This was a team both of its place and of its time.
Pittsburgh's Hill District was a vibrant mix of independent businesses where African-Americans lived alongside the city's many ethnic groups. But because baseball was segregated, two black teams merged in 1925 to form a sandlot club. The next year, the club would draw its name, Crawford Giants, from the Crawford Bath House and Recreation Center, a city-run facility that assisted immigrants as well African-Americans who migrated from the South.
Also operating in Pittsburgh was William "Gus" Greenlee, a native of Marion, N.C., who had dropped out of college and headed north, shining shoes, working construction and driving cabs to make a living. After serving in World War I, Greenlee used his cabs to deliver bootleg liquor during Prohibition, and eventually opened his own speakeasy.
The 1925 collapse of the Steel City Bank, which served the Hill, gave Greenlee another opportunity. Greenlee had formed a numbers operation, whereby betting as little as a penny on the three-digit number of the day could bring $5 -- a windfall during the Great Depression.
But unlike many numbers operators who spun off into loan sharking and other dangerous activities, Greenlee was more a "numbers banker," who used some of his earnings to offer otherwise unattainable funds to his neighbors.
"Imagine how difficult it was for a black person to get a loan from a bank, to make a house payment or even buy groceries," said Robert Ruck, Ph.D., a senior lecturer of history at the University of Pittsburgh who has taught U.S. and sport history, and has written extensively on the Negro Leagues. "When I started doing research on Gus Greenlee, all the folks I heard from talked about, 'I needed an operation for my child' or 'I couldn't afford college tuition.' He was sort of a community bank.
"And a lot of those loans were not paid back. Greenlee was not a thug."
Nonetheless, a different kind of business to balance out the "extra-legal" business was in order. Enter baseball.
Greenlee bought the Crawford Giants, but he wasn't one to keep them at a low level. Already, Greenlee's Crawford Grille restaurant/nightclub was staging such royal acts as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Looking to the Pittsburgh suburbs and seeing the Homestead Grays rise to the top of black baseball enticed Greenlee to offer a challenge.
Greenlee spent a reported $100,000 on Greenlee Field, and purchased for the club a new Mack bus. The stadium was important. When black clubs used the Pirates' Forbes Field, they were not allowed to use the clubhouses. The bus was not to be underrated.
"To be able to move around easier in light of segregation, having to circumvent segregation laws, made the franchise more flexible and more lucrative," noted Raymond Doswell, the curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Pittsburgh was the place to be, and the place to play.
"Pittsburgh, geographically, is a major destination for migration east-to-west and west-to-east," Ruck said. "On any route for black entertainers or black ballplayers, Pittsburgh [was] a place to stop, perform or play. The playwright August Wilson noted that two ways that were open to achievement and excellence for African-Americans were baseball and entertainment, and Pittsburgh had the best of both."
Greenlee signed the Grays' Oscar Charleston to be the Crawfords' first baseman and manager. Catcher Josh Gibson, versatile Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe (who earned the nickname from 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) and pitcher extraordinaire Leroy "Satchel" Paige found their way to the Steel City's new power. The Crawfords also landed speedy center fielder James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell.
Of the aforementioned players, only Radcliffe is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Crawfords actually enjoyed an era of dominance, but '35 stands out partly because of the credibility (in today's terms) of a Negro World Series Championship.
Greenlee had taken over the Negro National League and awarded the Crawfords the 1933 title without playing a World Series.
The 1936 team had maybe even more star power, but there was no series then, either. The East-West All-Star Game was far more lucrative for the owners. The Crawfords finished that year with spirited barnstorming in Mexico, with one game featuring an 11 1/2-inning tie (because of darkness, even though accounts say there was enough light to continue) against a team that featured such Major Leaguers as Heinie Manush, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby.
The '35 club also was special because of who it didn't have.
The previous year, the Crawfords were not the dominant team, so Greenlee allowed Paige to leave for a semi-pro team in Bismarck, N.D. There are two accounts of what happened in '35. Either Paige had just been married but was denied a raise by Greenlee, or Greenlee coaxed Paige to sign -- for no raise -- during his wedding reception, when he was in no condition to sign anything. At any rate, Paige would leave the Crawfords and return to North Dakota.
Nonetheless, the Crawfords dominated. According to league stats originally 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 keyed the team.
Left-handed curveball specialist Leroy Matlock, who had pitched for stellar St. Louis Stars teams, went 18-0 in league play. Righty 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 New York Cubans, Matlock sat out the first two games, and the Crawfords lost both. Matlock's 3-0 shutout in Game 3 put the Crawfords back in the Series. The Crawfords had to climb out of a 3-1 disadvantage.
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 speed to bring home the title -- stealing second and scoring from second on an infield error.
The Crawfords' run was much like Greenlee's lotteries. They hit it big, but the riches didn't last. New political authorities eventually squashed Greenlee's operations, and the IRS did the rest. Fire wiped out the Greenlee Grille in 1951, and Greenlee died on July 7, 1952.
Greenlee's palace stadium would become the Bedford Dwellings housing project, but it will not be forgotten. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will place a marker at the stadium's site this year, possibly before the end of April. Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center (which features a virtual reality Greenlee Field display), said the ceremony could be part of a coordinated effort with the Pirates, who annually celebrate the heritage of the Crawfords and the Grays.
As a testament to the strength of baseball in Pittsburgh, the Grays would rise again. Gibson, in his last hurrah, was a key part of the 1943 Grays championship team -- No. 5 on this list. The Grays beat the Paige-led Kansas City Monarchs in the finals.
The Crawfords lived through key figures on both of those teams, and they live forever as one of baseball's greatest clubs.