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06/27/06 12:45 AM ET

Pirates unveil Negro League exhibit

Pittsburgh honors Crawfords and Grays' contributions to city

PITTSBURGH -- In September 1988, the Pirates held a night at Three Rivers Stadium to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the city's Homestead Grays winning the final Negro League World Series. With this part tribute, part apology for past injustices, Pittsburgh became the first club to formally honor black baseball's rich history.

"The apology, that has opened the door for other Major League teams to do similar things," said Rob Ruck, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a Negro League historian.

On Monday, the Pirates continued to be on the vanguard in unveiling a permanent exhibit at PNC Park that celebrates the legacy of the city's two famed Negro League clubs: the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Grays. The shrine, located just inside the left-field gate, is the first of its kind at a big-league park.

Fans are greeted by seven life-size bronze statues of Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige and Smokey Joe Williams, each attended by a video display.

Step into the indoor 25-seat theater and a mural of fans across the wall will begin chatting. Before a 12-minute video, six flat screen monitors will tell you that Cy Perkins, who had the words, "thou shall not steal" scrawled across his chest protector, was brought in by the Crawfords to be Paige's personal catcher. Or that not even a raindrop could fall between Bell and the right fielder on a fly ball. Full-scale wax figures of Grays owner Cumberland Posey and Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee front the opposite wall.

The atmosphere is undeniably light, which was important in keeping the history of arguably the league's most tradition-rich city alive in today's generation, said Edward Scheele, the designer of the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, who helped plan the one at PNC Park.

"Here's a way that a father can convey what it was like through a medium that isn't dad saying 'back in the day, I had to walk six miles to school' and everything. This gets through to them," he said.

Hundreds -- from black community leaders to city council members to two former Negro Leaguers to Gibson's great grandson -- sat through a steady drizzle during a brief ceremony before the ribbon was cut. But nothing could put a damper on this day.

"We never thought anything like this would be created," said Sean Gibson, Josh's great-grandson and president of the Josh Gibson Foundation, referring to initial discussions of the project with the Pirates. "This is a great honor."

The club had been interested in such an exhibit since 2001, but talks didn't become serious until last fall. It was a story that "needed to be told," said Pirates CEO and managing general partner Kevin McClatchy.

"Our hope is that this exhibit inspires, educates and emotionally connects people of all ages to ... the remarkable story of the Negro Leagues," McClatchy said. "A lot of people say PNC Park is the best ballpark in America. Well, PNC Park just got a lot better."

David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.