Monday, June 26, 2006

Negro Leagues legacy honored

By Joe Rutter
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The rising number of Negro Leagues promotions, the ones where major leaguers adorn throwback uniforms for one game, has taken Theodore Toles to cities throughout the East.

Toles, 80 years old and a former Negro Leagues mainstay, is happy the stop he made Monday in Pittsburgh was one he can make again.

Any time he wants. As many times as he wants.

"These things seem to be catching on everywhere," Toles said. "But here, they're trying to get ahead of everybody."

Toles was referring to Highmark Legacy Square, a permanent Negro Leagues tribute that the Pirates unveiled yesterday at PNC Park.

The tribute, located inside the left field gate entrance, is dedicated to Pittsburgh's two Negro Leagues teams, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. It is an interactive exhibit that features a 25-seat movie theater and bronze statues for seven Hall of Fame players. The statues are accompanied by video kiosks that enables fans to learn about each player's background.

The exhibit is the first of its kind housed inside a major-league ballpark and is trumped only by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

"There is a lot of good energy here," said Toles, who played one season for the Crawfords. "This looks like it's part of a neighborhood. I think it's going to help everybody learn about the Negro Leagues teams."

Toles was joined by another former Negro League player, 99-year-old Wallace Williams. Relatives were on hand representing families of Josh Gibson, Cumberland Posey, Sellers Hall and Curt Roberts, the first black player signed by the Pirates.

Once inside the ballpark, they watched youngsters from the Josh Gibson Little League Association of Pittsburgh unveil statues for seven Crawfords and Grays players who have gained inclusion in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame: Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams and, of course, Gibson, considered the greatest Negro Leagues player of them all.

Gibson's statue is the first one fans will encounter when passing through the entrance.

"If you give me one word to describe it, I would say overwhelming," said Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of the legendary player and president of the Josh Gibson Foundation. "I'm glad the Pirates were first to do something like this, and I hope it inspires other cities to do the same. Pittsburgh was called the center of black baseball. To have Josh involved in this way is such an honor."

The theater contains wax figures of Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee and Posey, owner of the Grays. Their introduction begins a 12-minute presentation that showcases the history of the two teams.

The Pirates had considered adopting a Negro Leagues tribute in 2001 when PNC Park opened, but plans were put on the back burner. With the franchise hosting the All-Star Game in two weeks and the national media descending on Pittsburgh, it seemed like an appropriate season to make good on those plans, said Pirates managing general partner Kevin McClatchy.

It took more than a year of work, and some help from the Kansas City museum, to make yesterday's event become a reality.

"I'm glad we were able to get it done for the game," McClatchy said. "Hopefully, afterwards, when schools take tours of the ballpark, they'll explore this area which focuses more on the education of baseball.

"It's a great display, and it makes PNC Park, which we all say is the best ballpark in America, a little bit better."

Joe Rutter can be reached at

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