This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Pirates fielding the first all Black and Latino starting lineup in Major League Baseball history. The historic game — played September 1st 1971 at Three Rivers Stadium — made the Pirates the first franchise to start an all-minority lineup in the major leagues. While all indications suggest that the decision was made without any deliberate intention to make history, the major league milestone quickly sent shockwaves throughout Pittsburgh and beyond. The Pirates organization commemorated the anniversary with special events including a panel discussion at the Heinz History Center featuring members of the landmark lineup.
The anniversary events came one week after the Pirates dedicated a game to commemorating Pittsburgh’s Negro Leagues baseball history. On Friday August 27th the Pirates presented a Negro Leagues remembrance night while hosting the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. The game featured a Josh Gibson-themed Grays t-shirt giveaway for fans and the Pirates took the field wearing replica Homestead Grays uniforms.
As with similar commemoration games during previous seasons the event also included an historical exhibit beneath the outfield bleachers. In addition to uniform and memorabilia displays relating to Josh Gibson and Pittsburgh’s Negro Leagues teams, the exhibit also featured photographs from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Charles “Teenie” Harris archive.
During the pre-game festivities the Pirates presented a $15,000 check to Sean Gibson, Josh Gibson’s great grandson and head of the Josh Gibson Foundation. I was pleased to see Sean and his foundation singled out for recognition at the game: he was extremely generous with his time when I interviewed him about his commemoration initiatives for my chapter in the Urban Communication Reader vol. IV, and I know that the breakout of the pandemic last year interrupted various plans for celebrations. I was also glad to see that the banners in the Legacy Square stadium entrance featured Negro Leagues players. I recall that in 2019 the banners only highlighted Pirates players. The return of Negro Leagues history to the corridor was a welcome sight, even if it doesn’t quite make up for the removal of the statues and history exhibits that previously occupied the space, as I discussed in my aforementioned book chapter.
The Legacy Square banners were not the only indication of increased Negro Leagues commemoration by the Pirates. The August 27th game was officially promoted as a Negro Leagues remembrance night for the first time in several seasons. During the past five years I’ve noticed that the annual commemorative game had gone from being billed as a “Negro Leagues celebration” to “African American Heritage night” and most recently simply a “Heritage Night.” I found a poster of this season’s promotional schedule that retained a reference to the indefinite “Heritage Night,” but I was glad that the promotion listing when I purchased my tickets was more pronounced. Even a seemingly minor gesture like this can take on greater resonance in light of ongoing efforts to commemorate and reckon with legacies of injustice, particularly in light of MLB’s decision late last year to officially recognize Negro Leagues records within major league baseball history.