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.”

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