roughly $1,500, from about 70 active gamblers. Charles remembered, "I've seen some money now! We had walk-in safes, and I've seen the money stacked up taller than me, and I'm six feet tall." Teenie Harris added, "I remember one time we had a number to hit pretty hard. We had two safes in the cellar that were full of money. The money had been in there so long it just stunk. Oh, what a terrible smell. But it was good money and we had to pay it out."
Yet Greenlee was not only a taker but also a giver. When black families or business associates needed cash to buy coal for the winter cold, or pay a doctor's bill, or acquire basic staples like food, Greenlee was free with the loans. He advanced money for college tuition and provided start-up funds for small businesses like eateries, barbershops, and haberdashers. Many unsecured loans were never repaid. With the collapse of Steel City Bank on 5th and Grant, in 1925, black patrons on the Hill were without a bank. Big Red generously became black Pittsburgh's new pawn broker and loan agent. "I knew he was a nice fellow," recalled Teenie Harris. "If you wanted some money or something like that, he would give it to you. Him and Woogy were the same way. Always giving out money."
Greenlee's kindness continued during the holiday seasons, as he customarily gave away turkeys and hams during Thanksgiving and Christmas. And he financed a soup line for the Hill's homeless during the post-depression days. Food not sold at the Grill was donated to the soup line on Wylie Avenue.
Greenlee also held benefit games for various organizations. In 1931, he played the North Side Buicks in a benefit game for the Livingstone Memorial Hospital, with proceeds going to the ladies' auxiliary. He leased his park to the Triangle Club, a group of Scottish Rite Masons, for a charity baseball game. Greenlee also promoted games between the third and fifth voting wards as a political favor. He later played a charity game against the Bacharach Giants in Columbus, Ohio, to raise monies for the NAACP defense fund. The local press called him "friend of the little man."
Eager to have a championship team of his own, Greenlee raided teams of their top performers. He lured pitcher Sam Streeter from the Birmingham Black Barons, John Henry Russell from the Detroit Stars, and Ted Page from the New York Black Yankees. Cum Posey's Grays lost catcher Josh Gibson, pitcher Double Duty Radcliffe, outfielder Cool Papa Bell, and first baseman Oscar Charleston to the lure of Big Red. Greenlee also added third baseman Judy Johnson and pitcher Rev Cannady from Hilldale to complete the coup. Despite the amassed talent, the Crawfords struggled to third place with a 32-26 won-lost record in the short-lived league of 1932. With regular attendance of between 5,000 and 10,000 each game, Greenlee sought to capitalize on the team's popularity and increase revenues by building his own park.
Greenlee justified his reasons for a new park in an open letter to the Courier, stating: "Having seen good colored teams visit Pittsburgh, following the Homestead Grays to Forbes Field and out of town points we inquired about the percentage to be divided at Forbes Field. We also noticed as the years past, the number of colored patrons increased. And above all we reckoned with the location of Forbes Field and relative disadvantage which our people had to undergo in reaching it. With these facts constantly before us, it followed quite naturally that a park more centrally located among Negroes would have better patronage."
After six months of construction, on April 29, 1932, the new and fashionable Greenlee Field on the Hill opened its gates at 2400 Bedford Avenue. Before an estimated crowd of 4,000 fans, Greenlee's Crawfords tasted a 1-0 defeat by the New York Black Yankees. Despite 10 strikeouts by Satchel Paige, Black Yankee Ted Page scored the game's only run, in the ninth. Page singled, stole second, went to third on catcher Cy Perkins's throwing error, and scored on a Texas League single by Glint Thomas. Jesse "Mountain Man" Hubbard of the New York Black Yankees held the Craws to three singles, fanning four. Withstanding last-minute heroics, Hubbard escaped the threatening ninth inning when he kept Oscar Charleston's blast to left field and Josh Gibson's drive to center field in the ball park. Attorney Robert L. Vann, owner of the Pittsburgh Courier, tossed the ceremonial first pitch. Ches Washington wrote in his column "Sez Ches" that "all the color, glamour and picturesqueness that usually attends the opening of a big league ball park was in evidence as Goodsen's New York Black Yankees helped the popular Pittsburgh Crawfords dedicate the attractive Greenlee Park here Friday. Photos of both teams were taken. The band played. An impressive dedicatory speech was made by R. L. Vann, during which the spectators stood to pay homage to Gus Greenlee, builder of the park."
