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Legacy of legends

| Thursday, July 6, 2006

On a spring afternoon in 1941, a 20-year-old catcher named James Tillman played in his first game for the Homestead Grays.

Naturally, he was jittery about making the leap from a sandlot team to the Negro Leagues. It didn't help that Tillman, born in a small town in South Carolina, was getting his first taste of pro ball at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Then, standing in the on-deck circle, Tillman touched his jersey and realized he was part of the famous Grays.

"I was never more nervous in my life," Tillman said with a laugh.

Tillman's hands trembled slightly as he cocked the bat over his shoulder. With the count at 2-2, Tillman was determined not to strike out in front of his new teammates.

The pitch was low, but he made contact and tore off at full speed toward first base.

"I was running hard, running like it was a single," Tillman said. "Then I saw the first-base coach put up his hands and say, 'Slow down, son.' I had hit a home run down the left-field line, and I didn't even know it."

Tillman's career with the Grays was brief, ending after just three seasons. But the memories have lasted a lifetime.

"People ask me about what it was like, and when I tell them, they can't believe it," Tillman said. "I was there, and sometimes I can't believe it myself. It really amazed me. I don't think we'll ever see anything like it again."

It was an era when the color line prevented some of the best players in the world from playing in the National and American leagues. It also was a time when baseball fans in Pittsburgh did not have to wait for an All-Star Game to see future Hall of Famers in action.

"Everybody wanted to play in Pittsburgh," said Samuel Black, curator of African American collections at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. "It had a major role in the Negro Leagues.

"There was never a large African American population here, but to have two teams -- especially ones that were so successful, like the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords -- is really saying something."

No city in America boasted as many stellar players, many of whom are enshrined at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Near the museum's entrance is the Field of Legends, with bronze, life-size statues honoring the greatest players in Negro Leagues history.

Seven of the 12 players depicted -- catcher Josh Gibson, pitchers Satchel Paige and Martin Dihigo, first baseman Buck Leonard, third baseman Judy Johnson, and outfielders Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston -- spent at least part of their careers in Pittsburgh.

This year, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will induct five former Negro Leaguers with Pittsburgh ties -- pitcher Ray Brown, infielders Sol White and Jud "Boojum" Wilson, and outfielders Cumberland Posey and Pete Hill.

White and Hill were pioneers. In 1887, they played for the Pittsburgh Keystones in the short-lived National Colored Base Ball League, the first organized Negro League.

"If someone asked me who was the greatest hitter in black baseball history, I'd say Pete Hill, hands down," baseball historian Phil Dixon said. "He was a hit machine. I'm yet to find a box score in which he doesn't have a hit."

Hill and Posey, who transformed an industrial league team into the Grays, were Pittsburgh natives.

"It's one of the great aspects of Pittsburgh that we've always had great homegrown talent," said Rob Ruck, a Negro League historian and senior lecturer in the history department at Pitt.

Gibson wasn't exactly a native; he moved from rural Georgia to Pittsburgh's North Side when he was 11 years old. By the time he was 19, Gibson was one of the most feared sluggers in any league, black or white.

"Everything they say about him is true," Tillman said. "Josh could hit the ball a country mile."

One day, when the Grays were playing at Griffith Stadium in Washington, Gibson homered in consecutive at-bats. Both shots broke windows of the same house, across from the deepest part of center field.

"The fella who owned the house came over to complain," Tillman said with a laugh. "He kept saying, 'Somebody's gotta pay for this!' "

The Grays started in 1900 as a group of steelworkers who called themselves the Blue Ribbons. A decade later, Posey took over and led the team on barnstorming tours.

The Crawfords were organized by Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawford Grill in the Hill District. In 1931, Greenlee used his gambling profits to buy the team and build a ballyard with space for 7,000 fans on Bedford Avenue.

"He took a sandlot club and turned it into ballclub with a half-dozen Hall of Famers," Ruck said.

Posey cut a deal with Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field and lock out other black teams. After Dreyfuss died in 1932, several of Posey's top players defected to the Crawfords.

Growing up in Pittsburgh's East End, Wallace "Bucky" Williams dropped out of school before he reached his teens. A shortstop/third baseman, he played for the Crawfords from 1927-32 and the Grays in 1936.

Williams, who lives in Penn Hills, said his career batting average was .340. During his lone season with the Grays, Williams singled against the fearsome Paige.

"Not many people got hits off Satchel," Williams said, with a satisfied smile.

"I remember he always would tell us the story of how he just closed his eyes and swung the bat," said Williams' son, David Williams.

One of Williams' teammates was catcher Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. As a warning to opposing baserunners, "Thou shalt not steal" was written across Radcliffe's chest protector.

Radcliffe also played for both the Grays and Crawfords, but that's not the reason for his nickname. During a doubleheader in the 1932 Negro League World Series, Radcliffe caught Paige's shutout in the first game, then pitched a shutout of his own in the second.

