The Keystones: Steel City pioneers

Pittsburgh-skyline

Hi all, I’ve got a few things in the hopper at this point, but I’m still trying to dot some I’s and cross some T’s, as they say. Plus I have a few deadlines coming up, so — being the chronic procrastinator that I am — I’m scrambling to put that stuff together as well.

Therefore, in the meantime, I’m going to try to put up some articles I’ve written for various publications but that have ultimately been turned down because of lack of space, poor timing or other reasons. However, that (hopefully) doesn’t mean that the stories are of lesser quality than usual, so I hope you like them.

To start with, here’s something I put together for a couple publications based in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania about the Pittsburgh Keystones, a team waaaaaaay back in the 19th century that helped pave the way for more better known Steel City teams like the Crawfords and the Homestead Gray. Enjoy!

Without a doubt, Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Valley make up one of the most important and influential spots in the country when it comes to segregation-era, African-American baseball.

In addition to being the stomping grounds of Hall of Fame catcher and famed pitch-crusher Josh Gibson, Pittsburgh played home to some of the best Negro Leagues teams in history before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color line in 1947. In the 1940s, the Homestead Grays — featuring eventual Cooperstown immortals like Gibson, Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson — dominated black baseball, and the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, with their five Hall members, are considered by some the best team in baseball history, regardless of race or era.

But decades before that, way back before the turn of the century, another Steel City squad was studded with future Hall of Famers and left an indelible imprint on the history of African-American baseball — the Pittsburgh Keystones, who competed against some of the top black hardball teams during the two decades before 1900, even finishing second in a national blackball tourney in 1888 and launching the careers of legends like Sol White and Pete Hill.

However, unlike 20th-century squads like the Grays and the Crawfords, the Keystones, like many other pre-20th century baseball teams, are in many ways largely overlooked, especially because of the praise and study that have been lavished on the Allegheny Valley teams that came later.

Recreation_Park_1894

A sketch of Recreation Park

“Nineteenth-century squads such as the Keystones are definitely overshadowed by their 20th-century successors,” says historian Todd Peterson, who specializes in early African-American baseball teams. “Part of their disappearance from the historical record is due to the fact, I think, that even the African American press had forgotten about most of these squads by the 1920s.”

What makes this lapse of historical memory all the more tragic is that 19th-century black baseball teams were frequently socially conscious and played vital roles in the development of the pre-1900 civil-rights movement and the rise of the black middle class in America.

“Let’s not sugarcoat this: they had to be,” says Northern Illinois professor emeritus James Brunson, one of the leading authorities on 19th-century black baseball. “Prior to 1870, black ballplayers figured among those who demanded citizenship; after 1870, black ballplayers fought for voting privileges, equal rights, jobs, access to housing, education, healthcare, and public accommodations in hotels, resorts, restaurants, theaters, ballparks and so on.”

Records and reports of all-black baseball aggregations date back to the Civil War or before in scattered spots around the country. In the Allegheny Valley, African Americans, despite de facto segregation, were taking part in what was rapidly becoming the national pastime.

Black teams played against each other — and, occasionally, even versus white squads — in places like Washington, Waynesburg and Canonsburg. The fact that such teams, like the rest of the African-American population at the time, faced both covert and overt racism was highlighted by when area newspapers sometimes referred to them as “dusky” and even “coons.”

Occasionally, though, local media did a decent job of covering, and therefore documenting for history. Take, for example, this article in the Aug. 11, 1875, issue of the Washington Reporter, which covered a game between two local black teams, the Alerts and the Independents, to determine the local champion and to honor the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in West India:

“Early on the morning of the day the members of the Base Ball Club could be seen perambulating the streets dressed in their fancy new costumes, consisting of white pants, fancy white shirts decorated with the insignia and badges of the club to which they belonged. … The match game of ball which was played was witnessed by a large concourse of spectators, and was pronounced to be unexceptionally well done.”

