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Rob Ruck

October 12, 2011

Rob Ruck,  Pittsburgh Sports Historian and Author of Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh and Rooney: A Sporting Life – (June 19,  2011):

Thank you for taking the time to answer questions for us Rob. First, can you let readers know about you – your sports history background and your research on Pittsburgh sports teams and culture?
I began studying sport as a grad student in Pitt’s History Department in the late 1970s.  

History then was going through a radical change by focusing on the people whose stories had largely been ignored in favor of the rich and powerful.  This ‘history from below’ focused on working people, immigrants, sharecroppers, and the like.  I had been studying labor history with David Montgomery and thought I would write about the rise and fall of the steelworkers union.  Instead, I began looking at what people did with their free time in addition to their working lives.  

I began studying the role that sport played in black Pittsburgh prior to integration.  My dissertation was about the old sandlot and Negro League teams and what they meant to people at a time when sport was not defined primarily by profit motives.  It became “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh,” and was the basis for “Kings on the Hill: Baseball’s Forgotten Men,” a documentary that uses Pittsburgh and its Negro League clubs to tell a national story.

What books and other research/projects have you done in these areas, and what projects are you working on now?

I began traveling to the Caribbean to study baseball after “Sandlot Seasons.”  It was a logical next step from looking at the Negro Leagues, given that black players played in the winter leagues in the islands and Latinos played in the Negro Leagues if they were dark-skinned, in the major leagues if they were Caucasian or could pass for white.  That work became “The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.”  

A few years ago, Dan Manatt and I made “The Republic of Baseball: Dominican Giants of the American Game,” another documentary.  

My most recent book is “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game.”  

It came out in March.  “Raceball” brings together the story of baseball in black America with that of the Caribbean and the major leagues, before, during, and after integration.  It connects the work I’ve done in both areas and takes the story up to the 21st century.  The story of African Americans and Latinos have been intertwined for over a century, first by major league baseball’s segregation, then by integration.  

While baseball’s integration had profound social ramifications for the nation (and changed the game itself by bringing in the best waves of talent yet to play), it came at a cost to black America.  African Americans lost control of their own sporting lives and institutions.  Integration did not bring black owners, managers, and teams into the majors but took black players, often without compensation, and their fans.  

As a result, the Negro Leagues collapsed without their owners, front office, or teams integrating into the majors.  While peaking at over a quarter of all major league players in 1975, African Americans make up only about 8 percent of players today.

Latinos, however, have since remade the game.  They comprise over a quarter of all major leaguers, about half of those in the minors, and are over-represented at the highest levels of play.  They’ve put a new face on baseball and are its future.

Your 2006 documentary on Dominican baseball players (The Republic of Baseball: The Dominican Giants of the American Game) was highly acclaimed. What made you decide to focus on this subject?

In 2000, Dan Manatt asked me to work with him on a documentary about Dominican ball.  He was a great collaborator and became a close friend.  Doing an independent film is a difficult venture, because they’re so costly to make and because distribution is uncertain.  But we felt that baseball had become the story by which Dominicans were able to tell their story to the world and that it was a great story at that.  

We focused on the first generation of Dominicans to make it in the majors: Felipe Alou, Juan Marichal, Manuel Mota, Ossie Virgil, and Mateo and Jose Alou.  They are tremendous guys and we felt privileged to tell their story.  I try to stay as connected with baseball on the island as I can.

A recent New York Times article
( brought forth the notion that Roberto Clemente was not appreciated in Pittsburgh until after he died due to the fact he was both Black and Latino. What are your thoughts on this – do you agree? It seems to contradict the research you did earlier on a more progressive Pittsburgh, or is this an “apples and oranges” comparison?

David Maraniss, who made that comment, wrote an astounding biography of Clemente, but I disagree with him on this point.

There certainly was (and is) racism in Pittsburgh but anybody who saw Clemente play had to acknowledge how brilliantly he played the game.  It is true that Clemente, playing in Pittsburgh, was overlooked by much of baseball America until the 1971 World Series.  I think it would have been different if he was in a larger media market or had not been such a principled advocate for civil rights for Latinos and African Americans.  

It’s also true that the way he died elevated him to an iconic level and made him larger in death than he was in life.

Your book “Sandlot Seasons, Sport in Black Pittsburgh” showed how those Black sports teams in Pittsburgh helped the Black community realize its potential for self-expression. What made you decide to write on this subject – and do you feel Pittsburgh was more progressive than most cities in it’s acceptance of Black sports teams like the Pittsburgh Crawford and Homestead Grays baseball teams and Garfield Eagles football team?

I wrote that book because I saw sport as playing a very important role among African Americans and suspected that those historic roles were key to figuring out how and why.

African Americans in Pittsburgh embraced their teams and athletes but given that they had created those teams, their passion for sport should come as no surprise.  I think that white fans and sandlot teams alsoappreciated the Grays, Crawfords, Eagles, and other black teams.  

