Kings on the Hill: Rise of the Pittsburgh Crawfords
What in time became known as one of the greatest baseball clubs in the world began as a group of black and white Pittsburgh youths playing ball on the sandlots of the Hill. Organized baseball might have been lily-white in the 1920s, but race didn’t count that much on the Hill when it came time to choose up sides for a game. Blacks and whites played together, ate meals at each other’s homes, and often were whipped by both black and white mamas when they got into trouble. The Hill was a racial and ethnic smorgasbord, and pick-up games reflected that variety. As street play became increasingly organized into team competition, however, a sorting out by race occurred. Consequently, sandlot clubs were rarely composed of both black and white players, even though their members might have grown up playing ball together. The Crawfords came out of this interracial mix but became an all-black squad as they moved further away from the streets.
The roots of the Crawfords were in the South and the subsequent migration northward. Bill Harris was born on Christmas day 1909 in Calhoun, Alabama. His parents had met while working as cooks at the local public school, but neither a piece of land nor a job inspecting cars for the railroad was sufficient inducement to resist the lures of the North. The Harrises’ oldest son, Earl, was the first to leave. He moved to Pittsburgh and worked construction jobs. When Earl wrote home that the money was good, the Harris family soon joined him. His father worked construction, too, beginning as a laborer and eventually becoming a pusher, or gang leader. The five Harris brothers held a variety of jobs but became better known for their feats on the diamond, first in Pittsburgh and then across black America.
Bill Harris had his first taste of ball in the South, where the sport revolved around a multitude of small-town teams and a few big-city clubs like the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox. But he really learned the game on the streets and school lots of the Hill. By the time Bill was in the eighth grade at McKelvey School, he had left the pitcher’s mound for a position in the infield and had become the de facto leader of the grade-school team. “It was just a playground bunch but the guys wanted to play ball,” he told me. There were four blacks on the McKelvey team in 1925; “the rest were Jewish boys and Italians and white boys,” about thirteen to fifteen years old. They played rival school or street teams in games Harris and the other team leaders arranged. One opponent was the team from Watt School. McKelvey’s black enrollment was slightly over 28 percent of the student body in the mid-1920s, while Watt’s was the highest on the Hill at 88 percent. The Watt team consisted of seven black and two white players.
Teenie Harris managed the Watt team, and while no relation to Bill, the two considered themselves “pretty close.” It was simply a matter of time before they arranged a contest. Some sixty-five years later, Bill Harris recalled that when “I told our guys that we were going to play Watt School they said, ‘Oh no! We’re not going to play them cause they fight. If you beat Watt School you got to outrun them, too.’ They didn’t want to play so I said, ‘Look, fellas. Teenie’s got those fellas under control the same way I got you fellows. We’re going to play them.’” Winning over his teammates, Bill booked the game for a nearby playground.
When that first game ended with Watt on top of a one-tonothing score, the McKelvey players, who may have been youngsters but were still mature enough ballplayers to appreciate a close, well-played game, approached Bill Harris. “Bill, they no argue, they no fight. They got a good team. Book ’em again.” Three weeks later the two teams tangled in a rematch, and Watt once more emerged victorious, this time by three runs to two. Afterward, Bill and Teenie hashed over the game. “Look at this,” Bill argued. “Two games going down like this and your eight or nine black dudes playing pretty good ball. We have four of us here and each one of us plays a different position. Let’s get a ball team together.” Teenie agreed. The black youngsters from the two school teams thus became one squad and started playing and practicing down at Washington Park. The white players from both teams fell by the wayside. Bill Harris thought they were less proficient than the black players, but perhaps more important than this remembered difference in playing abilities was the reality that organized competition on the sandlots of Pittsburgh was usually between squads made up of players with the same skin color. A black team frequently played a white squad, but a team with both black and white players was the exception.
For the rest of that summer the as-yet-unnamed team played games arranged by Bill and Teenie, picking up a player here or there. The following season, 1926, saw most of the players back on the field ready to see just how good they were. They entered the city’s recreation league as the representative of the Crawford Bath House and became known as the Crawfords. A combination bathhouse and recreation center catering primarily to blacks on the Hill, the Crawford Street club distributed food baskets at Christmas and had the support of both black and white merchants, professionals, and sportsmen on the Lower Hill.
The Crawford Bath House was never totally segregated, but in the early 1920s the director of the Bureau of Recreation had put up signs there announcing that the center was for blacks. The black Pittsburgh American warned that the director seemed “very anxious to herd certain citizens off to themselves to keep down ‘clashes,’” and after a spirited resistance by the black community the signs came down. Several years later, John Clark was encouraged to report in his “Wylie Avenue” column in the Pittsburgh Courier that white clubs were competing in the sport programs at the bathhouse and that a mixed team had been entered in the Press Meet, an annual track and field competition. The Bath House boys won the May Day meet with a squad of thirty-seven, including thirty-two blacks, three Jews, and two Italians. In his column lauding the victory of this mixed entry, Clark compared them to Hunter Johnson’s Scholastic Club and praised the work of the director, Harry Hall.
