Seventy-five years ago, a young Josh Gibson was launching home runs across Bedford Avenue from Ammon Field in the Hill District. Today, his great-grandson will break ground on a major renovation of the field, since renamed for the Negro Leagues Hall of Famer.
At 1:30 p.m. today, Sean Gibson, president of the Josh Gibson Foundation, will be joined by representatives of the City of Pittsburgh, Major League Baseball, Pittsburgh Pirates, Grable Foundation, Del Monte Foods and others involved in the year-long, $300,000 project. The two existing youth fields will be resurfaced with grass infields and four dugouts, two scoreboards, a sprinkler system, portable public address system and large concession stand with restrooms will be added. Massaro Corp. is the general contractor on the project.
When the project is finished next spring, it might be the closest a kid can come to playing at PNC Park.
"Every kid may not have a chance to play in the majors," Gibson said. "But when they come on our field, we want them to feel like they're in the majors."
The city opened Ammon Field in 1928 and soon, a black sandlot team named the Crawfords was drawing crowds of black and white fans. The late Rev. Harold Tinker recruited Josh Gibson, who soon drew the attention of Homestead Grays' owner Cumberland Posey. Gibson joined the Grays but came back to the Crawfords in the 1930s as Crawford Grill owner Gus Greenlee was building the team into a Negro Leagues powerhouse. Both the Crawfords and Grays played at Ammon Field, mainly before Greenlee built Greenlee Field further up Bedford Avenue.
The field, which is tucked behind Ammon Recreation Center, was likely split into two smaller fields in the 1940s, when Terrace Village opened and various youth leagues played there. The Josh Gibson Little League has used it since its founding in 1999. Each year, a half-dozen teams made up of boys and girls from the Hill District, North Side, Homewood, Garfield, Belzhoover and other city neighborhoods play there. But it's not easy. The ground in the outfields is uneven and its dirt infields are lower than the surrounding grass, so they don't drain after a steady rain.
"This is going to be an excellent facility, better than some colleges," said Ray Sprow, vice president of Sports Turf Specialties in Glenshaw, which will resurface the fields.
In the meantime, the league is without a home field. Coaches Clarence Battle and Weston White Sr. have put together a travel team of 9- to 12-year-olds and are looking to play other teams from the city and suburbs. Last weekend, the team, which wears Crawfords uniforms, took part in a tournament in Wilkinsburg.
Like the Crawfords and Grays of long ago, they're willing to play anywhere they're invited. Books about the two Negro League teams are filled with stories about exhibition games in Millvale, Monessen, Vandergrift, McKeesport and Dormont. They'd like to play a team from the Steel Valley Little League at Munhall's Knight Field, formerly West Field, where the Grays once played.
Once Josh Gibson Field is finished, Gibson hopes to use it for local, regional and national tournaments. And for kids who aren't ballplayers, he has a few other ideas. If Gibson can line up funding, he'd like to hire crews of young groundskeepers to take care of the fields and add a second tier on two of the dugouts for press boxes. There, would-be sports announcers could learn from professionals like Vince Sims of WPXI and Jay Harris of ESPN, who have already volunteered.
"This is for kids who might not be athletes but they still want to be involved in athletics. It's more than just baseball. It's education as well," Gibson said.
For more information on the Josh Gibson Foundation or to line up a game with the Crawfords, call 412-771-6949 or go to www.joshgibson.org.
Kevin Kirkland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. The above photograph was added to this story following publiscation.