The game was then followed by a grand ball and festival at Rush’s Hall, an event that embodies how important baseball was to black society at the time.

But by 1880, the Pittsburgh Keystones were the kings of the hill, figuratively and literally — in addition to being one of the best African-American squads in the country, the Keystone club was based in the city’s famed historic Hill District.

Drawing its membership, similarly to other black clubs around the nation, from the local African-American middle class of barbers, waiters, horse groomers, coachmen and other much-respected occupations, Brunson says, the Keystones served as a point of pride for the city’s black population.

Almost always packing a powerful punch at the plate that made up for an occasionally shaky pitching staff — which even then was usually studded with at least one top ringer — the Keystone club made and indelible mark on the local sporting scene, Peterson says.

The Pittsburgh newspapers often referred to the Keystones as “the colored champions” and occasionally heralded the club’s arrival each spring.

Reported the Jan. 20, 1889, Pittsburg Dispatch:

“The colored baseball team known last year as the Keystones have secured grounds at Twenty-eighth street and Penn avenue. … There is an abundance of players in the Keystones, so much so that a reserve nine is being talked of.”

The Keystones were also a brave, hardy bunch. In addition to taking a major financially risk by joining a nascent but ultimately doomed national African-American league in 1887, they even tried to play a game on Christmas Day one year, failing only because the groundskeeper failed to show up at Recreation Park to unlock the gates.

The club was also noted for being willing to face any challenger, as noted by the March 1, 1892, Pittsburg Post:

“The Keystone (colored) base ball club has reorganized for the season of 1892, and is open to all comers. … The Keystones will give a grand ball at Penn Incline March 15, for the benefit of the club. Any club wishing to make engagements with the Keystones will address No. 3 Wylie avenue, Pittsburgh.”

(Penn Incline was one of a series of elevated railways that crisscrossed the city and navigated the hilly terrain. Most of them were eventually taken down; the Penn Incline, which serviced the Hill District, was closed in 1953.)

However, as with other black hardball units, after the turn of the century the Keystones slowly disintegrated, giving way to newer, sprier aggregations as the decades passed.

But occasionally the club’s memory does live on, as it did in August of this year when the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues Committee gathered in Pittsburgh for its annual Jerry Malloy Conference, where both Peterson and Brunson gave papers on the Keys and other regional, pre-20th century black teams.

As long as such popular and scholarly effort is given to preserving the Keystones’ history, their legacy as Allegheny Valley trailblazers will live on. Says Peterson:

“The Keystones were the first major black club in the area and established the barnstorming template that the Pittsburgh Colored Collegians, Grays the Crawfords would later follow.”

Advertisements

‘Everywhere I went, I had a baseball with me’

IMG_3063

This week I trekked westward across the Bonnet Carre Spillway along I-10 to the St. Charles Parish town of LaPlace, La. (population roughly 32,000), where I met with 88-year-old Paul Lewis, one of the few living ex-members of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, and it was a fantastic experience.

When I got to his modest, one-story home just off State Highway 3188, Paul was enjoying a late breakfast — I felt a bit guilty that I arrived a bit early and surprised him a bit.

But when he was finished, he used his walker to get to his comfy easy chair in the front room while I lounged back on a sofa across from him and we had a very nice — and, for me, quite revelatory — chat.

The biggest thing I took away from the experience was the full realization that so many Negro Leaguers of Paul’s era were members of the Greatest Generation whose experience serving in the military was an even bigger source of pride for them than their hardball career. Just like my old, departed friend Herb Simpson of New Orleans — whose most cherished life memento wasn’t anything from his baseball career but a piece of an exploded bomb instead — Paul’s best memories spring from his time wearing the uniform overseas.

The son of Paul Sr. and Dora Lewis, he was born in the town of New Iberia in Iberia Parish but later moved with his family to NOLA. He was living on S. Roman Street and working at the Flintkote Company when he decided to sign up to serve. Paul registered for the draft in ’45 but didn’t become a serviceman until enlisting as an Army private in early 1946 and was assigned to a medical unit in Germany.

