The Community basis of sports in Pittsburgh

During the first half of the 20th century, sport played many important roles in Pittsburgh in terms of developing a sense of unity in the black community. The greatest strength of sport and recreation may have been its potential to transcend social and class barriers for blacks living in Pittsburgh. In addition, sport fostered self-organization, creativity and expression within the black community and served a central role in developing a sense of unity among blacks in Pittsburgh. The development of sport depended on certain aspects or elements of community which were in place at the time. But by the same token, community in Pittsburgh would not have developed as it did without the influence of sport, particularly baseball.
  During the early years of the migration, sports in the Hill District community were played on the streets. Because they were denied access to a wider range of recreation facilities, blacks in Pittsburgh used empty lots used instead of fields to play baseball. Then, around the turn of the century, forces outside the black community, including local industries, the city government, settlement agencies, sports promoters, and YMCA's, began to organize a sporting network. The forces in this organized play movement used sports and recreation in attempt to socialize children as well as adult migrants to the mainstream Pittsburgh culture. This "socialization" process included helping migrants to adjust, shaping their conduct to match the norms of "Old Pittsburghers", those Northern blacks who had lived in Pittsburgh for some time and were thus perceived as being more "cultured".
The organized play movement, with its supervised playgrounds and recreation centers, occurred in conscious opposition to black street culture and character of sport fostered by that street culture. As its first major project, the Pittsburgh Playground Association (PPA), the local arm of the organized play movement, built a recreation center with athletic fields and a playground) called Washington Park in 1903, which was then improved in 1908. Although blacks lost control over their leisure time during these years, the organized play movement in Pittsburgh was beneficial, bringing about tangible results such as community pools, gymnasiums, and playing fields. However, the new facilities, as well as the existing settlement houses, community centers, and YMCA's supposedly established to help the unfortunate, still failed to meet the black communities needs. YMCA, for instance, was cornerstone of social services' influence in sport, but YMCAs usually existed in communities with Protestant influence and some affluence. As a result, they could not adequately serve the black community in Pittsburgh.

Despite this, the significance of the establishment of new facilities should not be disregarded. By 1929, there were 78 recreation centers in Pittsburgh, eight of which were located on the Hill, including two year-round centers, Washington Park and Crawford Bathhouse, from which the legendary Negro League team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, would emerge in future years. Both facilities catered largely but not entirely to black individuals. Fairly good race relations were seen when the few facilities shared by blacks and whites, but a tendency towards de facto segregation did exist in the majority of facilities. Interesting to note, the organized play movement was much more segregated that the street sports scene it had replaced. With the onset of economic depression in the late 1920's, the informal coalition of sports activists, which had done so much for sport and recreation in black Pittsburgh, collapsed. Company-sponsored sports, as well as the support of city and social agencies, began to decline. But from the late 1920's through the 1940's, black social clubs, sports entrepreneurs and players themselves would rise to fill the void that had been left. Reinforcing the idea that a strong sport coalition must be built by black Pittsburghers themselves, this collapse gave blacks the opportunity to obtain control over sports. During these years in particular, Pittsburgh's black community experienced a lack of decent, skilled-labor jobs, geographic dispersal and extensive class divisions caused by influx of southerners. Sport thus became especially important in black Pittsburgh because it both offered potential for self-reliance and unity. Perhaps because opportunities were not provided anywhere else, sport then became to represent this potential for unity to the black community. In addition to looking to sport for recreation, black Pittsburgher began to look to sport for a sense of identity.


In addition to bringing Old Pittsburghers and southern migrants together, sport helped the scattered black Pittsburgh community to gain a sense of itself as part of a national black community. The sandlots and community teams became the new backbone of the new sporting network, and sports became an arena in which blacks could control their own affairs. As the sandlots set the tone for black baseball, sport continued to be less bothered by issues of class and birthplace than were other arenas of life during these years. The Hill in particular became an important arena for sports. As the number of black sandlot teams increased, the best teams began to emerge as professional or Negro League club teams, a trend laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays.