THE NEGRO LEAGUES: The Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords
Now contrary to what some may think, the Pirates are not the only baseball team to have called Pittsburgh home. Pittsburgh was a very prominent player in the Negro Leagues in addition to Major League Baseball. There have been not just one, but two Negro League teams that played in Pittsburgh. Those two teams are the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
The Grays came together as a professional team in 1912, but the team was already around for a little over a decade prior to this as an amateur team. In 1900, a group of African-American ballplayers formed the Germantown Blue Ribbons, and played against the top amateur teams in the area for the next ten years. At the turn of the decade, the managers retired, but the players wanted to keep going. They renamed the team the Murdock Grays, and two years later in 1912, the name was changed to the Homestead Grays. The 1912 name change marked the year that the Grays’ founding is officially recognized. The Grays operated independently for the following seventeen years until they joined the American Negro League in 1929. That only lasted for one season, however, and the Grays went their independent way again until 1932. In 1932, the Grays once again joined a league for only one short year. The league they joined this time was the East-West League. Not only was the Grays’ stay in the league very short, but so was the life span of that league itself, lasting for only the 1932 season. The league was founded by Cum Posey, the owner of the Grays, in hopes to improve the profile of his team. Due to the Great Depression, attendance was extremely low, and teams started to abandon their schedule. Detroit’s team folded, and so did the league itself in July, after only two months of operation.
After a couple more years of independence, the Grays joined the National Negro League in 1935, a union that would last until the team’s closure thirteen years later. With the help of manager Vic Harris, the next thirteen years in the NNL turned the Grays into one of the most successful Negro League teams ever. Harris led the Grays to nine league titles, and three Negro League World Series titles, more than any other team. When the NNL disbanded in 1948, the Grays went back to operating independently for two more years until they decided to close up shop in 1950.
The other Negro League team in Pittsburgh was the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords lasted a much shorter time than that of the Grays. The team was founded in 1930 and closed in 1938. The Crawfords were originally a semi-pro youth team, sponsored by the Crawford Bath House and Recreation Center. In 1931, the year following the start of the team, the Crawfords were bought by Gus Greenlee, the owner of the famous Crawford Grill in the Hill District. Greenlee used his reputation to bring in some of the biggest African-American names in baseball, most notably Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell. Much like the Grays, the Crawfords spent their first couple of years in existence as an independent team. That would change in 1933 when Greenlee started the National Negro League. Over the next few years, the Crawfords consistently fielded one of the best teams in the league, winning the league title in 1935 and 1936. The next year saw the Crawfords start to collapse. That was mainly due to Satchel Paige leaving the team to play in the Dominican Republic. He convinced Crawfords teammates Gibson and Bell to follow him. Understandably, the Crawfords were never able to recover from losing three of their best players. Their record plummeted, and attendance at their games suffered as a result. Greenlee was forced to sell the team to Toledo in 1938, and after a mediocre ’39 season, the team was forced to shut down for good.
THE EARLY YEARS: The Alleghenys
The Pirates were the first professional baseball team to call Pittsburgh home. Much like the Steelers, the Pirates found themselves shuffling names around until they settled on the current one in 1891. The team was founded in 1882, and was known simply as Allegheny. Allegheny played as a member of the American Association for five dreadful seasons. Leading into the 1887 season, Allegheny changed leagues and even changed names. The team moved from the American Association into the still-standing National League, and changed from Allegheny to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. The changes didn’t affect the team’s struggle to find wins. The year 1890 marked the very lowest point that the franchise would ever experience, putting up a record of 23-113, one that has never been lowered by the Alleghenys or Pirates since. They did have, however, a very legitimate excuse: virtually every player of note on the team jumped over to Pittsburgh’s other newly founded team in the Players’ League, the Pittsburgh Burghers. The Burghers, as well as the Players’ League, only lasted for that one season. Due to having such an atrocious season, the owner of the Alleghenys was forced to move the team back into the American Association, where he then bought out the Burghers and returned the Alleghenys to the National League. Once the team was back in the National League, they had to completely reconstruct their roster, because most of the players were lost in the shuffling between leagues. One of the players they came across was Lou Bierbauer, a highly touted second baseman from the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association. The Athletics forgot to place Bierbauer on their reserves list going into the 1891 season, which meant the Alleghenys were legally allowed to pick him up. While what was done was completely legal, the Athletics understandably opposed the Alleghenys’ move, claiming that they “pirated” Bierbauer from them.
A NAME CHANGE IS MADE
Starting in 1891, the Alleghenys changed their name to the Pirates, which stuck with the team ever since. Just eight short years later, the Pirates made what is arguably considered the greatest trade in team history. The National League was cutting four of its twelve teams. One team being cut was the Louisville Colonels. Knowing of his team’s eventual fate, Louisville’s owner, Barney Dreyfuss, purchased half of the Pirates. Following the 1898 season, Dreyfuss sent half of his team to the Pirates in exchange for four relatively unknown players who would never amount to much over their careers. The Pirates, however, made quite the pickup, including future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke.
Wagner and Clarke helped push the Pirates out of their basement dwelling ways, and into the spotlight of the National League. In 1903, the two led the Pirates to the first World Series ever, played at Exposition Park. They lost to Cy Young and the Boston Americans by a final tally of five games to three. The Pirates maintained that winning mentality, and it finally paid off in 1909 when the team captured its first World Series title at their new ballpark, Forbes Field. The series lasted seven games, with the Pirates holding off the Detroit Tigers and their young superstar, Ty Cobb. Within the following decade, the skills of Honus Wagner started to decline, and the Pirates were only able to go as far as Honus could take them. The team fell back into their losing slump for quite a number of years, until Pie Traynor and Kiki Cuyler arrived on the scene to help longtime Pirate Max Carey right the ship. All three of them would go on to have Hall of Fame careers. The Pirates finally arrived back on the national scene by winning the 1925 World Series over the Washington Senators. They went on to reach the 1927 World Series as well, but were swept by the New York Yankees, led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Despite the crushing blow of losing the 1927 World Series, it was the start of a disappointing era. The Pirates underachieved, year after year, despite the help of brothers Lloyd and Paul Waner, along with Arky Vaughn, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame. This generation came and went without producing a single World Series appearance or a National League Pennant.
CHANGES IN OWNERSHIP
Following World War II, the Pirates once again had high-caliber talent, but still badly underachieved. A change of ownership resulted in a change of scenery in the team clubhouse as well. The owner, Dreyfuss, finally left the team in 1946 to be replaced by legendary musician Bing Crosby for a short time. Ralph Kiner was one of the new faces in the clubhouse, and he was the greatest slugger of his time. He led the National League in homeruns for seven consecutive seasons, but Pirates only saw one winning season in that stretch. As a matter of fact, following that single winning season in 1948, the Pirates had a string of nine consecutive losing seasons.
Crosby wasn’t able to find success with the Pirates, and the team was sold to John Galbreath in 1950. Galbreath made what turned out to be one of the best hires in the history of the franchise when he brought in Branch Rickey as general manager. Rickey was not a popular man in Pittsburgh at his arrival. He decimated the entire roster, getting rid of veterans such as Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, and rebuilding the team from the ground up with nothing but youth. His risky gamble paid off when those youthful talents finally bloomed. Some of those players included pitchers Vern Law and Bob Friend, shortstop Dick Groat, and Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, known simply as “The Great One.” Clemente became one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen, and perhaps had the best arm from the outfield in the history of the sport. He was also one of the greatest humanitarians in the history of sports, spending much of his time off the field helping those in need. Clemente and the rest of this young core brought the Pirates back into prominence by winning the 1960 World Series in seven games over the Yankees in the most dramatic fashion possible. In a tied Game Seven, in the bottom of the ninth inning, “Maz” stepped up to the plate. Mazeroski was never known for his hitting power, but he rose to the occasion as he hammered one over the left field wall for a total of 406 feet to win it for the Pirates. This was the first and still the only time in which a Game Seven of the World Series ended on a homerun.
On October 13th each year, starting in 1985, and each year since, a taped broadcast of the final game of the 1960 World Series is played with fans as they gather at the outfield wall in Oakland. This is the location where Forbes Field stood which is now part of the University of Pittsburgh campus. It originally started with just one man, but has since grown to a larger group of fans.
