I prefer to write about baseball pinback buttons rather than the historical events in baseball that spawned their creation. However, I feel it is necessary to examine some history to more fully understand the pins featured in this particular column.
A leading figure in the Negro Leagues was Augustus (Gus) Greenlee. He owned a grill in Pittsburgh and also allegedly ran the numbers racket. In 1932 he founded the National Negro League and in the same year built Greenlee Field, the first black-owned and black-built baseball park in America. He also helped establish the East-West All-Star game that was first played in 1933 at Comiskey Park. The All-Star game was referred to as the “Classic” and was played mid-season. Financially prosperous in the early 1930s, Greenlee purchased the contracts of many star players of the day. He assembled the finest team in Negro League history, the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. That team featured five future Hall-of-Famers.
By 1937 the National Negro League began to suffer significant financial losses. Additionally, Greenlee became increasingly less interested in baseball and more involved in his other passion, boxing. 1938 was a watershed year for Greenlee. Deep in debt, he had an idea to generate revenue by staging another All-Star exhibition game. Except this game would be played in New York, and at the end of the regular season. The game was to be played on Sunday, September 18, 1938 at Yankee Stadium. It was billed as the “First Annual Negro Baseball Classic,” and instead of East-West, the two squads were composed of National-American league stars. Greenlee’s luck that year remained bad, as the game was rained out.
This is a pin from that scheduled game. Not only does it represent a single-day event pin, it also presents the date and location of the game. If the pin had not contained such specific information, the pin could have been sold as a souvenir at the make-up game. Alternatively, as I discussed in a previous column, an overlay could have been applied to the pin concealing the date and location. However, an overlay of the required magnitude likely would have achieved an aesthetically unappealing pin.
The make-up game was scheduled one week later, September 25, 1938, and the new location was the Polo Grounds. A new pin was created for the make-up game. In addition to the new date and location, the design of the pin went from black stitching and red lettering to red stitching and blue lettering.
While the make-up game at the Polo Grounds was played, the costs of staging both games further added to Greenlee’s debt. Later that year Greenlee Field was demolished for non-payment of taxes. Greenlee resigned as President of the National Negro League in 1939 and also disbanded the Crawfords. What was intended to be an annual All-Star event became a one-off.
In 1945 Greenlee re-emerged in baseball, this time founding the United States League. Branch Rickey of the Dodgers financially supported the league, and allowed the New York team to be called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. The team was managed by Oscar Charleston.The United States league lasted into 1946. In April, 1947 Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Greenlee, beset with financial and legal problems, died in 1952.
In my book I said, “If only baseball pinback buttons could talk.” What stories these pins could tell us!
Next up: Knothole Gang Pins