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2.12.2015

West Field, Munhall, PA Homestead Grays Negro League Baseball Field

I wrote this article this past February, sadly, the building was torn down this past summer. When we forget our history, we lose track of the present and hurt our futures. 

In honor of Black History month and some research, I found that we have an extremely important landmark that seems to be often overlooked. This is West Field in Munhall, PA. It is one of roughly a dozen negro league parks remaining in the entire nation. Compared to Hinchliffe Stadium and Hamtramck Stadium, West Field is in decent shape. It still needs some love and there are plans to rejuvenate it that you can read about here. Hopefully those plans come to fruition because previous plans were blocked, including one by the former Steelers backup QB Charlie Batch.
1948 Post-Gazette Article
Anyways, the Homestead Grays played many of their games here throughout the late thirties and through the forties. It is referred to as the home stadium for the Grays. This is not fully accurate because they were transient with ballparks. For example, this article from 1941 mentions that the second game in a home series was played in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. The team also split their home games in Washington, D.C. 
Weekday games were played here, and weekend games were played at Forbes Field in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, when the Pirates were out of town. The Grays would play quite a few exhibition games all over the place, almost anywhere and this was one of the first stable home fields for the team. They often played games at the Braddock Edgar Thomson Steel Works baseball field, another ballpark that was once on the Yough waterfront in McKeesport, and at other ballparks located in Hazelwood, Aliquippa, McKees Rocks, and others. They also frequently played their regional rival, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, that once played in the Hill District. The Crawfords were in town until the 1940 season, when they moved to Indianapolis and folded soon after.

Josh Gibson, also known as the black Babe Ruth, once played in this ballpark. This photo was taken at Forbes Field by Teenie Harris, a legendary photographer.
He is said to have hit 800 homeruns over his career. He also hit the longest homer in the history of Yankee Stadium at 580 feet. West Field ballpark has dimensions of roughly 358 feet in left field, 700 feet in center field, and 390 in right. Unfortunately we do not have any footage of play in this park, nor pictures or verification of the field dimensions back then, but if there was anyone who could hit a homerun out of this park, it would have been him. It is mind-blowing to me that even though Josh Gibson was well known and one of the greatest talents the game had ever seen, that he was held back from playing in the Major Leagues simply because of his skin color. Satchel Paige once pitched in this ballpark. Now the ballpark sits forgotten and in disrepair and hopefully that will change soon. I would also like to see a state historical marker or at least a plaque commemorating the historical significance of this gem. 

The park is dedicated to William Knight, former mayor of Munhall. He served as mayor for thirty years and worked to establish strong youth sports at the stadium. He was a community leader that was known to purchase sporting goods for kids and for this service, the ballpark is dedicated to him.
 Antique lighting. I am not certain if these were in place at that time, considering that teams did not often play night games at that point. 
 The antique stands. At some point aluminum was installed, but you can see that the bracing for the bleachers is likely from the original wooden bleachers.
 A sad picture of what seems to be a dead ballpark.
 I can just picture these stands being filled with spectators.
 I can picture Josh Gibson being on deck right here, doing some warm-up swings.
 I can picture a foul ball heading into the stands.
I can just imagine seeing a double play getting completed to end an inning, with the team running back to the dugout. If you have not noticed, I really love baseball.
 Right field. The field has the bulk of its seating on the right foul line.
 I can picture a baseball player anxiously waiting with his foot on the top step of the dugout. Right field dugout.
 Left field dugout.
 It was about 10 degrees out when I took these pictures and I did not have gloves on. At this point I was getting pretty shaky. This view was awesome though. The light kind of snow that you get when it is exceptionally cold, was blowing in the bowl, and snow dunes were forming around homeplate.
 Disorienting view with the disproportionate stadium dimensions, but this is just slightly off of home plate. Still a few hundred feet from this point to the outfield wall
 A look towards home plate. "Bottom of the ninth, two outs for Josh Gibson, with men on second and third."
 Insert Harry Kalas, though this was way before his time. "Here is Josh Gibson with a chance to do some damage! Long drive! Driven deep to center field! It is outta here! 3 run walk off home run for Josh Gibson!"
 Celebration outside of the dugout!
 Everyone running out in celebration!

There ends my vivid imagination. This site needs to be restored and marked. It is a shame and a disservice to the community that no memorial or mention of the history of this ballpark is around it. The Homestead Grays are the most famous of the Negro League teams. They played a major role in making desegregation the law, through showing their superior prowess on the field. This needs to be recognized in Munhall. These plans for restoration need to come into fruition. 

Anyways, this was a small look at this forgotten, but extremely important, landmark that is extremely important in American and Black History. The baseball diamond helped to cut through segregation and racism. Major League Baseball would desegregate soon after the Grays stopped playing at West Field. While we know how difficult it was for Jackie Robinson, he paved the way for his elder Satchel Paige to come into the MLB at age 42 and still be lights out. Imagine the talent that never got to the big leagues, including the possible all-time home runs king, Josh Gibson. These guys paved the way for us to see guys like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, Kirby Puckett, Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey and Jr, Andrew Mccutcheon, and Jimmy Rollins. The efforts on West Field, and throughout the Negro Leagues, ensured that these excellent players got a shot in the Major Leagues to not only play, but to become the best players that the game has ever seen. This legacy needs to be addressed at this nearly forgotten landmark.

UPDATE: Sadly, this was not to be. The site was completely demolished last summer. I went to check it out the one day, to get my view of the site as it would have been during prime baseball form. I knew of the "renovation" planned for the site, but a nightmare was realized when the entire place was fully demolished. Another piece of our history, quietly bulldozed. At least the site will be used as a community recreation center and make odes to the history of the site.

1 comment :

  1. Go back now. I play baseball there. Remarkable job!

    ReplyDelete

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