Erased and Forgotten Sports History in Pittsburgh’s Crossroads of the World

Editor’s note: In anticipation of the Urban History Association’s 2023 conference being held in Pittsburgh from October 26 – October 29, The Metropole is making the Steel City its Metropolis of the Month for January 2023. The CFP remains open until February 20, 2023. See here for details.

By David S. Rotenstein

Introduction

Pittsburgh is a city steeped in sports history. The Steel City’s sports teams—the Steelers (football), Pirates (baseball), and Penguins (hockey)—have international followings. Monuments and museums throughout the city celebrate Pittsburgh’s sports history. In the early twentieth century, Pittsburgh became a Mecca for Black baseball with two pathbreaking Negro Leagues teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Pittsburgh also is a city plagued by erasures and racial bias with regard to its commemorative landscapes. Once dubbed the “Mississippi of the North,” Pittsburgh has a long history of racial segregation and violence.[1] That segregation extends to historiography and the historic sites preserved to tell the city’s story. The city’s sports history and erasure intersect in a vacant, two-acre lot in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

The Hill District has ties to Black history dating to the early nineteenth century. An early wave of formerly enslaved people settled there before 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act created a break in Black settlement in Pittsburgh. By the first decades of the twentieth century, the Hill had become a congested immigrant neighborhood filled with Southern Black migrants, Eastern European Jews, Italians, and migrants from the Levant. Despite notable efforts to preserve and rehabilitate a small number of sites associated with big names in Black history, much of the Hill’s Black history sites (and the city’s) have been destroyed by urban renewal, disinvestment, and gentrification. Because of playwright August Wilson’s body of work documenting twentieth-century life there and the widespread attention focused on the neighborhood’s history of displacement, Pittsburgh’s Hill District is one of the nation’s best known Black neighborhoods alongside New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville, and Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.[2]

Three Brothers from Barbados Build a Ballpark

In 1920 Alexander McDonald Williams rented two lots in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and set about building a professional sports stadium and entertainment venue. The Barbados native had owned a billiards hall in the basement of a theater at the intersection of Fullerton Street and Wylie Avenue. Dubbed the Crossroads of the World after World War II, for decades the intersection was a congested entertainment district with restaurants, nightclubs, and theaters as well as brothels, speakeasies, and gambling dens. “It was greater than Seventh and T [streets]” in Washington, DC, one visitor told a Pittsburgh Courier columnist in 1954. “What made this crossing so attractive was that it was surrounded with everything that any wild night-lifer wanted.”[3]

Central Amusement Park location pictured in the 1923 Real Estate Plat-Book of the City of Pittsburgh from Official Records, Private Plans and Actual Surveys, Volume 1, G.M. Hopkins and Co.

Alexander Williams (1883-1941) and his two brothers, Charles (c. 1893-1949) and Stanley (1900-1977), found themselves at the center of all the action. All three had an ownership stake in the pool hall. In the 1930s Stanley launched a successful restaurant and nightclub at Fullerton and Wylie. Displaced during urban renewal in 1956, Stanley relocated his establishment to the city’s Homewood neighborhood. Though he died in 1977, it’s still open and doing business as “Stanley’s.” Charles worked for both of his brothers and briefly was in business in the 1920s with noted Hill District entertainment and gambling entrepreneur Gus Greenlee, who later owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro League team and built Greenlee Stadium and opened the landmark Crawford Grills.[4] In 1949 Charles was working as a bartender at Stanley’s when a patron shot and killed him. Famed Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris captured Stanley tossing flowers into the Monongahela River from a bridge during the memorial.[5]

Alexander McDonald Williams, undated photo. Courtesy of Donna Williams.

The Williams brothers contributed to the Hill District’s legendary status as Black Mecca, and their ballpark was an early chapter in that story. Alexander Williams likely got his introduction to what family members refer to as “the baseball” via his brother-in-law, Arlis J. Bailey. In 1908 Bailey became the manager of a sandlot team, the Frick Building Athletic Club. Formed by janitors working in the downtown building, it was one of many amateur sports teams practicing and playing in Hill District vacant lots. According to Alex’s granddaughter, the path he took to “the baseball” has been long forgotten.

