Louis A. S. Bellinger and Alexander McDonald Williams
A couple of years ago Geri Strecker published a fantastic article on Greenlee Field, home of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, in the pages of Black Ball: A Journal of the Negro Leagues. It’s an absolute must-read, if you can get your hands on a copy. In it, among other things, Geri shows how the park was designed and built by a prominent African American architect, Louis A. S. Bellinger, meaning that Greenlee Field was, as it were, a black production from start to finish.
As it turns out, Greenlee Field wasn’t the only Negro league ballpark that could be characterized this way. Cleveland’s Tate Field (later Hooper Field), for example, was built in 1921 by a black contractor named George Roven Hooper. We don’t (yet) know who built Stars Park in St. Louis or Lewis Park in Memphis in 1922, Giants Park in St. Louis in 1919, or Hilldale Park in 1914, so it’s quite possible that African American architects and/or contractors were involved in those projects as well.
But we do know about one other Negro league ballpark. Last spring Dr. McDonald “Mac” Williams, English professor and the son of Pittsburgh Keystones owner Alexander McDonald Williams, submitted an official proposal to the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission for a state marker to be placed on the site of his father’s ballpark, Central Baseball Park. As part of his application, he included several fascinating documents from his father’s files, including player contracts, financial statements…and receipts for lumber purchased during the building of the ballpark. Here’s one of them:
That’s Louis A. Bellinger, and the lumber is being delivered to the approximate location of Central Park, Chauncey and Wylie. (The date in August is actually after the ballpark hosted its first game on July 24, 1920, but newspapers noted at the time that the park was not yet finished.) When Gus Greenlee hired Bellinger to build a home for his Crawfords in 1932, he was engaging the services of a man already experienced in ballpark design and construction, because Bellinger had built Greenlee Field’s predecessor, Central Baseball Park.
The Keystones’ ballpark also marks an important passage in Bellinger’s career, as it seems to have been his first major commission as an architect. To my mind, this adds another justification for a historical marker, as Central Park carries significance in both the sports and the architectural history of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, like most of Bellinger’s work, Central Park no longer exists; its location has apparently been a vacant lot since at least the 1930s:
(From Google Maps)
It also strikes me that Greenlee Field is misunderstood if it’s thought to be a pioneering enterprise, the “first” of anything. In fact the Crawfords’ ballpark was actually a backwards-looking enterprise, an attempted revival of the golden age of the Negro leagues in the 1920s. With the collapse of Rube Foster’s NNL and the Eastern Colored League, black teams in the 1930s turned more and more to barnstorming, and instead of building their own parks they rented major and minor league venues. Greenlee Field was not the first of its kind, but the last. Its demolition in 1938 marked the end of a particular dream of black self-sufficiency, and served as a harbinger of the age of integration that was to follow.