The Field claimed an estimated seating capacity of 6,000 for baseball and 10,000 for boxing. At the time, the modern brick and concrete structure was the largest stadium ever built that was maintained and owned by a black man. William Nunn of the Courier wrote of the stadium: "Pittsburgh has a new ball park, erected by a Negro, for Negroes, and with Negroes as participating factors. It is one of the finest independent ball parks in the country. With a left field longer than that at Forbes Field, and a right field which has yet to succumb to a home run wallop. It stands as a monument of progress." Stadium architect L. A. Bellinger released figures showing that 14 carloads of cements, 1,100 lineal feet of steel fencing, and approximately 75 tons of steel were used. The Bedford Land Improvement Company estimated the total cost to build the red-brick stadium to be between $75,000 and $100,000. Future plans called for seating to increase to 15,000 for baseball and 20,000 for football. Gus proudly boasted that Greenlee Field's left-field line was 350 feet 3 inches long (reportedly 23 feet longer than Forbes Field) and that the field was the largest in western Pennsylvania.
On Thanksgiving Day 1932, the mythical black collegiate football champion Wilberforce College (Ohio) played the West Virginia State Yellowjackets. That day, amid motorcades and marching bands, Greenlee Field became a focal point for black fans, earning the park the title "Pittsburgh's Sports Center."
Even the white press expressed praise for the mammoth structure. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Harvey J. Boyle, in his column "Mirrors of Sport," claimed:
A casual survey of the baseball park in Bedford Avenue, where the Crawfords will play their home games, indicates the general optimism of the men behind the project and their particular enthusiasm for semi-professional baseball and boxing.
There must be a number of minor league ball parks scattered throughout the land far less pretentious than the Bedford Avenue establishment.
A concrete and steel grandstand; well-constructed bleachers, and barring one stretch, a fence that itself cost a sizable sum [combine] to make this field one of the finest in Western Pennsylvania. The amount of grading necessary, on top of the construction, probably run the operation into $50,000.
A special setup for boxing has been arranged, with seats on the field, and with the ring to be pitched where the greatest number of fans can see the show. It is one of the biggest operations around here.
Ticket windows and entrances have been well laid out and a large crowd will be handled with a minimum amount of confusion.
For baseball the foul lines are longer than at Forbes Field. The Philadelphia National League park could be put inside the Bedford plant.
All that is necessary now is to get the crows, which the weather and the current times being what they are [post-depression era], may prove to be a big problem.
In the first year of operation, 119,384 patrons passed through Greenlee's gates. Baseball accounted for 69,229 fans, with 22,081 fans seeing boxing events and another 21,639 fans enjoying football games. Another 6,435 fans witnessed soccer games at the Field. In August 1932, floodlights were installed, making Greenlee Field the first stadium in the country to feature nocturnal baseball). The estimated cost to install the lighting fixtures was $6,000.
The first nighttime contest was played against the bewhiskered House of David team on August 13, 1932. The Craws won 6-3, behind William Bell's 6-hitter and 10 strikeouts. Newly acquired outfielder Ted Page led the offensive attack with a home run and a single. Attendance was not reported.
When the East-West League folded in midseason of 1932, the Negro National League was formed, with Gus Greenlee as president. W. Rollo Wilson in his column "Sports Shots" reported that Greenlee told him that "last Thanksgiving he was going to try to save baseball in 1933 by organizing a league. He felt that the only way to stimulate interest in the game was by having a real competition. He was not unmindful of the fate of the East-West loop of 1932 and he had hoped to surround himself with men of financial strength who would be willing to count any losses as an investment, an investment which would pay dividends in the years to follow."
Greenlee had written a letter to Rollo outlining his new hope for league stability: "The purpose of this meeting is to sound out club owners, officials and fans on the subject of baseball in general and a baseball league in particular. I do not know who is going to be there, but I suppose that all of the owners East and West have been invited to attend." Greenlee continued: "If there is to be league or an association or more than one of them then it must be constructed on a sane foundation and not reared on such a sandy bottom as that which could not support the weight of the East-West loop of 1932.... Negro baseball is at a low ebb and both owners and players must make sacrifices and more sacrifices to maintain it until such a time that the fans are again in funds and able to storm the ballyard ramparts."
The members of the newly formed league lost the first-half title to the Chicago American Giants by one game. The American Giants also claimed the second-half title. However, the validity of some league games played by the American Giants was questioned. After considerable debate, league president Greenlee wielded his power by taking away unofficial league wins from the Giants and declaring his own team the National League champions.
Without a doubt, the East-West All-Star Game held annually at Comiskey Park was Greenlee's biggest contribution to the national pastime. The event became the most visible competition in black sports in America. Greenlee's influence was obvious in the inaugural contest, in which 7 of the 14 Eastern players were Crawfords. However, despite the presence of Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, John Henry Russell, Sam Streeter, and Bert Hunter, the team lost to Willie Foster and his Western mates, 11-7.