A partisan of the sporting life, Clark issued a plea for his readers to back the team:
Crawford Center must have a baseball team. Avenue patrons want to see their boys active on the diamond under able direction. Twilight games played by youngsters furnish a thrill to parents that is absent in the professional exhibitions. The participants are closer to us. We are interested in their every movement—they are ours.
The Column is begging. There is no appropriation from the city for uniforms. So the Column requests that every one of its readers donate one dime (ten cents) to Harry Hall, care of Crawford Recreation Center, Wylie Avenue and Crawford Street, Pittsburgh, Pa.
As you know, the Column is not in the habit of begging, and this request is made in the interests of the boys who cannot reach you. Incidentally, it will give the Column an idea of how widely its efforts are appreciated.
A week later Clark lamented his apparent lack of readers with spare change, but he found some solace in the contributions the Crawfords began to receive from Wylie Avenue businessmen and patrons. Both Bill Harris and Teenie Harris recall that the key donation came from Gus Greenlee, the proprietor of an avenue nightspot.
The Crawfords won the 1926 pennant of the city’s recreation league and posed in their new uniforms on the steps of the Carnegie Library on Wylie Avenue on the Hill. Thirteen youths appear in the photograph, most of whom had been with the Crawfords from their Watt and McKelvey school beginnings in 1925. They were a serious, unsmiling group, clad in pinstripes and spiked shoes.
The Crawfords retained their affiliation with the bathhouse and recreation center for the next two seasons, although they were essentially a self-organized, self-directed team. Bill Harris and Harry Beale booked the games and called most of the shots on the field, while Jim Dorsey, Sr., from the center, served as their nominal coach. Players came and went but the Crawfords continued to improve, with streaks of twenty-five or more consecutive victories. Soon writers for the Courier were calling them the most promising team in the Colored Industrial Baseball League, the “fastest and cleverest outfit . . . to perform on a local diamond in the first-class division in many seasons.” Perhaps the highest praise came for the Bath House boys when they were referred to as the “Little Homestead Grays,” after the area’s top black professional club, which was itself attracting considerable national attention in the late 1920s.
In the fall of 1927 the nucleus of the Crawfords joined forces with five Jewish boys from the Hill to represent the McKelvey playgrounds in the Senior Inter-Playground League Championship. Outclassing their opponents, this rare integrated nine swept through the tourney and won a large silver trophy depicting a catcher crouching atop a baseball mounted on a base. The Courier hailed it as a major victory, the first time in the history of the city that such a large number of “race lads” had taken part in summer playground activities. The trophy was exhibited at the Centre Avenue YMCA and in other parts of the city where blacks could view it.
During the 1927 and 1928 seasons the Crawfords played their way to the top ranks of black sandlot baseball in Pittsburgh. At first the young team had trouble getting the other black clubs, made up of men in their twenties, thirties, and forties, to play them. But the Crawfords were fast becoming one of the best draws in town, and when the Hill’s favorite team played, crowds from several hundred to a few thousand were guaranteed. They took on the area’s top black clubs, and as they beat them, they recruited some of their vanquished opponents.
When the Crawfords played the Pittsburgh Black Sox at Washington Park, they repeatedly bunted their way on base. Relying on speed, the Crawfords won, and when the “Dark Hose” demanded a rematch, the Crawfords beat them again. After the second victory, four members of the Black Sox jumped to the Crawfords: Harry and Roy Williams, and Eddie and Willie Bryant, two pairs of brothers. Bill Harris explained the transition as a simple one: “The fellows that were with us playing those positions—they just fell out. No questions asked. They just quit.” In the meantime, Teenie Harris had left the club to help his brother Woogie in a new venture—the popularization of the numbers racket in Pittsburgh.
Next, the Crawfords beat the Clark Athletic Club and the Garfield ABCs, picking up an infielder and two pitchers in addition to their victories. Finally, the young Crawfords tangled with the Edgar Thomson ball club in Braddock. The ET club, coached by former Olympian Earl Johnson, had been built around a nucleus of young ballplayers who had joined the steel mill’s club when John Herron had disbanded his Pittsburgh Monarchs in 1924. Harold Tinker, Neal Harris, Charlie Hughes, Ormsby Roy, Claude Johnson, and William Kimbo were still with the ET team four seasons later when they met the Crawfords. As Tinker recalled it: “Those kids came to play Edgar Thomson and we were amazed that we could only beat them two to one or something like that. Those kids were really hustlers. Now, Neal Harris’s brother, Bill Harris, . . . he played third base for the kids and that had something to do with us coming from Edgar Thomson, because he insisted to his brother, Neal, ‘Why don’t you come down and we’ll make this a real ball team?’ So we quit Edgar Thomson and went down to play with these kids at Washington Park.” With the acquisition of the ET players, the Crawfords were far and away the best black sandlot club in town. Their high percentage of victories over white sandlotters indicates that they were likely the best sandlot club, black or white, in all of western Pennsylvania.
The text of this article is excerpted from Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh by Rob Ruck. Copyright 1987 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. Teenie Harris Photographs: Baseball in Pittsburgh closes on October 12, 2014.
The exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Baseball in Pittsburgh is on view in the Lobby Gallery at Carnegie Museum of Art until October 12, 2014.