Monday, August 31, 2009

Josh Gibson Field

“The reason that I can tell there is a lot of pride here is because no one has done damage to that field," stated Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Hall Of Famer & Negro League Baseball Slugger Josh Gibson. Sohna and I were standing with Sean outside Josh Gibson Field, previously known as Ammon Field--in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Historical in baseball lore because the recently refurbished field is located on Bedford Avenue just outside the center of downtown. Bedford Avenue the one time homes to two of the greatest teams in The Negro Leagues History. Both The Homestead Grays & Pittsburgh Crawfords played at Ammon Field during the 1920's, while The Crawfords would eventually move just up the street to Greenlee Field in 1932. The very first African-American Owned Ballpark in The Negro Leagues.

As you may recall, The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation is attempting to build a D.C. Baseball Academy at Ft. Dupont Park in Ward 7 as the hook to bring in needy youths, not only to teach them baseball skills, but to also provide educational opportunities and support for families. Serving the community--which The Josh Gibson Foundation has reached in ever increasing numbers since 1994 in The Hill District of Pittsburgh.

The Josh Gibson Foundation was formed to not only recall & remember the history of one of Baseball's Greatest Players, but to reach out to the families and youths in the very area in which Josh Gibson spent a large part of his baseball life. Since 1999, The Josh Gibson Foundation has run their very own Little League Program. And after numerous fundraisers with assists from The Pittsburgh Pirates Charities, Major League Baseball's Baseball Tomorrow Program, The Grable Foundation, Del Monte Foods and the City Of Pittsburgh, a $400,000 renovation took place at Ammon Field beginning in 2008. The goal to make the newly renamed Josh Gibson Field a showcase for inner city youths and in doing so help recruit more children and parent involvement in the educational programs provided by the foundation.

Sean Gibson: "This (renovation) has made it a lot easier for us to recruit kids for the foundation. Our strategy has always been athletics to get the kids into the foundation. And it’s working, but this field really has helped out. We increased our numbers (in participation) by 25% this year. This is the first year we did ages 5 through 8 (in the past just ages 9-12). We had a great turnout with that. One of the good things that really helped us out was more parent participation than ever before. And that is what I am looking for because, in previous years, we had NO PARENT participation at all in our programs. This year we had over 30 parents volunteer. That's just terrific. And I think that when anyone is involved in athletics on a youth level, you need that parent support. You need that parent support because they are the ones who are in the community with their kids. They can help with fundraisers, help you raise money and we are really happy to have the parents support now.”

But just like The Washington Nationals Dream Foundations goals--education is a big part of the curriculum at The Josh Gibson Foundation.

“We use athletics as a tool to draw our kids in," says Sean Gibson. "Once we get them in, we have our educational programs. We are starting a sports curriculum which consists of sports media, sports marketing, sports management. Young kids today look at sports to get out of the ghetto or the neighborhoods. But we all know, as adults, that not everyone is going to be that professional athlete and make it to the big time. So, we’ve added the sports curriculum where they can learn how to be involved in sports on a professional level, just not on the field. I can be a agent some day. I can be a broadcaster one day. It's important that the kids have other outlets to choose."

Josh Gibson spent a large portion of his adult life playing baseball and living in the surrounding Hill District area. Not only playing baseball at first Ammon Field and then Greenlee Field, but also hanging out at the nearby famous Crawford Grill. The pictured one shown here known as Crawford Grill #2 (of three) owned by Crawfords Owner William (Gus) Greenlee. The center of African-American music and nightlife in Pittsburgh when The Negro Leagues were the center of black baseball's life. Yes, just like U-Street in the Shaw area & Old Griffith Stadium was for The Homestead Grays in Washington, D.C.. A fabric of life which all came together here in The Hill District. One in which Sean Gibson was kind enough to take Sohna and I on a special tour when we visited Pittsburgh last month when Our Washington Nationals played at PNC Park.

"When you have someone like Josh Gibson who actually played in this community, who lived in this community; whose funeral was in this community; who started his career in this community and finished his career here-it's huge," said Sean Gibson. "But not only that, many people in the neighborhood realize the big part that Josh played because of what he has done for The Hill District. Anytime, we can have Josh highlighted, it’s good for us, it’s good for the family and it’s good for The Foundation and it’s good for the kids. Anytime you can showcase an African-American man who never played Major League Baseball, who has been dead over 60 years, and he is still getting a lot of accolades with statues, baseball fields and things like that—it’s special. There are a lot of black and white baseball players that have played in The Majors that haven’t received half the stuff that Josh has been given. So, we are very appreciative of that.”

Gratefulness--which many of the kids involved with The Josh Gibson Foundation's Programs feel these days. Over 300 individuals showed up in April, 2009 for the Grand Opening Of Josh Gibson Field. Former Pittsburgh Pirate Greats--Bonny Bonilla, Kent Tekulve & Manny Sanguillen showed up to offer their best wishes and give credence to The Foundation's work. So did The Pittsburgh Pirates Owner Bob Nutting, Team President Frank Coonelly and Broadcaster Greg Brown. Even Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was there. The Pirates Grounds Crew even comes once per season to reset and maintain the playing surface. Respect not lost on Sean Gibson for The Foundation's work throughout the greater Pittsburgh area.