All of the reporting and histories tied to their stadium credit Alexander—known to friends and family as “Don” or “Alex”—with conceiving and backing the Central Amusement Park. In 1921 Alexander and Stanley Williams incorporated the Marathon Amusement Company to “promote in-door and out-door athletic sports for public amusement.” Alexander was the new company’s president; Stanley its treasurer; and Lewis Arendell (another West Indian immigrant) and Arlis Bailey were vice presidents. Other incorporators included Pittsburgh Courier editors (and later publishers) Robert Vann and Ira F. Lewis, accomplished baseball manager William Dismukes, and Robert Bailey.[6]

In 1962 the Pittsburgh Courier recognized Williams’s pathbreaking contribution to Negro Leagues history. “The first man to put his money into baseball…in the way of a physical plant…was Alexander Williams,” the paper wrote in an article titled, “Pgh. Area Has Rich Heritage in Baseball.” “He felt that Pittsburgh was ‘ripe’…and erected Keystone Park, with limited seating facilities on an old dump off Wylie…in the heart of the Hill District.” This early article was one of the first to unravel the legend attached to Greenlee Field. Completed in 1932, for decades many historians credited it with being the nation’s first Black-owned and Black-operated professional sports stadium.[7]

Receipt for construction materials used in building the Central Amusement Park. Note that it is made out to architect Louis A.S. Bellinger. Courtesy of Donna Williams.

Decades after the Courier wrote about Williams and Central Amusement Park, baseball historians and an Ohio English professor began recovering the ballpark’s history. Geri Strecker taught English at Ball State University, where she founded the Black Baseball in Indiana Project. Strecker and her students produced a documentary film, website, and several Historic American Landscape Survey reports documenting African American ballparks.[8] While researching Pittsburgh’s Greenlee Field, Strecker rediscovered a trove of historic photographs in Carnegie Mellon University’s Architectural Archives documenting the stadium before its demolition.[9] Gary Ashwill, a prolific writer on Negro Leagues history, has documented Alexander Williams’s life and the Central Amusement Park in several articles for the Society for American Baseball Research. Ashwill befriended Dr. McDonald Williams and assisted Williams in submitting the 2011 historical marker application to the PHMC.[10]

Erasures

By any measure, the Williams brothers made significant contributions to Pittsburgh history. Their five-year association with Negro Leagues baseball extends their contributions well beyond Pittsburgh’s city limits. Yet, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) erased the brothers’ history. Twice. The first time was in 2011 when McDonald Williams applied for the historical marker. The second time happened in 2013 when the agency reviewed work by consultants working for the Pittsburgh Sports and Exhibition Authority who conducted an archaeological survey ahead of the proposed redevelopment of the Hill District’s Civic Arena site.

Dr. McDonald Williams and his wife Dr. Jayme Williams. Courtesy of Donna Williams.

Dr. McDonald Williams was 93 when he wrote to the PHMC asking that the agency approve a historical marker for the Central Amusement Park site. His application included a sketch of the ballpark’s history and anecdotes from conversations he had with his father, copies of a ballplayer contract, and receipts for construction materials made out to architect Louis Ballenger. The agency reviewed the application and denied it. “The hardcopy nomination was retained for three years and then disposed of in 2015 with the other nominations submitted in December 2011,” Pennsylvania’s Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Andrea MacDonald wrote in response to submitted questions about Williams’s marker nomination. “Nominations that receive Commission approval are retained for 100 years.”[11] Dr. Williams’s nomination was destroyed along with other declined marker nominations.

I also filed an open records request under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. My request asked for Dr. Williams’s application and all correspondence and agency records related to the decision to deny the historical marker request. The PHMC repeated MacDonald’s claim that the original application had been destroyed. Citing a policy that allows the PHMC to withhold records from public review, the agency declined to provide the correspondence and other records that I requested. All that I got from the PHMC was the agency’s letter to Williams denying his application.

I appealed the PHMC decision, and in October 2022 the Commonwealth’s Office of Open Records approved my appeal and ordered the agency to release the records I requested.[12] On November 23, 2022, the PHMC complied with the appeal’s order and sent me a screen capture of an internal agency report on historical marker applications denied in 2012. The agency declined to identify any of the agency staff and outside advisors involved in the application’s review. They also did not release any additional agency documents, citing “predecisional privilege.”[13]

Sole record provided by the PHMC in response to an October 2022 order by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records to provide all withheld documents related to Dr. McDonald Williams’s historical marker application.

Fortunately, Dr. Williams retained a copy of his PHMC application and its attachments. University of Pittsburgh Negro Leagues baseball historian Rob Ruck also retained the correspondence with Dr. Williams in 2011.[14] In 2012 baseball historian Gary Ashwill wrote about Dr. Williams’s effort to commemorate the ballpark site.[15] Ashwill bluntly described the PHMC decision as a mistake. “There was more to the Negro Leagues than a few big stars and teams from the 1930s and 1940s,” he wrote, decrying what he described as the PHMC’s antiquarian approach to commemorating Negro Leagues history. “Black professional baseball was a broad-based cultural and economic phenomenon.”