Paul eagerly served his country and his fellow servicemen — “I liked so much of the experience of it,” he said — but his favorite aspect of his military service was playing baseball, and some football, for his company and corps while in Germany. His squads faced a slew of competition, including a few teams from the Air Force, with much of the competition coming with and against troops of other ethnicities at a time when the military was gradually being integrated.

“We had some good baseball and football teams,” he said, “and we played against some good teams. We’d be gone every weekend playing somewhere. I love sports and playing sports, and I’m grateful I got to play them. We played against white boys, black boys — anyone in the service, we played against them.”

IMG_3075

Baseball, truly, was ever the love of Paul’s life.

“It was everything,” he said with a laugh. “I used to eat baseball, used to sleep baseball. Everywhere I went, I had a baseball with me.”

Paul’s professional baseball career began in 1949, soon after his discharge from the Army, when none other than Wesley Barrow, the greatest manager the Crescent City has ever produced, signed Paul up for the Black Pelicans.

Paul continued with the Black Pels off and on until the early 1960s, when he finally hung up his spikes. In addition to hitting the basepaths for the Pelicans, he also suited up for various NOLA amateur and semi-pro teams, including the Collins Stars, who were also piloted by Barrow for a period.

Paul started his playing days as a catcher, an experience that intimidated him at first.

At first.

“I was scared of the ball,” he said. “I closed my eyes. But when that first pitch hit my glove, that was it.”

While Paul could man other positions, he was a second baseman extraordinaire, especially with the leather. Paul definitely was able to put wood on the ball, but it was on defense that he truly shined.

“That’s what I tell people, that I was known for my fielding,” he said. “Anything hit anywhere to the right of second base, I was there. Five feet, 10 feet away, I got that. My glove kept me in the game.”

Paul’s fielding acumen was so acute that he often got the call from various local semi-pro managers who needed a fill-in or sub at the last minute before games. He especially recalls contests in Napoleonville and Bogalusa when managers in a pinch for manpower for pick-up contests and gave him a ring.

Now, although Paul’s pro ball career started after Jackie integrated the Majors, integration was extremely slow in coming everywhere in the South, including New Orleans, so he and his compatriots still dealt with the indignities of Jim Crow. However, when reflecting on his experiences of playing during segregation, Paul kind of shrugs off the question.

“I was like anyone else,” he said. “I could play like anyone else.”

For a while Paul was involved in the Old Timers’ Baseball Club, an organization founded 50-odd years ago by New Orleans blackball mainstay Walter Wright, who for decades served as the spokesman and leading crusader for the city’s legions of proud former Negro Leaguers. Paul even took part in one or two of the club’s All Star games at the former Wesley Barrow Stadium in Pontchartrain Park.

Looking back, Paul recounts some of the best black NOLA players with whom he ever took to the diamond, names like Johnny Wright, Bob Bissant, Herb Simpson, Curtis JohnsonHerman Roth

When he wasn’t roaming the infield at the old (and now long-gone) Pelican Stadium at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton in New Orleans, Paul worked as a longshoreman on the river docks and at a roofing company.

These days, Paul is thoroughly enjoying the benefits of retirement; namely, just chilling with his wife of 35-odd years, Ora, in LaPlace. Still lean and lanky but now with graying hair and goatee, Paul has a simple answer when asked what he’s up to lately. “Nothin’,” he says with a grin and a chuckle.

Oh, sure, sometimes he hops on his riding mower to cut the grass, but mostly he settles into his easy chair and watches watching — you guessed it — baseball. Although he doesn’t have a favorite MLB team, it doesn’t stop him from feverishly following the game.

“I look at baseball all day and every night,” he said with a wide grin.
But taking in the game on TV just isn’t the same thing as flashing the leather or cracking the horsehide yourself.

“That’s what I loved,” Paul said, adding, “and I was good.”

