There was good news and bad news this year about historical markers for Negro league ballparks.
First, the good news. The Detroit Stars’ Hamtramck Stadium, the 1930s successor to Mack Park and one of the surprisingly large number* of Negro league parks still standing, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of Gary Gillette and others.
(*-See Kevin Johnson’s great article in the latest Outsider Baseball Bulletin on Negro league ballparks, drawn from his research on the upcoming Negro League Ballparks Database.)
Photo by Paul Healey, from Project Ballpark.
And the bad news. Unfortunately, Central Baseball Park, the home of the Pittsburgh Keystones and other teams from 1920 to 1925, was denied an historical marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. According to the Commission, the application did not meet the following guidelines:
1) The person, place, or event to be marked is of statewide or national historical significance rather than that of local or regional interest.
2) People, places, and events already marked with existing monuments or markers receive less favorable consideration for a PHMC historical marker.
In other words, the Keystones weren’t that big a deal, and the state’s already got some markers commemorating the Negro leagues.
In reality, I think the problems are:
1) The information Dr. McDonald Williams and I gave the Commission directly contradicts the Greenlee Field marker and might be seen as somewhat diminishing that landmark’s significance.
2) They’re having trouble seeing past Pittsburgh’s many Negro league heavyweights like Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays, and figure that any team or player that doesn’t measure up to them isn’t worth commemorating.
It’s their commission, and they obviously have constraints on the number of markers they can manufacture and place. But as far as current scholarship knows, Central Park, and not Greenlee Field, was the first black-owned and black-built major league baseball park in the country. Giants Park in St. Louis was built in 1919 at the behest of the team’s African American owners, but we don’t know what architect or contractor was responsible. Unlike Central Park, Giants Park was not built in a black neighborhood, so it would seem less likely that a black-owned firm was involved. Mohawk Park was built in 1914 in Schenectady, New York, by the Mohawk Giants’ white ownership. Hilldale Park in Darby, Pennsylvania, was built as an amateur park, not originally for a professional team.
Moreover, Central Park was the African American architect Louis Bellinger’s first major commission. In fact, as I understand it, the ballpark was his first known building, period.
It’s just my opinion, but I think that all this firmly establishes Central Park’s state and national significance.
There was more to the Negro Leagues than a few big stars and teams from the 1930s and 1940s. Black professional baseball was a broad-based cultural and economic phenomenon; it represented the strivings of whole communities, a whole people. Josh Gibson, the Grays and Crawfords, and Gus Greenlee could only accomplish what they did because of those who came before them. A marker commemorating Central Park would acknowledge that Greenlee Field was not a lone, heroic effort, but rather the culmination of the desires and efforts of fans, players, and promoters over several decades.
Map prepared by the G.M. Hopkins Company in 1923 (from Historic Pittsburgh).