I’ve had any number of older white men tell me how proud they were to stand on the mound and pitch to Josh Gibson or bat against Satchel Paige.  Of course, most said that Josh hit a long home run off them and that Satchel struck them out.  But these games validated white teams, too.

If your question is whether there was less racism in Pittsburgh than elsewhere, I’m not sure that would have been the case.  Certainly, the sporting arena brought out a less racist, more progressive set of relations in the city.  The sandlots were more of a level playing field—more egalitarian.  That was true for earlier generations of immigrants from Europe, too.

Nearly 20 years after the writing of the book, Pittsburgh has an African American football coach and an NFL team owner that was the driving force of the “Rooney Rule” requiring teams to interview African American candidates for head coaching jobs. Do you think the days of the “African American athlete” distinction in the Pittsburgh sports community/fandom is over? Or do you feel there are still big differences in how Pittsburgh fans view the African American versus white athlete?

I think that racial attitudes in sport, as in the nation as a whole, have improved immensely.  

There is little doubt that African Americans and Latinos are center stage in American sport and have been so in this city for some time.  The 1971 Pirates were an international squad, the 1979 champs were the “We are Family” Bucs with diverse line-ups.  

The Steelers were as evenly integrated as could be during the 1970s and today they are led by a player of Samoan descent and one who is part African-American, part Korean.  That matters, as does the way the Steelers operate—and have long operated due to Art, Dan, and Art II—when it comes to race.

I also think that each generation has a more progressive and tolerant set of views on race than previous ones.  Having said that, there are enormous and serious issues regarding race and sport in Pittsburgh, especially pertaining to health, access to leisure and recreation, and in longevity.  Socio-economics and class have much to do with that.  

There are also important questions regarding ownership and power in sport that have yet to overcome a racial imbalance.

Your biography on Art Rooney. “Rooney: A Sporting Life” was a major undertaking. Can you tell readers what surprised you most about Rooney as you did your research on him?

I had known that Art was quite an athlete but I came away from the research realizing that he might have been the best all-around athlete in the city during the 1920s.  

He was fast, tough, had great eye-hand coordination and had the ability to think ahead of the play.  That combination made him a top baseball and football player as well as one of the top welterweights in the nation.  He would have represented the US in the 1920 Olympics but did not enter the tournament because he had made money playing semi-pro baseball and did not want to have his amateur status questioned.  He beat the man who won the gold medal before and after the Olympics.

The other surprise was just how critical Rooney was to the making of the NFL.  

He was at the core of the decisions to create a league that operated on a one for all—all for one ethos.  That approach—via the draft, equal distribution of broadcast revenues, recognition of the union, and in scheduling—has made the NFL the most successful pro league in American sporting history.  

This approach, of course, is under great duress this summer.  I think it’s also apparent how much Art’s son Dan and now his grandson Art II have continued to play this role of finding win-win solutions in the league and with the players’ union.
How did you go about the research – what sources were you able to tap into that really helped define who he was?

In addition to the standard tools of research—scrutiny of newspapers, public records, and the like—we (and there were two co-authors of Rooney: A Sporting Life.  One was the late Michael Weber with whom I began the book; the other is Maggie Jones Patterson, Mike’s colleague at Duquesne and my wife who jumped in after Mike’s death in 2001) interviewed about 100 people, some, like Dan Rooney, many times.  

That oral history is the only way to get at this sort of story, which is largely something that lacks written sources.

Much of your prior work covered the social/cultural elements of Pittsburgh sports. In your research on Rooney, how much of his work did you find influenced the culture of the city and it’s acceptance of minorities – and how so?

It’s at the heart of this story.  No city uses sport more than Pittsburgh to tell its story to the world and to itself.  It’s a story about people who work hard, but play harder; who lose but persevere and in the end become the city of champions.  That story rings true because no city of comparable size had the sort of sporting record that Pittsburgh did across the board in sport in the 20th century.  

African Americans and later Latinos were at the center of that story—the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Clemente, Stargell, Harris, Blount, Greene, Dorsett, and so many others.

What were some of the more interesting examples of Rooney’s behavior you unearthed in your research that helped you define Rooney’s character in the biography?

That he was at ease with a down-on-his-luck horseplayer, a guy from the neighborhood, or ex-pug as he was with Mayor David Lawrence and the Bishop.  He was a regular guy who stayed that way all his life, even when he became a national icon.

What do you think Art Rooney would say about the state of Pittsburgh sports and sports culture today?

I’m sure he would be telling both sides of the NFL struggle to compromise and settle so that the working folks in the industry are not harmed by a lockout.  And I think he would rue the amount of money and the influence of television in the game today.  

And I believe he would be appalled at the pressure to extend the season to 18 games, given what we know about the damage football inflicts on the body and mind.

I also think he would know that the last decade has been a second golden age for sport in Pittsburgh and appreciate just how well the Steelers, Penguins, and Pitt basketball has done.

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