Williams’s family was even more disturbed by how the PHMC erased their history. McDonald Williams died in 2017 at age 101, never achieving his goal. It still stings his daughter, Donna. “I shared my dad’s displeasure, but he said there’s nothing I can do about it. I did the research, you know, let’s just forget about it,” she said in an October 2022 telephone interview. “I think the record needs to be set straight, number one. And number two, I want my granddaughters to understand who their grandfather was and on whose shoulders they’re standing.”

Mark Fatla, an avocational sports historian, in 2022 finished a book on Pittsburgh’s historic ballparks.[16] He thinks the Williams story needs to be more widely known. “Because the Negro Leagues story and Negro baseball story is so muddied, so much of it’s forgotten,” Fatla told me in an interview last September. “So much of it is also mythologized. The idea that Greenlee built the first Black-owned ballpark: it’s not true. But the mythology grew up around it. The mythology of all the players and everything.”

The second erasure involving the ballpark and its backers happened when the agency reviewed a consultant’s report documenting an archaeological survey and testing at the Civic Center redevelopment site.[17]

Using maps and documentary sources (city directories, digitized newspapers, etc.), the consultant selected several sites where they conducted excavations to identify intact archaeological resources. The former Burke Theater site at 53-55 Fullerton occupied two (of 18) lots researchers selected for “detailed land use histories” but not archaeological testing.[18] The consultant had very little to say about the Williams brothers. Based on information gleaned from city directories, the consultant wrote, “beginning in 1915 a billiards parlor operated by the Williams Brothers was the sole tenant…between 1925 and 1931, the city directory variably listed the building as either the billiards parlor of Mose (also listed as Moses) Romeah or Alex M. Williams.”[19]

Exterior photo of Burke’s Theatre and the sign for the space where the Williams Brothers pool hall was located. “51 Fullerton Street, looking south” (1937), Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh.

The consultants working under contract to the City of Pittsburgh had an unparalleled chance to conduct deep historical research and archaeological testing in a singularly distinctive place: the Crossroads of the World. It was an opportunity squandered. In fact, the intersection and neighborhood’s nickname only appear once in passing in the 266-page report, in the “Conclusions” section.[20] Instead of digging deeper into the historical record and the dirt at the site where the Williams brothers had their billiards halls, nightclubs, and restaurant, the consultants lumped the family name into a laundry list of property owners, tenants, and others active during the twentieth century within their study area.

In reviewing the consultant’s report, the PHMC had an opportunity to ask for more information about the role that the intersection of Fullerton and Wylie played in the space and the Hill District at large being dubbed the crossroads of the world. Furthermore, had reviewers been more deeply engaged in Hill District history and had the historical marker data been more widely disseminated, the Williams brothers’ mention in the report might have spurred additional questions about them. But none of that happened, and the agency compounded its erasure of the ballpark’s history and the Williams nomination.

A History Home Run

The erasures documented in this article are not isolated instances. Black, Asian, Native American, Latinx history are so common that erasure, once a term confined to academic circles, has become part of daily lexicon. What distinguishes this example from forgotten Black cemeteries buried beneath parking lots and highways and the histories of urban renewal is sports. Pittsburgh has deep ties to sports history, and tenacious historians, professional and avocational, are dedicated to uplifting stories like this one about the Williams family and their forgotten and disappeared ballpark. Forgotten because its story had slipped from many memories, and erased because of the intentional actions taken by such institutions as the PHMC.

New histories documenting the Hill District and Pittsburgh’s baseball stadiums are shining light onto the Williams story and that of their ballpark. I am working on several writing projects involving the Williams brothers and their businesses, including the ballpark. In December 2022, an online news site published my article about the Bellinger family—bricks and mortar and spiritual community builders. This history is also being expanded through social media crowdsourcing, like the Summer 2022 Twitter exchange that led to the identification of the only known photo of the Central Amusement Park stadium.[21] And with all this new information, the Williams family and their partners in Pittsburgh anticipate filing a new historical marker application that brings closure to the erasure wrought by the PHMC a decade ago.


David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist living in Pittsburgh. He frequently writes on historic preservation and gentrification and is working on a social history of numbers gambling in Pittsburgh.

Featured image (at top): Roberto Clemente Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.


[1] Joe William Trotter and Jared N. Day, eds., Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 48.

