Pirates put history on display

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VWH Campbell, Post-Gazette
Sean Gibson stands next to the statue of his grandfather, baseball legend Josh Gibson. The likeness was one of several statues unveiled by the Pirates yesterday as part of PNC Park's new permanent tribute to region's two Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. The interactive display includes life sized statues of the players honored.
Click photo for larger image.

The Pirates yesterday unveiled a lineup that made history, and not the sad-sack version of events scrawled by the current team.

The organization drew back the curtain on its new Highmark Legacy Square project inside the left-field entrance at PNC Park, where life-size bronze statues and interactive kiosks commemorate seven Pittsburgh Negro League greats: catcher Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, Crawfords pitcher Satchel Paige, Crawfords/Grays outfielder Cool Papa Bell, Grays/Crawfords center fielder-manager Oscar Charleston, Grays first baseman Buck Leonard, Grays/Crawfords infielder Judy Johnson and Grays pitcher Smokey Joe Williams.

In all, they played a combined 78 seasons on those storied Pittsburgh teams circa 1925-50. In order, Paige, Gibson, Leonard, Bell, Johnson and Charleston were five of the first six Negro League stars to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

"A lot of people probably don't realize the incredible history we have here," Pirates managing general partner Kevin McClatchy said at a morning ceremony. "Kids today probably don't know about segregated players in different leagues, eating in different restaurants. ... This will tell the story of the Negro Leagues. Because it is a huge part of our baseball history."

The Pirates, who began honoring that history as long ago as the late 1980s, thus become the first Major League Baseball team with what amounts to a miniature Negro League museum. In Kansas City, Mo., home of the celebrated Monarchs of Paige and Buck O'Neil, not to mention the Negro League Baseball Museum, the Royals a decade ago erected a single-wall exhibit at Kauffman Stadium to that city's black-baseball heritage. Yet, nowhere except the NLBM is there a display approximating this one: seven statues, huge commemorative bats overhead and an indoor, 25-seat Legacy Theatre where visitors can see an interactive fans wall created by Carnegie Mellon University and watch a 12-minute video focusing on black baseball in Pittsburgh. The film was written with the help of Pitt professor Rob Ruck and narrated by ESPN's Joe Morgan.

The architect, Ed Scheele, and the sculptor, John Forsythe, joined forces on the Kansas City museum and, as of December, on this Pittsburgh project -- which opens a fortnight before PNC Park plays host to the All-Star Game.

"This was a real fast-track project for us," Scheele said moments after overcoming a technical glitch with a video viewing. He added that usually six months is devoted to a single sculpture and interactive kiosk, let alone seven in that time.

VWH Campbell, Post-Gazette
Wallace "Bucky" Williams and his niece Veronica Martin watch at front left as a youth unveils a statue of Negro League star Oscar Charleston yesterday at PNC Park. The likeness was one of several statues unveiled by the Pirates yesterday as part of PNC Park's new permanent tribute to region's two Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Click photo for larger image

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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