IN A LEAGUE FULL OF TEAMS WITH GREAT STORIES NONE TOPS THE CRAWFORDS
In 2015 ESPN Senior writer David Schoenfield compiled a list of the ten greatest Negro League players. Schoenfield qualified his work by stating that the list was compiled from various sources and that it should be viewed as such, a consensus ranking if you will.
He listed 10 players in order and had another seven listed as honorable mention candidates. Of the 17 total players listed five were teammates on the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s.
The Crawfords were bound to have a colorful history. Pittsburgh, with plenty of work always available in many steel mills, was one of the fastest growing cities in American in the early part of the 20th century. Among those who moved to western Pennsylvania to seek fortune were several post-Civil War era blacks including Gus Greenlee who arrived from North Carolina in 1916.
After serving in World War I, Greenlee returned to Pittsburgh and began a successful career in business. He was one of four brothers. Two of his siblings became doctors and one was a lawyer. Greenlee took a different path and by the mid-1920s ran the Crawford Grill Nightclub. He was also said to be active as a numbers runner, a loan shark, and a bootlegger.
The Crawford Grill was considered one of the best jazz clubs in the east and featured the top national acts of the day. Eventually, Greenlee decided to financially back a baseball team, the Crawford Giants.
The Giants were an amateur team competing against other similar Pittsburgh area teams. They had fallen on financial hard times. Greenlee’s business empire had continued to grow and with a popular nightclub, he was set up for financial success in the wake of the end of prohibition. Financing the team was a natural fit. Thus the Pittsburgh Crawfords were born.
Greenlee wasn’t interested in competing just in Pittsburgh. He wanted the Crawfords to be able to compete with the biggest and best teams in the country including the Homestead Grays who were also based in Pittsburgh at the time. To do that, he needed players. So using his considerable bankroll he went about putting together an incredible roster of talent.
One of his first moves was to sign catcher Josh Gibson off the Grays roster. Gibson was just 20, but his reputation and legend were both already going. Like Greenlee, he was southern by birth (Georgia) but his family had moved to Pittsburgh where his father got work in the steel mills.
Greenlee also signed pitcher Satchell Paige and outfielder/first baseman Oscar Charleston. (Schoenfield’s list ranks that trio as the three best of all-time in the Negro Leagues.) To that roster was added outfielder Cool Papa Bell (ninth on the list) and third baseman Judy Johnson (who was on the honorable mention part of the list).
All five of these men are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. They were five of the first seven Negro League players accorded that honor (beginning with Paige’s induction in 1971). And they all played for one team (with a small exception that we’ll get to) for five seasons.
They competed in 1932 as an independent team. In 1933 they joined a league (formed in part by Greenlee) called the National Negro League (NNL) which replaced a previous league with the same name.
The Chicago American Giants claimed the league’s first-half title that season and the American Giants and Crawfords both claimed the second-half title. For reasons that aren’t clear no playoff was held. The Crawfords were declared the league champions when the league’s president (who happened to be Greenlee) decreed it so.
Despite the massive amount of talent, the 1934 Crawfords failed to contend for the NNL title. In 1935 however, they dominated the league with a 26 and 6 record and a championship series win over the New York Cubans.
That 1935 team succeeded despite the loss of Paige. In a story that seems as ludicrous today as it must have been back then he was lured away from the Crawfords by a semi-pro team based in Bismarck, North Dakota. Paige wanted a raise from the $250 a month Greenlee was paying him. When Greenlee refused, Paige took a $400 a month offer from the North Dakota team.
Paige returned to the Crawfords in 1936 and they again won the league title despite losing to the Washington Elite Giants in the first game of the playoffs. The rest of the series was canceled (reasons unknown) and the league president (guess who!) declared the Crawfords champs.
In 1937 the team broke up for good when a group of players (including Paige, Gibson, and Bell) accepted a big cash offer to play for a season in the Dominican Republic for dictator Rafael Trujillo’s team. That team won the Dominican League title which is a good thing since legend has it that the championship game was played while members of Trujillo’s army stood by with guns drawn. Paige (who was known to tell a tall tale from time-to-time) maintained the players feared that a defeat in the championship series might mean the worst.
The Crawfords never recovered from the Dominican defection (which happened during spring training for the 1937 season and left the team woefully undermanned). Attendance plummeted and by 1939 they moved to Toledo, then Indianapolis, before folding in 1940. Charleston was the only one of the five players signed in 1932 still with the team when it folded.
Paige ended up with the powerful Kansas City Monarchs for eight seasons after his journey to the Dominican. He ended his career with five seasons in Major League Baseball with Cleveland and St. Louis.
Gibson returned to Pittsburgh and played for the Homestead Grays (in both Pittsburgh and Washington DC) until his death in 1947. He cemented his reputation as one of the all-time greats by powering the Grays to nine consecutive Negro National League Championships and three Negro League World Series titles.
Bell spent three seasons in the Mexican League before ending his career with the Chicago Elite Americans in 1942.
Johnson retired from the game in 1937 after Greenlee traded him to the Homestead Grays.
Greenlee also left baseball after the Crawfords left Pittsburgh. He had a brief two-year return in the mid-40s as a founder of the United States League but spent most of his time between 1938 and 1951 running the Crawford Grill. He died in 1952 after suffering a stroke.
With all that talent the Crawfords probably should have won more games but then, like now, a lineup filled with superstars doesn’t always equal success.
But there’s no debating that for the better part of five years in the 1930s they were among the most talent-laden and colorful teams in any sport in American history. Home to five future Hall of Famers and an owner who also owned one of the hottest nightclubs in town. Many of the players (including Paige and Gibson) were regulars. It’s easy to imagine how much of a party it must have been back in the day when the Crawfords played in Pittsburgh.