Filed Under Sports

Greenlee Field

A Landmark of Black Baseball and Entrepreneurship

William "Gus" Greenlee, a benevolent community figure with a criminal background, built the field that bore his name on Bedford Avenue as the home of the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team. Greenlee, who was extensively involved in the city's numbers rackets, saw the team as an opportunity to legitimize his wealth through baseball ownership.

Gus Greenlee's entry into baseball was facilitated by Pittsburgh Courier columnist John L. Clark, who persuaded him to support the Crawfords in 1930. Greenlee not only provided financial backing but also aimed to dominate Negro League baseball by assembling a star-studded roster, including legends like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell.

Facing challenges with inadequate facilities and high costs for renting venues like Forbes Field (where the team was not even allowed to use the clubhouse) Greenlee decided to construct his own ballpark. In 1931, he and partners organized as the Bedford Land Company and secured a parcel of land on Bedford Avenue, previously occupied by the financially distressed Entress Brick Company. The construction of Greenlee Field, designed by black architect Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger, cost a reported $100,000.

The ballpark, located in the Hill District, featured a grandstand with an initial capacity of 5,000, with ticket prices ranging from 35 to 50 cents. The field was later expanded to accommodate up to 12,000 for football. Field lights were added in September 1932, predating the advent of night games in major league baseball by 3 years. Greenlee Field became a multi-sport facility and played a civic role by hosting protests against the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in 1933.

The interior of Greenlee Field was modest, with dugouts, restrooms, and spartan facilities. The outfield dimensions were initially reported as 375 feet in left field, 345 in right, and 500 to dead center, but aerial photographs later revealed actual distances closer to Shea Stadium's outfield. The most distinctive feature was the exterior brick fa├žade along Bedford Avenue.

While Greenlee Field is sometimes referred to as the first "Black-owned" sports venue in America, this is inaccurate. As a charismatic community frontman, Gus Greenlee played a vital role in encouraging Black fans to support the Crawfords, but he only owned 25 percent of the ballpark and held no office in the land company. His White co-investors controlled many aspects of the business operations of the park.

While Greenlee Field experienced early success, by 1938 the continuing Depression and a string of mediocre seasons meant the Crawfords were losing money.  To accomodate the city's growing population, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority began a series of public housing projects and offered the land company $50,000 for the field site.  The offer was accepted, and after the 1938 season the Crawfords moved to Toledo, and demolition on Greenlee field began.

Despite its short lifespan, Greenlee Field has a lasting legacy as one of the few baseball parks designed and constructed by African-Americans specifically for a Negro league team. It symbolized the intersection of sports, business, and community in the era when racial segregation was a fixture of American society.

Images

Greenlee Field Game at Greenlee Field, date unknown. The presence of field lights above the stands indicates this photo was taken after September 1932. Date: c. 1933
1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords team photo Gus Greenlee built a star-studded team to fill his new stadium. Three of the players shown here (Paige, Gibson, and Charleston) were later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Players (left to right) Standing: Benny Jones, L.D. Livingston, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Ray Williams, Walter Cannady, Cy Perkins, Oscar Charleston Kneeling: Sam Streeter, Chester Williams, Harry Williams, Harry Kincannon, Henry Spearman, Jimmie Crutchfield, Bobby Williams, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe Source: Wikimedia Commons Creator: Harrison Studio Date: 1932
Boxing at Greenlee Field This June 1932 Courier article promoting an upcoming boxing event at Greenlee Field.  Before the widespread availability of air conditioning, outdoor venues were preferred for boxing matches during the summer months. Source: Pittsburgh Courier Date: June 22, 1932

Location

Metadata

Aaron Cowan, “Greenlee Field,” Hill District Digital History, accessed May 29, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/2.