PITTSBURGH — It’s a history that’s rich and deep. Pittsburgh was known as the “mecca” of the Negro Leagues. The Steel City was the only city in America with two Black professional baseball teams.
Pittsburgh was home to both the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. The city was also home to some of the best players of the Negro League era.
“When we talk about Black history, we don’t want to talk about it just for one month,” said Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson, one of the best players in baseball’s history. “We like to talk about Black history 365 days a year. Negro Leagues is included in that.”
“The story they tell is a story of a hard-working people who lost, persevered and in the end, became among the best at what they did,” added Pitt professor and historian Rob Ruck. “The African American community has always been a part of that story.”
Among those players are Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Buck Leonard and Pittsburgh’s own Josh Gibson, known as the Black Babe Ruth. His great grandson, Sean, still lives in the city and heads the Josh Gibson Foundation.
“Some of these players had to stay in Black-owned hotels, had to eat at Black-owned restaurants,” Gibson explained. “So when the Negro Leagues diminished, a lot of those companies, organizations and businesses diminished as well, because there were not a lot of people supporting them.”
During a time of segregation, the Negro Leagues in Pittsburgh set the stage for Black athletes to succeed. Among its supporters was Steelers Owner Art Rooney, who wanted to see African Americans thrive on and off the field.
“That just goes to tell you what the Rooneys are all about,” Gibson said. “I mean, that’s why we have the Rooney Rule, you know. He started it back then.”
But it wasn’t just the Steelers. The Pirates also led the way, taking strides to honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues well ahead of the MLB.
“They’re the reason that every Major League club will have nights honoring the Negro Leagues, and teams playing in Negro League jerseys,” said Ruck.
“Major League Baseball has been late to the game in recognizing and celebrating the history of Black baseball,” he added.
In December 2020, that changed. A major announcement from MLB stated it will now recognize the Negro Leagues as Major League, meaning Negro League stats will go into its record books.
“We consider our descendants as major leaguers already,” said Gibson. “Now, they’re just confirmed by Major League Baseball.”
And Josh Gibson’s legacy may now live on in another way: on the MVP award. MLB decided to remove the name of former commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis from the award because he never integrated the leagues.
“How ironic would have been for someone like Josh Gibson, who was denied, and replaced the same man who denied him?” asked Gibson. “Now is the right time to do the right thing.”
If the MVP award is named after Gibson, his family says it would be honoring so much more than just his legacy. It would be for all the players who didn’t have the opportunity, thousands of men that Josh Gibson could be carrying on his shoulders for years to come.