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The Rise and Fall of Gus Greenlee

By Graham Womack, January 17, 2017
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Pittsburgh Crawfords owner William Augustus “Gus” Greenlee.

On the evening of July 19, 1938, the stockholders of Greenlee Field met to consider an offer. The first black-owned ballpark in Negro League history was six years old, a Hill District marquee, and home to one of baseball’s greatest teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The city’s Housing Authority, which wanted the land for a low-income residential project, was offering $50,000. Construction of the 8,000-seat park had cost at least twice that. But the city had condemnation power.

Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee had enjoyed a meteoric rise, helping introduce the numbers racket to Pittsburgh in 1926 and buying the semipro Crawfords four years later. Greenlee turned the team into an immediate powerhouse, helping develop Satchel Paige and raiding other rosters for legends like Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, and Smokey Joe Williams.

Greenlee’s good fortune extended to his other, more illicit endeavors. Frequently arrested though never convicted, Greenlee once walked into a police station saying, “I hear you boys been looking for me.” In another instance, shortly after Greenlee posted $2,500 bail at court on his latest charge of running an illegal lottery, the judge entreated him to return to answer more questions. The judge suggested two dates, with Greenlee responding he’d be in New York and London with a boxer he managed, John Henry Lewis. Finally, the judge told Greenlee, “Well, when I want you, I’ll call you up or you call me in the next few days.”

By 1938, though, Greenlee’s problems were mounting. Paige, Gibson, Bell, and others had departed the year before to play for a team run by Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, causing the Crawfords to tumble in the standings. Greenlee Field needed repairs and was attracting fewer fans. Fellow owners wanted Greenlee out as president of the struggling Negro National League. Even his lottery business had taken a hit, with Greenlee being forced to pay out on a big ticket.

As Greenlee sat with his fellow stockholders, perhaps he knew his luck was finally up.

*          *          *

Maybe Greenlee wouldn’t have had a chance even if he’d dug in for a fight against the city. By the late 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had finally kicked in, leading to an unprecedented wave of public works projects. Parks, high schools, public housing developments. In the waning days of the Great Depression, federal dollars poured in for these and much more.

The city’s two mainstream newspapers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press barely mentioned Greenlee Field’s impending doom when the city’s Housing Authority announced in October 1938 that the ballpark was included in an area it needed to construct Bedford Dwellings, a 431-unit, $2.5 million development in the Hill District. A black cemetery in the area would need to be relocated. Ammon Playground and 118 homes would, like Greenlee Field, need to be razed.

The first black-built baseball park in the country, Pittsburgh’s Greenlee Field also hosted other sporting events including college football games and boxing matches.

A Pittsburgh Press article dated October 2 headlined “Work of Clearing Slums to Start Soon on Hill” noted that the city had been wanting to rehabilitate its slums for years. With tax exemptions and city subsidies, the article noted, residents would pay just five dollars a month for the new homes. “For this rental, the residents will get bright, airy apartments in modern brick buildings, equipped with all modern conveniences and facing landscaped garden areas between the buildings.”

The city’s iconic black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier was less enthusiastic, publishing a lengthy feature on December 10 as demolition work began. Courier writer John L. Clark noted the city’s offer for Greenlee Field being reduced to $38,000 for no discernible reason over months of negotiation and the stockholders having no choice but to accept because of eminent domain.

Clark highlighted some of Greenlee’s failed efforts to keep the park afloat before, such as taking over its operations and debts earlier in the year from other shareholders and trying to sell a bulk season pass in 1937. Clark accused fans of turning their backs because of mistreatment of African-American employees at the park. Clark added, however, “Regardless of what mistakes were made, or who made them, a purer racial interest should have manifested to keep Greenlee Field out of the list of failures.”

The Courier had long championed Greenlee, one of the most powerful and charitable men in Pittsburgh’s black community. Greenlee donated to the NAACP and YMCA, sponsored holiday meals, and kept hundreds on his payroll. In May 1929, Courier columnist Chester Washington wrote, “I’ve done considerable questioning behind his back—about him, and I can truthfully testify that I’ve never heard anyone offer anything short of this comment. ‘Gus is a prince.’”