"I played with Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige," said Williams, who will turn 100 in December. "I enjoyed it. We didn't make no money. The Pirates (today) aren't playing good baseball, but they're making good money."

When asked if he thought the Pirates -- or any other team in the majors today -- could compete with the Crawfords or Grays, Williams grinned and shook his head.

"No, no," he said.

Greenlee formed the Negro National League in 1933, and the Crawfords were the powerhouse team for six seasons. However, the team was weakened by player defections and moved to Toledo when Greenlee sold the franchise in '39.

The Grays became next great Negro League dynasty, winning nine straight NNL titles. Gibson, known as the "black Babe Ruth," was the most feared slugger in the league.

Gibson died of a stroke in 1947, when he was just 35. Three months later, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

Five seasons after Robinson broke the color barrier, the Negro Leagues were finished.

"It was the end of an American era, not just a Negro era," Dixon said. "Today, can you think of any town in America that could put together a team that could beat the Yankees• Or a town that could field a team of just black ballplayers that could beat the Yankees• We'll never see anything like it, ever again."

Looking back

Here's a look at the history of Negro League baseball in Pittsburgh:

1887 -- The National Colored Base Ball League, the first organized professional Negro League, is born. The Pittsburgh Keystones are among the nine charter members. The league folds after two weeks.

1912 -- The Homestead Grays are formed by Cumberland Posey, who for years leads the team on successful barnstorming tours.

1928 -- The American Negro League is formed. The Grays are among the six East Coast teams in the league, which survives one season.

1931 -- Gus Greenlee, a numbers runner and nightclub owner, forms the Pittsburgh Crawfords and builds Greenlee Stadium in the Hill District for $100,000 -- an enormous sum at the height of the Depression. The roster includes the Hall of Fame battery of Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson. Player-manager Oscar Charleston bats .363 and the team goes 99-36 on the barnstorming circuit.

1932 -- Posey attempts to establish the East-West League with the Grays and eight other teams, including Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and Baltimore. However, the league falls apart by June.

1932 -- In the Negro League World Series, Ted Radcliffe of the Pittsburgh Crawfords catches Paige in the opener of a doubleheader, then pitches a shutout in the second game. The feat earns Radcliffe the nickname "Double Duty."

1933 -- Greenlee launches a seven-team league called the Negro National League.

1934 -- The Crawfords take on the Philadelphia Stars before a crowd of 30,000 at Yankee Stadium. Paige strikes out 12 Stars, and the game is called because of darkness with the score tied, 1-1, after nine innings.

1935 -- Lefty pitcher Leroy Matlock goes 18-0 for the Crawfords. The Crawfords win the NNL championship series against the New York Cubans when Charleston hits a grand slam in Game 7. The Grays finally give up their independent status and join the Negro National League.

1936 -- Gibson reportedly hits a combined 84 home runs in league and barnstorming games. The Crawfords, having added Buck Leonard and speedster James "Cool Papa" Bell, now have six future Hall of Famers on their roster.

1937 -- Gibson and Leonard defect to the Grays, who win the first of nine straight NNL championships and three Negro World Series titles.

1939 -- Greenlee sells the Crawfords, and the franchise is moved to Toledo, Ohio. Greenlee Field is demolished.

1943 -- Gibson bats .474 with 14 homers in 190 at-bats.

1946 -- Posey dies of cancer. On the day of his funeral, schools in Homestead are closed out of respect.

1947 -- Gibson dies at age 35.

1947 -- Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier when he debuts with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1948 -- Paige signs with the Cleveland Indians. At 42, Paige is the oldest rookie to ever play in the majors. The Negro National League shuts down at the end of the season. Leonard is the final league-leader in batting average, with a .395 mark.

1952 -- With the majors integrated, the Negro Leagues era comes to an end. Leonard is offered a major-league contract but turns it down, thinking that at age 45 he is too old to play up to his standards. Additional Information:

Coming up

Here's a look at the Negro Leagues events this summer in Pittsburgh:

Today -- Former players from the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords will sign autographs from 10 a.m. to noon at The Pump House at the Waterfront.

Sunday -- The Josh Gibson Foundation's All-Star Gala will be held at 6 p.m. at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District.

Monday -- 'Negro League and Barrier Breakers Day' at the Heinz History Center. Former Negro League players will be on hand from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Author David Maraniss will discuss his recently released book, 'Clemente.'

Through Aug. 1 -- The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will present 'Black Ball,' an exhibit by local artists, at the 709 Penn Avenue Gallery.

Aug. 11 -- Officials from the History Center will place a state historical marker at the former site of Greenlee Field on Bedford Avenue, Hill District.

Aug. 12-13 -- A mobile museum will visit PNC Park as part of a 30-city tour. The 53-foot trailer will display photos, video, uniforms and other memorabilia from the Negro League Baseball Museum.

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