Rebuilding the Grays homefield

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These days, Elijah "Lucky" Miller uses a twisted wooden cane to get around. But nearly 70 years ago, he carried a different sort of lumber -- bats for the Homestead Grays. v Miller, 99, of West Mifflin, was the Negro League team's "backup batboy" from 1926-45, helping to lug as many as 75 bats to and from games in Pittsburgh, Munhall and as far away as Ohio. Since he worked at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works at the time, he couldn't work games much farther away than that. v Yesterday, he was back in the Steel Valley to look around West Field, the Grays' field in Munhall that Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch and Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Grays slugger Josh Gibson, want to turn into a multiuse athletic facility. v "I was here lots of times," he said as he walked slowly from a gate in the right-field fence toward the 70-year-old bleachers, dugouts and locker rooms.

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Elijah Miller, 99, of West Mifflin, stands at the top of the dugout at West Field in Munhall, where he was a batboy for the Homestead Grays from the 1920s through the early '40s.
Click photo for larger image.

Josh Gibson Foundation Web site

The Best of the Batch Foundation's Web site is www.bestofthebatch.org.


Once he and Dave "Spade" Sloan, the paid batboy, had carried all the bats to the third-base dugout, he'd settle in at the end of the bench and talk to "the boys" -- Josh Gibson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Walter "Buck" Leonard and one of his favorites, "Rab" Roy, the backup catcher.

"He was a better catcher than Josh Gibson, but he couldn't hit," Miller said.

Gibson and Hank Aaron, who played in the Negro Leagues before becoming a major-leaguer, were Miller's favorite players to watch.

"They could hit a ball. Luke Easter and Sam Bankhead could hit pretty good, too, but Josh Gibson could beat them all. He could make a lot of money now," he said.

Miller, who will turn 100 in September, came to West Field yesterday to confirm that it was the Grays' home field in the late 1930s and early '40s. They played there during the week and at Forbes Field in Oakland on weekends when the Pirates were out of town.

During its nearly 40-year history, the team also played in Homestead and Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., where they often outdrew the Senators. And though many local residents, including Munhall Mayor Ray Bodnar, 73, remember watching the Grays play at West Field, no one was sure that it was the team's home field.

Batch and Sean Gibson were interested because it helps them determine how many of the existing structures are worth restoring as part of their ambitious $2 million plan. But it's only one of many hurdles they face.

When Batch and his attorney, Martin Lazzaro, presented a drawing and proposal for the West Field project to the Munhall Council in April, they were blitzed with questions and a quick lesson in Steel Valley politics.


  
Online Graphic

West Field project

  
 

Batch, a Homestead native, wants to raise private and public money to convert the field -- which is regulation size for high school through the Major Leagues -- to a youth baseball field with a combined football/soccer/400-meter track next to it and room for other track and field events around it. The current drawing by Astorino also shows grandstands, concessions and a recreation center.

Lazzaro said the group must raise at least $750,000 to qualify for matching grants from the state and Allegheny County. But first it must get final approval from the Munhall Council, which gave only a preliminary go-ahead at the end of the April meeting, according to the mayor.

"Charlie has a tough row to hoe to get this done," Bodnar said. "This drawing is different than the one he gave us, and this is still Munhall property."

Complicating the issue is the fact that the Munhall-West Homestead Baseball Association's Colt League uses the field and couldn't play on the smaller field Batch has proposed. The Colt team, which this year had only 13 players, could probably use a new field being built near Steel Valley High School. But Colt manager Scott Baird wishes that Batch would modify his plan to accommodate older ballplayers, too.

"I'm a software engineer. We design software to meet the needs of the users. Charlie needs to start talking to the users -- not only us but the girls' softball league, the soccer association and the others," he said.

The only apparent modification that would make the field big enough for older players would be to move a grandstand with concessions and extend the outfield across the track and the football/soccer field. But Jeffrey Slusarick, a principal with Astorino, said the transition from grass to the track and artificial turf on the football/soccer field would be too hazardous.

Batch, who has created a basketball league in Homestead through his Best of the Batch Foundation, said his main concern is providing a place to play for as many children as possible from Homestead and the rest of the Steel Valley. When he was growing up in the 1980s, he never was asked to play baseball in the closest league, in Munhall.

"Charlie want to give kids an opportunity to play not only baseball but also other sports," Lazzaro said.

Sean Gibson, meanwhile, is hoping to expand the Josh Gibson Foundation League, which serves North Side children, to the field where his great-grandfather hit 500-foot home runs. Josh Gibson died in 1947, just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

"We don't want to deny any kid the opportunity to play baseball like Major League Baseball denied Josh," he said.


Kevin Kirkland can be reached at kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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