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02/05/05 8:00 AM ET

Steel City a Negro League mecca

Grays, Crawfords part of Pittsburgh's baseball lore

PITTSBURGH -- As one of the oldest franchises in the Major Leagues, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a storied history that can be matched by very few other professional sports teams.

As evidenced by their five World Series crowns, nine National League pennants and seven division titles, the Pirates have had more than their fair share of success over the years. And with players such as Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Barry Bonds among those on the team's all-time roster, Bucs fans have been fortunate to call some of the game's greats their own.

What some Pirates fans might not know is that many other baseball immortals called Pittsburgh home during the first half of the 20th century. As host to the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Steel City was center of the Negro League baseball universe in the 1930s. Unfortunately, those great teams were often relatively unknown outside of the black community.

The Grays began in 1910 as a recreational team for black workers at the Homestead Steel Mill. In 1912, the Grays took their show on the road. Led by manager Cum Posey, the Grays barnstormed throughout the eastern United States taking on all comers in small towns and big cities.

Over the years, the Grays' roster was stocked with some of the greatest players in baseball history, including James "Cool Papa" Bell, who was said to be so fast that he supposedly once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt; Judy Johnson, who is considered by some to be the greatest third baseman of all-time; Buck Leonard, a first baseman who drew favorable comparisons to Yankees contemporary Lou Gehrig; and Oscar Charleston, a player so blessed with speed and power that some old-timers still believe he is the greatest all-around player the game has ever seen.

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"The best player that I've ever seen in the Major Leagues was Willie Mays," said former Negro League All-Star and manager Buck O'Neil. "But the best baseball player I've ever seen was Oscar Charleston in the Negro Leagues in the '20s and '30s. This guy could hit you 50 home runs and steal you 100 bases."

On a Grays team filled with superstars, nobody could match catcher Josh Gibson. Known as the "Black Babe Ruth" because of his prodigious power, the Pittsburgh native was the most feared hitter in the history of the Negro Leagues. Although Negro League stats were not always well kept and the numbers unfortunately can't be confirmed, it is believed that Gibson hit 962 home runs during his 17-year career, including 84 in a single season.

"[Gibson] was one of the greatest," recalled O'Neil. "When you talk about his hitting, a lot of people like to compare Babe Ruth and Josh. But the difference between Ruth and Josh is Josh could outrun Ruth. Ruth would strike out 100 times a year and Josh would strike out maybe 20 times a year.

"Everyone talks about his hitting and his home runs, but he could catch and throw and run a ballclub for you, too."

The Crawfords were the Grays' crosstown rivals. Founded in 1925 as a community sandlot team, the Crawfords became a force in black baseball after Gus Greenlee purchased the team in 1930.

Greenlee, a well-known club owner and numbers racketeer, built his team a new ballpark in Pittsburgh's Hill District and raided the Grays and other Negro League teams for top talent. His 1935 Negro National League championship club included Bell, Charleston, Gibson, Johnson and the incomparable Satchel Paige, who was black baseball's top pitcher and greatest drawing card.

"One thing about Pittsburgh is, with the Crawfords, you had one of the best baseball teams ever assembled," said O'Neil. "You had five guys who are in the Hall of Fame now -- Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson. Those guys were on the same ballclub together in 1935.

"They had some wonderful ballplayers and they always drew well over there. [It was] exciting, really."

In recent years, the Pirates have paid tribute to the rich Negro League tradition of the city. The Bucs have worn replica Homestead Grays uniforms on several occasions since first donning the old-school threads on July 4, 1997, in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. On July 9, 2005, the Pirates will wear Crawfords uniforms for the first time during their home game against the New York Mets.

Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said that he gets certain satisfaction from wearing the Negro League uniforms.

"It gives you a sense of pride and it gives our players a sense of awareness of what our history is all about," said McClendon. "It's a nice showcase, and I'm sure the living legends are proud to see us wear it from time to time."

On July 14, 2001, the Pirates installed a total of eight, 18-foot fiberglass bats each containing two names of Homestead Grays or Pittsburgh Crawfords players in the left-field gate entrance of PNC Park. In addition, a marker was placed below the bats to provide information on the players and the two teams. The dedication was followed by a pregame ceremony during which surviving Crawfords and Grays players and their descendants were recognized on the field.

"Pittsburgh is very fortunate to have had so many great Negro League players and teams play in our city, " said Patty Paytas, Pirates vice president of communications. "As a Major League team, it's the Pirates' responsibility, and honor, to make sure that the stories and heroics of these players, and the Negro Leagues as a whole, are not forgotten. By adding a Negro League display to our left-field gate area, working with the locally based Josh Gibson Foundation and doing various Negro League pregame ceremonies and promotions throughout the year, we hope to keep the memory and history of this important part of baseball's past alive in our community."

McClendon is pleased that the Pirates have continually made efforts to recognize the contribution of the city's Negro League teams.

"I'm very proud of the fact that we're recognizing the history of the Negro Leagues and how important they were for baseball," said McClendon. "They laid the foundation and groundwork for so many great players. They have given me the opportunity to be where I am today [as well as] many more minorities in this game, and I don't take that lightly.

"The Negro Leagues were a big part of the history of this game. They are a big part of the bloodline of what Major League Baseball is all about. In order for us to understand where we are and where we're going, we certainly need to understand our past and the people who helped shape that. Negro League baseball was dead smack in the middle of shaping what Major League Baseball is all about."

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.