Is there no place in Pittsburgh for Negro League all-stars?
Statues of Satchel Paige and Larry Doby, who played for Cleveland in ’48 World Series victory, are gone from Legacy Square
The last time the Chicago Cubs played in the Fall Classic, in 1945 — three years before the arrival of Paige and Doby, and 71 years before the franchise’s next Series appearance — baseball was still segregated, making current Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler the answer to a trivia question: Who was the first African-American member of the Cubs to appear in the World Series?
So while television ratings are the highest since the 2009 World Series, not many viewers probably considered Paige’s and Doby’s significant contributions, much less the Cubs making history with its first African-American players in Series history.
Until recently, a small museum adjoining the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park was intended to raise not only awareness about the Negro Leagues with bronze life-size statues depicting seven famous players (including Paige), but also to help baseball fans — young and old, black and white — understand larger, more substantial questions about the role of race and sports in America.
So on the one hand, commend the Pirates for beating other MLB teams to the punch and building Legacy Square in conjunction with the 2006 All-Star Game that was played in Pittsburgh. But also frown at the Pirates’ decision to dismantle the shrine to the Negro Leagues almost a decade later as yet another example of the MLB casting aside a forgotten but valuable commodity: African-American ballplayers.
“Cleveland and Chicago haven’t won a World Series in a long time. Now, you have the statue of Satchel Paige who played for the Cleveland Indians the last time they won the Series being removed,” said Sean Gibson, executive director of the nonprofit and Pittsburgh-based Josh Gibson Foundation and great-grandson of Gibson, the legendary Negro League catcher whose statue also adorned Legacy Square until its removal in 2015.
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“That’s part of the history as well,” Gibson said. It’s a long-lost history that Gibson wants rekindled.
“Whether it’s MLB history or Negro League history, it’s baseball history. And that can never be forgotten,” Gibson said.
After not fielding their first African-American player until 1954 (seven years after Jackie Robinson), the Pirates took the lead among MLB teams and unveiled the first all-black and Latino starting lineup in 1971.
In 1988, the Pirates honored the 40th anniversary of the hometown Homestead Grays winning the final Negro League World Series. A Grays pennant banner was raised atop Three Rivers Stadium. During the ceremony, Pirates president Carl Barger apologized for the Pirates’ and MLB’s past segregation.
MLB later created annual Jackie Robinson Day celebrations for April 15. In 2006, the Baseball Hall of Fame enshrined 17 Negro League players and executives.
Former Pirates owner and CEO Kevin McClatchy lauded the creation of Legacy Square, which featured life-size statues lining the left-field gate entrance at PNC Park.
“This exhibit inspires, educates and emotionally connects people of all ages to … the remarkable story of the Negro Leagues,” McClatchy said.
Nine years after introducing Legacy Square to educate fans about local African-American baseball history, the Pirates — under new ownership when McClatchy sold the team to a group led by Bob Nutting — made the decision to remove the statues.
“The importance in the meaning of monuments is what do monuments say about us? They’re a public statement about who you are,” said Josh Howard, an assistant professor at Lamar University who specializes in sport and public history. “When the Pirates moved those seven statues, that was a powerful moment saying we don’t have anything to say about Pittsburgh’s black [baseball] past.
“If you don’t save Legacy Square, Legacy Square isn’t going to happen. The Pirates’ decision, in fact, fit a disturbing pattern over the past four decades of MLB’s indifference to African-American players.”
In 1975, more than 27 percent of all major league players were African-American. Sixteen black players appeared in the All-Star Game that year. By 1997, the percentage of African-American players had dwindled to 17 percent. This year, the number of African-American players is only 8 percent.
There are currently two African-American managers (Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts) and no black general managers. Ken Williams (Chicago White Sox) and Mike Hill (Miami Marlins) were elevated to president of their respective teams.
“I helped the Pirates with Legacy Square. I have a long, ongoing relationship with them,” said Rob Ruck, a professor of sports history at the University of Pittsburgh since 1975 and the author of two books focusing on African-Americans in baseball, including Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game.
