Sandlot Seasons

Sport in Black Pittsburgh

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During the half-century when sport in America was divided by race, African Americans created a baseball world of their own. With Cool Papa Bell flying around the base-paths, Josh Gibson hitting balls further than anyone had before, and Satchel Paige loading the bases on purpose, telling his fielders to sit down, and striking out the side, Pittsburgh became the center of black baseball in the Americas.

No city meant more to black baseball during the 1930s and 40s, when Pittsburgh had two Negro League franchises, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Both rose from the city’s sandlots to the heights of the Negro Leagues. The two teams won over a dozen Negro League championships and featured a dozen Hall of Famers.

Sandlot Seasons explores this pre-integration sporting life, focusing on the sandlot clubs that became the catalyst for a sporting renaissance in Pittsburgh and beyond. It underscores what sport meant to black America and what was lost when integration destroyed the Negro Leagues. While Major League Baseball benefited from new talent and fans, black America lost control over its own sporting life and the role of sport changed.

When I began grad school in history at Pitt in the late 1970s, I started running on the trails in Schenley and Frick Parks with Norris Coleman, who had grown up in Herminie #2, a coal-mining patch east of Pittsburgh, and played football at the University of Illinois. After a cup of coffee in the CFL, Norris had returned to Pittsburgh and was finishing his degree at Pitt.

In those years, you could see the Homestead Steelworks from a bluff on the trails in Frick Park—and one day, we started talking about the Homestead Grays, a club associated with the mill. I had some vague notions about this team from segregation’s heyday, and Norris said that older men in Herminie had often told tales of Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson. When he was young, his mom admonished him to be a Jackie Robinson and challenge racial barriers, but that was the extent of our knowledge.

That run led the two of us to begin exploring the history of the Negro Leagues and the sandlots from which they emerged. David Montgomery, co-advisor for my dissertation, worked with us to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Norris took part in the first stage of the project before heading to law school while this research became the focus of my dissertation and Sandlot Seasons.

Sandlot Seasons book cover

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Praise for Sandlot Seasons

“A fascinating account. . . . Making excellent use of oral history interviews, Ruck goes beyond mere sports trivia. He paints a vivid portrait of an urban society and its love affair with a sporting life it produced and controlled. Highly recommended.”

Library Journal

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