A Day to Remember Jackie and Rube

Foster

The great Andrew “Rube” Foster

Hiddily ho neighborinos, I apologize greatly for being so delinquent in getting things moving again after a too-long break. However, Home Plate Don’t Move is hopefully back in high gear and ready get down to some serious business.

I also deeply apologize to Kevin Mitchell, who wrote the guest post below about Rube Foster’s connection to last Friday’s Jackie Robinson Day. Here it is, a bit late, but it’s really an excellent summation of the importance of last Friday, which, Kevin says, celebrated not only Robinson’s trailblazing efforts, but also the legacy of Rube Foster, the Father of the Negro Leagues.

Kevin’s column starts below. Please read, enjoy and comment if you are moved. And many, many thanks again to Kevin! …

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing No. 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbets Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 win.

To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, this past Friday was designated “Jackie Robinson Day” by Major League Baseball. All Major League players that day wore No. 42 on their uniforms.

In the midst of all the events that took place at Major League ballparks to honor Robinson, let us not forget the name Andrew “Rube” Foster. That spring day in 1947 was also a great one for him!

“We are the ship, all else is the sea,” Foster famously said. Foster, a National Baseball Hall of Fame Negro League pitcher and manager and the founder of the first Negro National League (NNL) in 1920, saw Negro League baseball at that time as a ship sailing through the sea troubled by the stormy winds of racial segregation and discrimination that kept African Americans out of Major League baseball.

Foster’s NNL stands as the first successful official, long-lasting Negro baseball league, and it provided a structured environment for African-American and dark-skinned Latino players to apply and develop their God-given athletic talents in hopes that their efforts would lead someday to the integration of Organized Baseball.

Foster owned the Chicago American Giants, one of the league’s eight charter teams along with the Chicago Giants, St. Louis Giants, Detroit Stars, Dayton Marcos, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs and Cuban All-Stars (Cincinnati). But Foster died in 1930 as “the ship” began a journey through the nation’s worst economic depression in history.

However, Negro League baseball did survive, and when Robinson took the field to begin the 1947 season in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform, Andrew Foster’s vision became a reality 17 years after his death. It was his hope that the NNL he formed would someday break down the racial barriers in professional baseball.

Although Foster’s original league folded in 1931 a year after he died, two other leagues were formed following his same structure later that decade.  In 1933, another Negro National League (NNL) was formed, and in 1937 the Negro American League (NAL) was birthed. It would be the players from these latter leagues that would fulfill Foster’s vision by finally breaking through the invisible color line beginning in 1947.

Jackie Robinson

The one and only Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson, the first of those Negro League players to crack Organized Baseball’s color line, was discovered by the Dodgers in 1945 while playing with the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson had spent less than one season in blackball, but that still made him a product of the leagues foundation began by Foster.

Fifty-one other former Negro League players had careers in the Major Leagues, including Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Satchel Paige. They not only changed forever how the game was played, but they also helped to initiate the period that many historically call baseball’s Golden Age.

Amongst all that was said last Friday about the significance of Jackie Robinson playing in the game that day in 1947, hopefully the name of Andrew “Rube” Foster was mentioned. That day was the fulfillment of his vision. For him, it was the day “the ship” reached its destination.

A wee little break

Howdy all, I apologize I haven’t posted anything for a week and a half. Unfortunately, it might be a little while longer before I can write something. I have a couple pressing deadlines over the next couple weeks, plus, well, yeah I’m a horrible tax procrastinator. Ain’t proud of it, but at this point, it is what it is.

In the meantime, I’ll extend another invitation to anyone else out there who might want to post and/or send something in. I’ve already gotten a couple offers, and if you want to follow through, definitely shoot me another e-mail at rwhirty218@yahoo.com! I’m open to pretty much anything and everything you might have, as long as it’s connected to the Negro Leagues.

Thanks for the patience, my friends. Stay the course, and I will, too. 🙂