[2] R.J.M. Blackett, “‘Freedom or the Martyr’s Grave’: Black Pittsburgh’s Aid to the Fugitive Slave,” in African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives, ed. Joe William Trotter and Eric Ledell Smith (University Park, PA : Pennsylvania State University Press and Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1997), 148–65; Gerald G. Eggert, “The Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law on Harrisburg: A Case Study,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109, no. 4 (1985): 537–69; Hugo Freund, “Ethnographic Study – Oakland/Hill District” (Homestead, PA: Rivers of Steel, 1992), Rivers of Steel, https://riversofsteel.com/_uploads/files/oakland-and-hill-final-report.pdf; Laurence Admiral Glasco and Federal Writers’ Project (Pa.), eds., The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004); James Oliver Horton and Lois E Horton, “A Federal Assault: African Americans and the Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 – Symposium on the Law of Slavery: Constitutional Law and Slavery” 68 (n.d.): 21.

[3] John L. Clark, “Wylie Ave.,” Pittsburgh Courier, Mar. 27, 1954.

[4] Ads for Greenlee’s Paramount Inn published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1924 identify the Wylie Avenue establishment’s proprietors as Gus Greenlee and Tom (Kid) Welch with Chas. Williams as the manager. Pittsburgh Courier, August 16, 1924.

[5] Pittsburgh Courier, May 7, 1949. The photo is also included in the Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive curated by the Carnegie Museum of Art, https://collection.cmoa.org/objects/b109681c-7861-4d51-a39a-3e0ace1286f4.

[6] Marathon Amusement Company of Pgh. Pa. Charter, Allegheny County Charter Book vol. 56, p. 81, Bureau of Corporations, Department of State, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

[7] “Pgh. Area Has Rich Heritage In Baseball,” Pittsburgh Courier, Feb.24, 1962.

[8] Chris Baas and Geri Strecker, “Discovering Forgotten Ballparks,” Black Ball: A Negro Leagues Journal 6 (2013): 19–36; Ben Wieder, “‘When the Klan Takes Over, It Becomes Nearly Impossible to Lease Space,’” The Chronicle of Higher Education (blog), May 8, 2011, http://www.chronicle.com/article/when-the-klan-takes-over-it-becomes-nearly-impossible-to-lease-space/.

[9] Geri Strecker, “The Rise and Fall of Greenlee Field: Biography of a Ballpark,” Black Ball 2, no. 2 (2009): 37–67.

[10] Gary Ashwill, “Louis Bellinger and Central Baseball Park,” Agate Type: Reconstructing Negro League & Latin American Baseball History (blog), Feb. 26, 2012, https://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/2012/02/louis-bellinger-and-central-baseball-park.html; Gary Ashwill, “Central Park, Pittsburgh 1920-25,” Agate Type (blog), Sept. 9, 2009, https://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/2009/09/central-park-pittsburgh-192025.html; Gary Ashwill, “Pittsburgh’s Central Park,” Blog, Agate Type (blog), May 7, 2006, https://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/2006/05/in_the_new_bill.html.

[11] Andrea MacDonald, email to David S. Rotenstein, Sept. 25, 2022.

[12] “Final Determination,” In the Matter of David Rotenstein, Requester, v. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Respondent, Docket No. AP 2022-2272.

[13] Cynthia Bendroth, email to David S. Rotenstein, Nov. 23, 2022.

[14] Collectively, documents in the Williams family collection and the correspondence that Dr. McDonald Williams had with Dr. Rob Ruck provide a complete record of the 2011 historical marker application. The only data missing are the details from the PHMC regarding who was involved in reviewing the 2011 application and any details about the deliberations that led to its denial.

[15] Ashwill, “Louis Bellinger and Central Baseball Park”; Gary Ashwill, “Recognition for Historic Negro League Ballparks—Or Not,” Agate Type (blog), Dec. 28, 2012, https://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/.

[16] Mark T. Fatla, Pittsburgh’s Historic Ballparks (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, Forthcoming).

[17] The in-text link is to a draft of the report uploaded to the city planning department’s website. The final report is available to professional archaeologists only via the PHMC’s Pa-SHARE database. Quotes in this article are from the final report.

[18] Jason Espino et al., “Archaeological Survey of the Lower Hill Redevelopment Project, City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania,” prepared for Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, PA: Michael Baker Jr., Inc., July 2013), 61.

[19] Espino et al., 84.

[20] Espino et al., 245.

[21] As this article is being written (Dec. 2022), Twitter has become unstable with many users locking or deleting accounts. Because of this, I have not included a link to the exchange involving the ballpark photo.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.