The 1934 season was a year of peaks and valleys for Greenlee. In July, three armed men at the 28th Street Bridge and Brereton Avenue robbed Gus and his brother Frank, forcing their car to the curb and taking a reported $600, presumably receipts from the Crawford Grill. The apex of Greenlee's ownership career came on the Fourth of July of the same year, when Satchel Paige pitched a 2-0 no-hitter against the crosstown rival Homestead Grays. This victory gave the Crawfords bragging rights in Pittsburgh over the traditionally tough Grays. W. P. "Pimp" Young, who umpired the game, recalled, "As I remember the best that the Grays did all day was to hit a few feeble grounders." Meanwhile, the Crawfords fell to third place and labored to a won-lost record of 29-17.
The glory year in Crawford history came the following season, 1935. Showcasing five future Hall of Famers in Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson (and Sam Bankhead, who should be in the Hall of Fame), they ran away from the competition, winning 39 of 54 games for an astonishing .722 winning percentage. This team is called by several baseball historians the greatest Negro league team ever assembled and is often compared to the 1927 New York Yankees. The powerful Crawfords repeated as Negro National League Champions in 1936, winning 36 games and losing 24 before disaster struck.
During spring training of 1937, the tables were turned on Greenlee when Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo raided his team. Trujillo enticed eight Crawfords (center fielder Cool Papa Bell; left fielder Sam Bankhead; first baseman Harry Williams; catchers Bill Perkins and Josh Gibson; pitchers Leroy Matlock, Satchel Paige, and Ernest "Spoon" Carter) with suitcases of money to join his politically motivated team, the Ciudad Trujillos. Greenlee's Crawfords never recovered from the 1937 assault. The Crawfords finished the first half of the season in next-to-last place. That year, only three Crawford players made the all-star team (Lloyd "Pepper" Bassett, Barney Morris, and Ches Williams) and two more in 1938 (Sam Bankhead and Johnny "Schoolboy" Taylor). In previous years, the Crawfords had seven (in 1933); eight (1934); six (1935); and nine players (1936) in the East-West classics. With losing records in 1937 and 1938, the less-talented Crawfords proved to be a financial handicap for Greenlee, forcing the team to disband.
Philadelphian Eddie Gottlieb, a white booking agent for the league, made a futile attempt to save the Crawford franchise in an April 4, 1939, letter to each owner. Earlier in 1933, Gottlieb became co-owner of the Philadelphia Stars team with Ed Bolden from Darby, Pennsylvania. He later coached and managed the Philadelphia Warriors basketball team in the NBA. But like most white owners of the period, "Fast Eddie" did not allow black players on his basketball team. His 10 percent booking fee for permissions to play in Yankee Stadium, Shibe Park, and other parks was hailed by some black owners and damned by others.
In his letter, Gottlieb devised a plan for every owner to advance Gus Greenlee $200, for a total of $1,000, which would provide some working capital. The loan would be paid back when the Crawfords made their first appearance at the respective park. If the gate receipts did not cover the first visit, then the second visit would surely satisfy the note. With the season soon to start, none of the owners tendered Gottlieb's proposed loan, forcing Greenlee into an unwelcome retirement. The New York Cubans, owned by Alex Pompez, took over for the once-famous Crawfords in the league standings.
On December 10, 1938, the acclaimed Greenlee Field on Bedford Avenue was demolished, becoming the Bedford Dwellings housing project. Writer John L. Clark wrote, "Greenlee Field joins the list of banks, industries and other enterprises, which should not be again attempted in this city for the next 100 years." In February 1939, Greenlee sold the team to some white Toledo (Ohio) businessmen and soon after resigned as league president with a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier stating:
After a careful study of the baseball outlook, and in a review of my experience and losses of the past seven years, I have concluded that my resignation from office as president will serve the best interest of all concerned.
Greenlee Field has passed into history, and we have no home grounds that we can control. We can no longer plan for the day when improved industrial conditions will appear and make more profitable athletics in this section. The Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball club had developed a warm friendship and enthusiastic following east of Pittsburgh. I had planned to be active this year if a major league park could be secured in New York or Brooklyn. Since this is impossible, I can see no good judgment in moving the club to a city west of Pittsburgh.... Perhaps new blood will bring new ideas and new weapons.
Although their tenure in the Negro Leagues was short, the Pittsburgh Crawfords can proudly claim three league titles: 1933, 1935, and 1936. Over the years, their all-star lineups included such unheralded stars as Jimmie Crutchfield, Sam Bankhead, and Ted Page and such unsung pitchers as Spoon Carter, Sam Streeter, Bert Hunter, and Johnny "Schoolboy" Taylor. Furthermore, the Crawfords could profess to featuring Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Satchel Paige in their lineups.
Excerpted from Black Baseball's National Showcase by Larry Lester. Copyright © 2001 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|List of Photographs||xiii|
|Foreword by Joe Black||xv|
|The Guiding Light of Modern Negro Baseball||9|
|Respect, Redemption, Recognition||395|