When I first went to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, it was the summer between fifth and sixth grade. At that point, I hadn’t been to many parks: I’d been to Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, as well as Tiger Stadium in Detroit, but I don’t remember the latter.
All seven of us loaded into a blue Ford Windstar and headed north for Pennsylvania. Waiting at the end of the nearly seven hour journey was a three game series against the Texas Rangers. The Pirates took two out of three. Adam LaRoche threw me a ball.
On one of those days, I had the fortune of taking a tour of PNC, which still wasn’t even a decade old. There was one part of the tour which caught my eye: Legacy Square’s many statues honoring Negro Leagues greats. As many of you probably know, MLB decided to “elevate” the status of the Negro Leagues to “major league.” For my general thoughts concerning this decision, a write-up can be found here at SB Nation’s Federal Baseball page. But the impetus for writing this story is much different: I had largely forgotten about those statues and the bats that hung over them.
When I returned to PNC Park, it was nearly a decade later. I remember walking around the park, excited to see what remained and what had changed. When I got to Legacy Square, something felt absent but I couldn’t remember quite what it was. I felt as though there were statues in those spots, but I couldn’t say with any certainty — and whether or not they were in honor of Negro Leagues greats was swiftly leaving my memory, as well. Furthermore, it didn’t make sense for there to have been statues at one point, but to be gone now, because that area was mostly barren and boring; I couldn’t imagine that ownership would’ve pulled anything away from it.
While I searched the recesses of my mind, I still felt as though something was missing but couldn’t hammer down what that thing was. In fact, it wasn’t until MLB’s decision regarding the Negro Leagues did I see mention of the statues which used to populate Legacy Square, finally cementing my memory as fact when it was becoming hard to determine whether it was true or imagined. So, over the last few days, I was left with the question: Why would they take those statues away? The answer, as it turns out, is nobody really knows.
My search took me to an Undefeated article from 2016, titled, “Is there no place in Pittsburgh for Negro League all-stars?” The article outlines how, in many ways, the Pirates were ahead of the curve regarding race relations in baseball and, to an extent, society at large. But the team’s unwillingness to hold onto these statues, for whatever reason, were cause for concern among fans of the game, among others.
Great-grandson of Josh Gibson and executive director of the Josh Gibson foundation, Sean Gibson, mentioned in the article not understanding why the Pirates would make such a move. The Undefeated reached out to the Pirates at the time to inquire what the reason was behind the decision. They offered this response:
“We have and will continue to celebrate the history of the Negro Leagues here in Pittsburgh, as well as support the continued education and remembrance of their impact. The changes were made with two thoughts in mind, to refresh the way in which we pay tribute to Pittsburgh’s great Negro League history and players, and to raise needed funds in support of a Negro League exhibit that will be seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors year-round and not just in the ballpark during a game. Our goal in the Legacy Square area always has been to ensure the educational experience remaining fresh for our fans. We moved away from the statues and instead installed banners that can be changed out on an ongoing basis. This will allow us to raise awareness of even more great players from baseball in Pittsburgh, while providing corresponding educational information through the use of our ballpark app.”
Cloaked in public relations-speak, this type of response doesn’t do well to quell concerns about the Pirates’ intentions. In response, Sean Gibson told the Undefeated, “It’s very disappointing to hear the Pirates make a statement that’s untrue. It’s a shame that the Pirates are providing a scapegoat based off their sole decision to remove the statues from PNC Park.”
In 2015, Josh Howard, a PhD candidate in Public History at the time, added, “From a historian’s perspective, it seems most likely the Pittsburgh Pirates, emboldened by their recent success and new ownership, simply decided as an organization that they don’t need Pittsburgh’s black history anymore.”
Whether or not one agrees with Howard’s assessment, it does offer a compelling point: It’s possible the Pirates implemented a Negro Leagues section simply as an attraction to contrast from the on-field product, which had been lackluster to downright bad since the opening of PNC Park in 2001. By Howard’s assessment, once the Pirates reached a semblance of success, an attraction founded on Black baseball in Pittsburgh was no longer necessary to draw attention.
All that notwithstanding, the Pirates don’t have a compelling reason to have gotten rid of the statues, which were scheduled to be donated, according to the Undefeated article, but were ultimately sold at auction: Four to the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, and the remaining others to various buyers.
A move like Major League Baseball’s serves to bring more attention to Negro Leagues baseball, and as a consequence, attention to the lack of representation at PNC Park, which is housed in a city that has a rich history in the sport. Although this isn’t the point, had the Pirates retained the statues, they certainly would’ve been helped out from a marketing standpoint. By getting rid of the statues, the team had nothing to gain. Now the fans lose out, as well. In order to further the legacy of the Negro Leagues, we need more representation and commemoration, not less. PNC Park and the Pirates virtually gave away at least one stake they had in being part of the furthering of the history of the Negro Leagues and its greats.