“While I’m quite positive about all their efforts, while I remain hopeful, I don’t know why they did it. Legacy Square brought attention to this mostly forgotten past to a large number of people, and I would like to see the Pirates continue to do so.
The Pirates rebuffed Gibson’s offer to place the statues around PNC Park, indicating the left-field concourse area was not attracting enough fans and the team felt it was better to spread fans around the entire ballpark.
In response, Gibson removed not only his great-grandfather’s statue but the other six statues depicting all-time greats who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Grays (Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell and Smokey Joe Williams included).
“When I was asked when are you going to pick them up, I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Gibson said. “At one time, the Gibson family felt like the Pirates were way ahead of the bar in terms of celebrating the history of the Negro Leagues. For them to honor the Negro Leagues for all this time and then decide to take away a big part of baseball and the Negro Leagues was very disappointing to the family. We always looked at the Pirates for setting the example for other MLB teams.”
The Josh Gibson Foundation — whose mission is youth outreach through educational and athletic programs — contacted Hunt Auctions of Exton, Pennsylvania, which specializes in sports memorabilia. The statues were presented for auction during MLB All-Star Weekend FanFest. Each statue brought more than five times the expected return and yielded a total of $226,950. The foundation kept approximately 75 percent of the proceeds following auction fees.
‘The unique part of the statues was to have a rare set like that,” said David Hunt of Hunt Auctions. “There was very significant interest. Definitely higher than normal.
“There were absentee bidders. There were phone bidders. That was not common. Not for something like this.”
Contacted by The Undefeated, the Pirates released a statement about their role in the sale of the seven statues from Legacy Square.
“We have and will continue to celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues here in Pittsburgh, as well as support the continued education and remembrance of their impact,” Pirates vice president of communications & broadcasting Brian Warecki said in an email. “The changes were made with two thoughts in mind, to refresh the way in which we pay tribute to Pittsburgh’s great Negro League history and players, and to raise needed funds in support of a Negro League exhibit that will be seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors year-round and not just in the ballpark during a game.”
Warecki continued: “Our goal in the Legacy Square area always has been to ensure the educational experience remaining fresh for our fans. We moved away from the statues and instead installed banners that can be changed out on an ongoing basis. This will allow us to raise awareness of even more great players from baseball in Pittsburgh, while providing corresponding educational information through the use of our ballpark app.”
Gibson described the Pirates’ response as little more than damage control.
“It’s very disappointing to hear the Pirates make a statement that’s untrue. It’s a shame that the Pirates are providing a scapegoat based off their sole decision to remove the statues from PNC Park. Their decision was not based on raising funds for Josh Gibson Heritage Park [scheduled for construction in 2017],” Gibson said. “The Gibson family has no animosity toward the Pirates. We understand they made a business decision. But we will not stand for their business decision to discredit the foundation by saying their initial plan was to donate statues.
“When I met with the Pirates and they told me they were getting rid of the statues, they did not even know what to do with them. I called the Pirates the next day and said we will take the statues and raise money for the foundation.”
During the same month of the Legacy Square auction, the Indians constructed a statue of Doby, the first African-American player in the American League, outside Progressive Field.
“Money comes and goes. The Gibson family would rather have the statues there for 20 years,” Gibson said. “History lasts forever. That money from the auction is nothing compared to the history in those statues.”
More egregious, Gibson said, is the implication that the Pirates donated the statues to assist the Josh Gibson Foundation in building a proposed $1.8 million facility that will be named the FedEx Ground Josh Gibson Heritage Park in the Station Square area of Pittsburgh.
“If the Pirates had said we’re going to give you the statues so you can raise money for the project, I would have said no,” Gibson said. “A part of that money will go to Heritage Park. But that was a foundation decision, a board decision, not the Pirates suggesting we do that. We’re raising money for Heritage Park already.
“We received $500,000 from FedEx Ground in naming rights to be the title sponsor. We also received $250,000 in country tourism funds. We’ve got other proposals out, so hopefully by the end of the year, we’ll have $1 million of the $1.8 million needed.”