By this point, Greenlee had been sued for $10,000 over a car accident, faced a Prohibition raid at his Paramount Inn, and been arrested the first of several times for operating a lottery with his partner, William “Woogie” Harris. Greenlee had charges dismissed at trial in October 1932 for allegedly conspiring with four others to purchase 2,500 tax receipts the year before to register phony voters. The Courier wrote of Greenlee a month after the trial, “He’s got a heart that is as big as a whale and the wisdom of a Socrates.”

Baseball author Bijan C. Bayne said the black press might have looked the other way on some of Greenlee’s illicit dealings since it was understood that many wealthy black citizens in those days were involved in numbers. And the numbers bankers could do a lot of good.

Greenlee’s 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords—considered “the best team money could buy”—featured stars such as Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Sam Bankhead, Jimmie Crutchfield and others.

Much has been written historically about how Greenlee made the Crawfords into a powerhouse by raiding one of the greatest teams in baseball history, the 1931 Homestead Grays. Owned by Cumberland Posey, the Grays went 136–10 and boasted Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Smokey Joe Williams. Greenlee had all three playing for the Crawfords the following year, in part because he paid better than nearly every other Negro League owner and took an unusual interest in his players’ wellbeing.

With Posey’s team and league on the verge of collapse in July 1932, the Courier asked Greenlee if he had players to spare. Greenlee replied, “I would gladly let (Posey) have the men you suggest but I am not going to send any players to anyone who will not pay them the salaries I am giving them . . . I think the player has as much money as I can afford to pay him, and I am not in the game to kill off and underpay the men who draw the crowds through the gates.”

Instead, Greenlee led a revived Negro National League in 1933 and helped found the annual East-West All-Star Game, which drew 404,000 fans its first 12 years. Wendell Smith wrote in a July 19, 1952 column for the Courier, shortly after Greenlee died of a heart attack, “Negro baseball reached its greatest heights under his direction.”

Greenlee helped his players away from the field as well. A 1984 obituary for one former player, Ted Page, noted that he got $15 a week to work four hours a day, six days a week in the winter of 1932 as a numbers lookout for Greenlee. Page’s only assignment? Ringing a buzzer if the police or anyone suspicious showed.

Greenlee paid better than many Negro League owners. Morally, he was right in line, with Bayne noting the majority of black owners being involved in numbers. In 2006, a special Hall of Fame committee inducted 17 black baseball contributors including New York Cuban Stars owner Alex Pompez. Adrian Burgos Jr. wrote for Sporting News in 2015 that Pompez helped get Willie Mays scouted in 1948 and later helped establish the Giants pipeline for Dominican talent. Pompez was also an associate of gangster Dutch Schultz and fled to Mexico in 1937 and later turned state’s evidence to beat kidnapping and murder charges.

Perhaps if Greenlee had fought harder for his ballpark with the city threatening demolition in 1938, he’d be in Cooperstown as well. Loss of Greenlee Field and the subsequent collapse of the Crawfords helped curtail his career. But it wasn’t Greenlee’s final act.

In 1944, Branch Rickey established the United States League, ostensibly a black professional circuit. The new league would prove unsuccessful, though it was really just a cover for Rickey to scout an African-American player. Smith noted how Rickey quietly told Greenlee in 1945, “If you think you can find me a player good enough to play in the majors, get him for me.”

Greenlee dove into the assignment, even if it spelled the future doom of Negro League baseball. “I don’t care if I never own another Negro team or promote another game,” Smith quoted Greenlee as having said. “I want to see Negro players in the major leagues. I know that all other Negroes do too.”

Smith wrote that Rickey granted Greenlee permission to discuss the plan with a handful of close friends.

“We happened to be one of the few he told,” Smith wrote. “In fact, we spent many hours going over the list of prospects with him. Jackie Robinson’s name eventually came out on top.

After serving as home to the Crawfords for seven seasons, in 1938 the City of Pittsburgh acquired Greenlee Field and later demolished the park in order to build a housing project.
Courtesy of: The Ratzenberger Attic 

 

 

 

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