Negro League Baseball exhibit touches base in 'Burgh
“Pride and Prejudice” could be a good title for a display on Negro League baseball, but the words of a famous player and organizer take on an even-more-telling statement.
Rube Foster, one of the founders of the National Negro League, once said the teams were afloat in an uncontrollable sea of business and social pressures and, to survive, they had to take charge of matters on their own.
“We are the ship,” he said.
Those words are the subtitle of a traveling art display that opens Friday at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
“The Story of Negro League Baseball: We Are The Ship” will be on display at the museum through Aug. 26.
“It is a story of strength, determination and defiance,” says Anne Maderasz, director of the museum division at the center. “In only one painting is anyone smiling.”
The display features 33 paintings by Kadir Nelson, an artist who has worked with filmmaker Steven Spielberg, as well as putting together illustrated history books, including one about the Negro leagues, also called “We Are the Ship.”
Nelson also created the image for the Willie Stargell commemorative stamp that is coming out July 21.
In addition to the art, the display will feature the debut of a life-size, historically accurate figure of Josh Gibson (1911-47), the power-hitting catcher who played for the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords and teams in Cuba and Mexico.
That image of Gibson in catchers garb was the subject of months of search by project coordinator Craig Britcher. It will be in the entrance of the exhibit. After the display, the figure will become part of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
Madarasz says the display will feature an authentic Grays' uniform from the early ‘40s and Gibson's 1930 employee card from Westinghouse Air Brake, where he worked as the company looked for a player, more than an employee.
“It was a very pivotal time for him,” she says. “It was when he was leaving community and corporate teams and moving into the Negro leagues.”
Members of the Gibson family and the Josh Gibson Foundation will unveil the figure at 4 p.m. today. Sean Gibson, great-grandson of the Hall of Fame catcher, says he is excited about the display because he and the foundation always are looking to do anything they can to keep the history of the Negro leagues alive in Pittsburgh.
“The younger generation will be the ones to carry the tradition forward,” he says.
Besides making sure knowledge of the league is maintained, he says, the league is involved in providing college scholarships and staging programs to help youth in the area.
He is excited about the Gibson figure, because it shows him in a catcher's stance, rather than others that focus only on his life as a hitter.
The center of the display, though, is the artwork of Nelson. He has put together images that range from portraits of Crawfords' owner Gus Greenlee and Gibson to action at a Kansas City Monarchs' game. He uses light and shadow strikingly, particularly in one painting Britcher called “Sunset of the Negro League.” In that, light is coming through openings of the stands to illuminate a batter while the rest of the scene is black.
“There was happiness and sadness when the Negro leagues disappeared,” Madarasz says. “The teams were subjects of great pride, support and ownership in their communities, and that didn't continue when the players went into the major leagues.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.