Josh Gibson Foundation to celebrate Negro League 100th anniversary in Pittsburgh
On Feb. 13, 1920, a group of independent black baseball team owners held a meeting at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo. While they couldn’t have known at the time that they were about to change the course of American history, it was out of that meeting that the Negro National League was born.
The league flourished throughout the 1920s and beyond, becoming the first successful, organized professional black baseball league in the country. Others followed. By providing a playing field for African-American and Hispanic baseball players to showcase their world-class baseball abilities, it became a force that provided cohesion and a source of pride in black communities.
On Tuesday at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, the Josh Gibson Foundation announced a series of events to celebrate the Negro League centennial, including a youth baseball tournament, a centennial symposium and a gala honoring the legacy of Josh Gibson.
Josh Gibson Foundation executive director Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of the Negro League star and baseball Hall of Famer, said he was compelled to lead a centennial celebration because of Pittsburgh’s storied Negro League history.
“You can’t talk about the Negro League without talking about the two great teams in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords,” Gibson said. “Then you talk about the two greatest players in the league, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. And for us to consider that legacy through our family and through our foundation, it’s very important to us to make sure that people don’t forget these guys.”
Josh Gibson, who was born in Buena Vista, Ga., and grew up in Pittsburgh, was known as “the black Babe Ruth.” He was a catcher for both the Crawfords and the Grays and reportedly hit 84 home runs in 1936 on his way to a career total of nearly 800.
Paige, also a Hall-of-Famer, pitched for the Crawfords. Unlike Gibson, Paige made it to the mostly white major leagues, after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, and became the first African American to pitch in the World Series in 1948 with the Cleveland Indians. He was 42.
While Gibson and Paige were stars in the Negro National League, the quality of play was considered to be as good or better than that of the major leagues. Rob Ruck, a Negro League historian and University of Pittsburgh professor, said the Negro League stars outperformed teams of Major League All-Stars in barnstorming games most of the time.
“In terms of talent and competitiveness, they more than stacked up,” Ruck said. “The testimony of Dizzy Dean, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Honus Wagner and others about the caliber of play of John Henry ‘Pop’ Lloyd, and obviously Gibson and Paige, speaks to their deep respect for the competitive abilities of these players. Wagner said he was honored that Lloyd was called ‘the black Honus Wagner.’ ”
The ramifications of the success of the Negro National League went well beyond the baseball diamond.
“At that time, there was a belief held by most white Americans that African Americans were inherently inferior creatures, and their exclusion from baseball confirmed that in the eyes of many white people,” Ruck said.
“When I look at what these leagues did, they had a profound effect on the consciousness of black America,” Ruck said. “When you didn’t have much of a chance to make it in the workplace or in politics or in most places in American society and you can make it on a ballfield, it becomes even more important because it’s a way to show what you can do and feel good about who you are.”
The Negro Leagues would operate for 40 years. Together, the Grays and the Crawfords won over a dozen Negro League titles. Gibson said Pittsburgh’s rich black baseball history will be honored in a number of ways.
Next year, from June 26 to 28, youth baseball teams from across the country will be welcomed by former Pirates great Al Oliver to play in the Josh Gibson Youth Classic in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The players will wear uniforms representing the Negro League teams from their respective cities in what’s being billed as a weekend of competition and fellowship.
“In addition to the games, there will be a lot of educational and history things for these kids,” Gibson said. “We’re going to go to Josh Gibson’s gravesite. The most important thing besides the baseball classic is to teach these kids the importance of what these great men went through, what they overcame and what they would become.
“My grandfather, Josh Gibson Jr., he traveled with the team as a bat boy. He used to tell me stories of how these guys couldn’t go to certain hotels in some cities, had to stay with people in the community who would take them in. They couldn’t go to certain gas stations. There was racism.”
Other events include a Centennial Symposium at Duquesne University on Oct. 16, 2020. Ruck will moderate a panel of speakers steeped in the history of the Negro Leagues.
A Josh Gibson Foundation Gala on Oct. 17 at the Wyndham Hotel will honor Gibson’s legacy and those making an impact in government, civil service, business, sports, community service and education through the G.I.B.S.O.N. Awards.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].