The Pittsburgh Crawfords formed in 1925 through the effort of two local ballplayers, Teenie and Bill Harris, and was made up of black players from two local school teams, Watts and McKelvey Highs. The nine practiced at Washington Park for the 1925 season, picking up more local players as time went on.
In 1926, the team entered the city league, and its main sponsor was the Crawford Bath House and Rec Center, a public facility that aided immigrants as well as African-Americans who migrated from the South, and hence their name.
They became a city rec league powerhouse, and more money started to roll in from the community. Gus Greenlee made his first big donation to the team in 1926; his cash provided the funds for new team uniforms.
From 1927-1928, the Crawfords were one of the top black sandlot teams in the city. They played all comers locally, facing off against veteran teams made up of men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, just to get some competition. And often, some of the star opposing players would switch allegiances and defect to the Crawfords. If ya can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Teenie Harris dropped out of the management, to join his brother Woogie in the numbers racket. Teenie became a renowned photographer with the Courier, and Woogie was one of the Hill District's top businessmen, although his profession was a little unorthodox. The team was still associated with the Crawford House, and was managed by original founder Bill Harris with Harry Beale, and coached by Jim Dorsey, Sr.
The Crawfords were bought in 1931 by Gus Greenlee, a numbers operator originally from South Carolina. He would change the team from a neighborhood giant to a pro franchise, one of black baseball's best for a decade.
Greenlee also operated one of black Pittsburgh's favorite nightclubs, the Crawford Grill, where the likes of Lena Horne and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson entertained and players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson unwound. The Crawfords were from the start the best financed team in black baseball - Greenlee was known as the Hill's banker. Revenue generated from the numbers racket allowed him to sign some of its biggest names. And he did.
The major African American leagues of the 1920s (the Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League) had fallen apart, and Greenlee inked many of the now-unemployed black stars for Pittsburgh.
Greenlee signed the Grays' Oscar Charleston to be the Crawfords' first baseman and manager. Catcher Josh Gibson, versatile Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe (so dubbed by Chicago writer Damon Runyon after pitching the first game of a doubleheader and catching the second), third baseman William Julius "Judy" Johnson (a onetime Grays player), pitcher extraordinaire Leroy "Satchel" Paige, and speedy center fielder James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell found their way to the Steel City's new powerhouse.
Playing as indy barnstormers, the Crawfords immediately established themselves as perhaps the best black team in the United States.
The Crawfords played in the new Greenlee Field, one of the few parks built specifically for the Negro Leagues and under team control. Greenlee Field was the first black-built and owned major league baseball field in the United States.
In 1931, construction started on Bedford Avenue between Chauncy and Duff in Pittsburgh's Hill District. The park opened on April 29, 1932, and reportedly cost $100,000 of Greenlee's numbers profit.
Greenlee Field held 7,500 spectators and it was the home field for the Crawfords throughout the Depression era. It was located a few blocks up Bedford Avenue from Ammon Field, home to the black Pittsburgh Keystones team (they played in the short-lived National Colored Ball League, the first black league, in 1887).
The park was razed in 1938 after the team was disbanded, and eventually became the Bedford Dwellings housing project. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a marker at the stadium's former site in 2007.
The Greenlee Field was important to the players, both symbolically and physically. When black clubs used the Pirates' Forbes Field, they weren't allowed in the clubhouses. And when they played at local fields like Washington or West Parks, they were basically playing under sandlot conditions. Greenlee Field was big league, and theirs.
He also bought the team its own bus, so they could travel in a bit of comfort and had a place to crash if Jim Crow made a town the club visited hostile. He ran a first class operation. Pittsburgh was the place to be, and the place to play.
In 1933, Greenlee founded a new Negro National League, with the Crawfords as charter members. The club narrowly lost the first-half title to the Chicago American Giants and both teams claimed the second-half title. The two title-holders were supposed to square off for the championship, but Greenlee, as league president, awarded it to his Crawfords without a playoff. He decided that it was good to be the king and took advantage.
The next season, as Gibson led the league with 16 home runs and Paige won 20 games, the Crawfords were near the top of the overall standings, but won neither half. Records of all games against league opponents, not just those considered official league games, show the Crawfords with far and away the best record for 1934. Their date with destiny was fast approaching.
In 1935, its greatest season, the Crawfords had to overcome the defection of its No. 1 pitcher Satchel Paige, because of a contract dispute. There are two stories. One is that Greenlee refused to give him a raise from his $250/month contract; the second is that Paige signed a contract for the same money during his wedding reception (which was in Las Vegas, and paid for by Greenlee), when he was in no condition to read it over.
At any rate, he played for the Philly Giants, the El Paso Mexicans, and the North Dakota Bismarcks in 1935 (they paid him $400/month and leased a car for him). It wouldn't be the last time he and Greenlee would soon bump heads over contracts.
Despite his absence, the Crawfords lived up to their promise, taking the first-half title with a 26-6 record, then defeating the New York Cubans in a close seven-game series for their only undisputed NNL pennant.
According to league stats published by the historian John Holway, Bell batted .341, Bill Perkins hit .337, Sam Bankhead .336, Charleston .309 and Gibson .304 while leading the league in home runs and steals. But pitching was the key.
LHP curveball specialist Leroy Matlock, who had pitched for the St. Louis Stars, went 18-0 in league play. RHP Roosevelt Davis, known for a spitball that struck so much fear into hitters that they couldn't handle his legal pitches, went 12-4.
In the World Series against the Cubans, Matlock sat out the first two games, and the Crawfords lost both. Matlock's 3-0 shutout in Game 3 put Pittsburgh back in the Series. The Crawfords lost the next game, and were in a 3-1 hole. Sound familiar to Pirate fans?
Matlock trailed, 5-2, in the sixth game, but Charleston tied it with a home run and Johnson won it with a single. The Crawfords erased a 7-5 deficit against Cubans' pitcher Luis Tiant (the father of the Red Sox star) with homers by Gibson and Charleston. Bell singled and used his wheels to bring home the title, stealing second and scoring from there on an infield error.
Many consider this Crawford team to be the best black nine in history; if it's not, they're surely on the short list. Not only did they win the Black Series, but they boasted of four future Hall of Famers (they would have six the next year, when they signed Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige rejoined the squad).
After a mediocre first half (16-15) in 1936, the Crawfords rallied to win the NNL's second half with a 20-9 record. Paige had returned, and contributed an 11-3 record. The Crawfords retained the title when Greenlee, still the prez, declared them champs over the protests of the Washington Elite nine, which had won the first-half crown.
The following spring, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and several other Crawfords players bolted for Santo Domingo, to play for the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, and the franchise never recovered. Paige and Greenlee were still on different pages financially, and Satchel led the pack to the greener pastures of Central America.
After two second division finishes and a running low on cash - even the numbers racket isn't a bottomless gold pit - Greenlee sold the team, his field was demolished, and the franchise moved to Toledo in 1939 and then to Indianapolis in 1940 before disbanding.
In the mid 1940s another team using the same Pittsburgh Crawfords' name was formed, but it wasn't related in any way to the original franchise. And so ends the saga of of a brief but brilliant moment in Pittsburgh baseball.
And hey, there was another great black team in Pittsburgh around the same era - the Homestead Grays. You may want to catch up on their storied history, too.