Before the 1970’s, the recordings of sporting events were usually taped over, losing the event forever. This was true of the 1960 World Series recordings as well, with one exception. In December 2009, a black and white kinescope of the entire Game 7 was surprisingly discovered in the wine cellar of Bing Crosby’s California home. Crosby placed it there himself after viewing the kinescope, and it remained in that spot for 49 years. Crosby was too nervous to actually watch the game live, and chose to listen on shortwave radio while in Paris, France, and had someone record the game for his viewing later in the event the Pirates won the series. This is the only copy of that historic game known to exist, and for Pirates fans, it was quite a find!
The Pirates failed to return to the World Series throughout the rest of the 60’s, but with the arrival of Willie Stargell, that would soon change. The Pirates won their fourth World Series against the Baltimore Orioles in 1971. That wasn’t the only special thing the Pirates accomplished that season. In September of the same year, they put on the field the first all-black lineup ever. Those moments, however, were short-lived.
The Pirates put together a fairly successful regular season in 1972, but the real news happened after the season ended. Nicaragua was hit hard by a devastating earthquake in December of that year, and Clemente felt the need to help. He started sending down aid packages to help the victims, but learned that his packages were being intercepted by Nicaragua’s corrupt government, and they were never reaching the victims. Clemente’s hope was that perhaps, if he accompanied his next shipment himself, that his appearance would ensure that his packages would be delivered to those so desperately in need. Due to a series of very unfortunate events, Clemente’s plane never made it to Nicaragua. The plane crashed into the ocean just off the coast of Puerto Rico on December 31, 1972, and Clemente’s body was never recovered. He died at the young age of 38. He put together as decorative a career as any Pirate has ever dreamed of. He won two World Series titles, the 1966 National League MVP, twelve straight Gold Gloves, four National League batting titles, made fifteen All-Star appearances, had 3,000 career hits, and last, but most important, he was an amazing human being who would do anything to help others. The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its five year waiting period to have Clemente inducted, and instead, inducted him the very next year.
Clemente’s death had the team reeling, finishing with a losing record. The most noticeable impact was undoubtedly on the team’s best pitcher, Steve Blass. Blass finished in second place for MVP of the 1971 World Series, right behind Clemente, and pitched very well for virtually each season he spent with the Pirates. Even though 1972 was one of Blass’ better years, the next year everything changed. He finished the season with a 3-9 record, and an ERA coming in at an inexplicable 9.85. This phenomenon is now known as the “Steve Blass Disease.” Many think the root of his struggles came from the loss of his friend and teammate, Clemente.
Later that decade in 1979, the Pirates once again won a World Series, their fifth, and once again it was over the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. This team was led by the 39-year-old World Series MVP, Willie Stargell, complimented by talent such as former National League MVP, Dave Parker.
The 80’s were a dark time for the Pirates. By the time the middle of the decade was reached, the team was easily considered to be the worst in baseball. But just like every other time the team was down, they found a way to quickly climb back towards the top. Jim Leyland was hired as manager in 1985, and one of the best outfields in baseball at the time was constructed. That outfield consisted of Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and future career homerun leader Barry Bonds. Along with the help of a pitching staff led by the 1990 Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, the Pirates won three straight division titles from 1990-92, losing in the National League Championship Series each of those seasons. The final series in 1992 is the one that still hurts for Pirates fans up to this day. The series went to a final seventh game, which pitted a matchup between Drabek and an up and coming John Smoltz for the Braves. Drabek pitched a miraculous game, and Leyland kept him in to close it out in the bottom of the ninth with a 2-0 lead. Drabek gave up a double to start it, second baseman Jose Lind committed a rare error, and Sid Bream was walked. Drabek was replaced, but the damage was already done. A sacrifice fly brought in the first run, the next batter was walked to reload the bases, and then the second out was from a pop up. With two outs, pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera singled to left to bring home David Justice, the tying run, and Sid Bream famously crossed the plate just ahead of Barry Bonds’ throw to eliminate the Pirates.
There is one thing that keeps fans fluttering into town to see the team play. PNC Park, the Pirates’ current home, opened in 2001. Most major sports writers and networks, including ESPN, consider PNC Park to be the best ballpark in baseball. Pirate fans are now have new reason to hope. Much like the early 60’s, today’s team is built around a youthful core with players such as Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. There are quite a few of the sport’s best pitching prospects playing for teams in the Pirates’ farm system.
After a very long struggle, there is hope on the horizon. The Pittsburgh fans are ever optimistic, and they really love to go to PNC Park to watch their home team.
By Michael Gliozzi