“The crazy part about it and the good part about it is that a lot of our kids know a little bit about Josh Gibson, but when they see the TV cameras, the reporters, the celebrity and things like that—it really hits them then who Josh Gibson really was. The good thing about our League is we get a lot of media attention. But when someone from the media interviews them (the kids)—to ask them about how do you feel about Josh Gibson? How do you feel about playing on Josh Gibson Field? I think that is when it really hits them: Man, this guy was really someone. But when I talk to the community, it’s important that I speak as not just The Josh Gibson Foundation. This is Our Field and for it to be Our Field we have to take care of Our Field. It is everybody’s responsibility. I have been up here a long time working with these kids, but I don’t want them to think it’s just about The Josh Gibson Foundation. It is more than that. Our responsibility is to raise the money, but I raised the money for you guys. So take a sense of pride in this, be proud of it and showcase it.”

Gibson's personal tour for us included a stop at The Ammon Recreation Center which houses the offices for The Josh Gibson Foundation. He then introduced us to Clarence Battles--Commissioner of The Josh Gibson Baseball Academy. Just next door to the Ammon Recreation Center and Josh Gibson Field is The Macedona Baptist Church where Josh Gibson's Funeral took place in 1947. Then, just a short drive up Bedford Avenue, the Historical Marker (placed in July, 2009) which commemorates Greenlee Field--The Home Of The Pittsburgh Crawfords--now a public housing project. Finally, ending up this very wonderful afternoon at The Crawford Grill and around the corner at the birthplace of one of America's Greatest Playwrights in any era--August Wilson--awarded two pulitzer prizes.

As mentioned in April, The Josh Gibson Foundation, in cooperation with Duquense University, is producing a documentary on the life of Josh Gibson. Some interviews have even been shot in Washington, D.C.

Sean Gibson: "We actually showed a trailer last month at our annual banquet when Lou Brock was here. We are just finishing it up right now. We want to premiere it in September in Pittsburgh. We have Mark Lerner from The Nationals in it (also D.C. Baseball Historian Phil Wood was interviewed as well). We want to premiere it in DC. And we want to do a premiere in Buena Vista, Georgia--which is Josh’s Birthplace and hometown--and in Kansas City at The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. There is a story being told from the beginning, where he was born in Buena Vista to the end—covering Buena Vista, Latin Ball, Homestead Grays, Washington Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords until he passed away.”

Amazingly and in a story worth telling--62 Years after his life ended at 37 years of age, a future for many youngsters still shines bright in the afterglow of Josh Gibson in Pittsburgh.

"And every time I walk up and down the street, or go to the store, or stop by my office, I get people young and old saying: ‘Thank you. We appreciate what you have done,'" stated Sean Gibson. "'We love the field and this is a great thing you are doing up here. We need this for our kids.' So just the community support telling me how they feel about it—that is the pride that I get out of these efforts. That is the pride I sense out of them by telling me how much they appreciate EVERYTHING.”

PS--2011 is the 100th Anniversary of Josh Gibson's birth. Leading up to that important date, The Josh Gibson Foundation will hold annual Softball Fund Raising Tournaments each August--the first of which was held this past weekend at Josh Gibson Field. With 2011 the goal of playing the entire Josh Gibson Foundation Softball Tournament at PNC Park--The Home of The Pittsburgh Pirates. "The average person never gets the chance to actually play on a Major League Field. What could be more fitting for a fundraiser supporting The Josh Gibson Foundation," believes Sean Gibson.

And understanding that Washington, D.C. played a rather large role in Josh Gibson's Baseball Career, The Josh Gibson Foundation is hoping to line up some events in The Nation's Capital, as well, leading up to that 100th Anniversary Marker Date of Josh Gibson's Birth.

So, stay tuned here on Nats320.


SenatorNat said...

This is really a terrific account - it is what makes Nats320 such an exceptional blog, since it does on the scene features worthy of a major metropolitan daily and helps advance the cause of MLB in DC and how that can integrate and benefit the community at large if done properly and with the spirit of creativity, generosity, history, and enterprise. Since I cut my teeth going to Senators games with my grandfather and Dad at Griffith Stadium and have actually met Satchel Page, etc., it is especially interesting. I recommend a book The Greatest Game Ever Played, incidentally, about the 7th Game of the 1960 WS won by the Pirates, which has interwoven some of the rich history of the areas described in Steel Town.

SBF and the African Queen should enlist Nyger Morgan to perhaps help take the lead in helping this Foundation get a better foothold in D.C., recognizing that the team has formal channels for same. Point is that his energy and splendid innate craziness will promote community endeavors like no other member of the ballclub, and certainly more than members of the ownership family, despite their wonderful intentions!

Trust in a city that can memoralize Josh Gibson with a hand up but no extra arms! And a great grand son.

leslie said...

what a great article about Josh and what he means to PA and DC! I love the work the Josh Gibson Foundation does and your highlighting of it. thanks!