Let's Learn From the Past: Gus Greenlee

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Armed with a keen business sense and a love of sports, Gus Greenlee became one of the most influential figures in the history of Negro League baseball.

Born in Marion, N.C., in 1895, Greenlee left college after one year to work a series of low-paying jobs in Pittsburgh. Following a year and a half of service during World War I as a machine gunner, Greenlee returned to Pittsburgh, purchased a taxi cab, and began bootlegging liquor at the height of Prohibition.

A self-made businessman, Greenlee owned a stake in several hotels and nightclubs in the Hill District, including the famous Crawford Grill on Wylie Avenue, where legendary performers such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie regularly performed.

By the mid-1920s, Greenlee began running the numbers game -- an informal local lottery -- and earned an increasing amount of political clout in the city's African-American communities.

In 1930, Greenlee purchased a local semi-pro baseball team, the Crawford Colored Giants, and renamed them the Pittsburgh Crawfords. With his deep pockets, Greenlee enticed many star players to join the team, including Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston. The Crawfords quickly developed into one of baseball's most formidable teams, winning three titles from 1932 through 1936 in the Negro National League, which Greenlee helped to establish.

As his fame and fortune grew, he bought a customized bus to transport the team as they barnstormed from city to city, and he purchased a vacant lot on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District to build a baseball stadium. The 7,500-seat Greenlee Field opened in 1932 as the first African-American-built and -owned baseball park in the U.S.

Greenlee eventually ran into financial and legal troubles and sold the Crawfords in 1939.

Major League Baseball teams began to integrate their rosters following Jackie Robinson's arrival in 1947 and most Negro League teams disbanded by the early 1950s.

Visitors to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center can learn more about Gus Greenlee and Pittsburgh's Negro League baseball tradition.

For more information, please visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.



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