Newly discovered photos bring Negro Leagues baseball stadium to life
Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities
April 8, 2010
Photos of Negro Leagues baseball stadium Greenlee Field (above, right) were recently identified by Geri Strecker, an English professor and Negro Leagues historian. A cache of unpublished photos housed in the archives at Carnegie Mellon University remained undiscovered until Strecker tracked them down. The stadium was home to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the best Negro Leagues clubs of the 1930s. This photo is used with permission of Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives.
After about 70 years sitting in long-forgotten files in a university library in Pittsburgh, a cache of unpublished photos is providing baseball historians a glimpse into the
Negro Leagues, thanks to the Ball State University professor who uncovered the pictures. Negro Leagues historian Geri Strecker a Ball State English professor, found the photos in 2009 as part of her research into Greenlee Field, home to the Pittsburgh Crawfords — arguably one of the best teams in the Negro Leagues and possibly in all of baseball.
"For the first time in 70 years, we can see the home of some of baseball's most famous black players, including Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson," she said. "Not having these photos is similar to not having pictures of Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehring played. It is an important part of baseball history."
African-American baseball players formed the Negro Leagues when they were not allowed to play in the white-only Major Leagues. The last of the Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, following the integration of Major League Baseball two decades earlier. Pittsburgh has a rich history of participation in the Negro Leagues with the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays attracting some of the best talent in the nation.
Finding the photos
When she began searching for photographs of Greenlee Field, Strecker was not even sure if any existed, since none had been published by standard baseball sources.
She said mainstream media shunned the segregated Negro Leagues, and cameras were rare in African-American communities during the Great Depression. While the Crawfords dominated Negro Leagues baseball during the 1930s, little visual record remains of the often-packed ballpark, leaving historians to look at sketches of the facility taken from accounts of local residents and former players.
Strecker made the discovery in 2009 after e-mailing an architecture archivist at Carnegie Mellon University in hopes the school might have some photographs from that time period for review.
Luckily, a folder of such photos did exist, in a collection from a Pittsburgh architecture firm that had designed the Bedford Dwellings public housing that replaced Greenlee Field in 1938. It was common for architecture firms to take site photos before demolition.
"It really was a long shot to blindly contact Carnegie Mellon, but after working with Ball State architecture students on the writing portions of their projects over the years and understanding their research, I realized it was worth a try," Strecker said. "Luckily, the archive had unpublished and unmarked photos. My husband (Trey, also an English professor and baseball historian) and I drove all the way to Pittsburgh to confirm they were of Greenlee Field.
"For decades, people wondered what the stadium looked like. We had sketches, but until the photos were identified, we had no idea exactly where the stadium was located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a historic African-American neighborhood. Now we know the dimensions and how it fit into the residential neighborhood."
Strecker published "The Rise and Fall of Greenlee Field: Biography of a Ballpark" along with the photos in Blackball: A Negro Leagues Journal in late 2009.
Greenlee Field was the first black-designed, black-built and at least partially black-owned Negro League baseball stadium. The ballpark was the dream of Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawfords, and it was designed by African-American architect Louis A.S. Bellinger. Construction started in 1931, and the park opened on April 29, 1932, at a cost of $100,000. Greenlee Field seated 7,500 spectators, and it was the home field for the Crawfords throughout the Great Depression. The Homestead Grays also leased the park for some of their games. In an effort to keep Greenlee Field profitable, owners leased it to professional football, soccer and boxing promoters. However, the economic ills of the Great Depression were too much, and the park was razed in 1938.
Larry Lester, one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., believes Strecker has taken research about black baseball to the next level by locating photos and data that many people said could not be found.
"Dr. Strecker has taken us deep into history, providing us with research on Greenlee Field that is groundbreaking as well as innovative," he said. "Her work proves that Greenlee Field was a permanent brick structure with a very nice entrance and lights. It was a very significant investment by African-Americans during the Great Depression."
Strecker's discovery also helped local historians to properly mark the location of the park in 2009. The original plans called for the historical marker to be placed a block away from the field's actual location.
Strecker is continuing her search for photos of Negro Leagues parks. She and members of the Indianapolis chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research are looking for photographs of Indianapolis' Washington Park, Federal Park (also known as Greenlawn Park) and Northwestern Park.
"Somewhere out there, I am sure there are additional photos of Negro League players competing at stadiums," she said. "They may be in a library or in someone's personal collection. They are an important part of baseball history."