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Jim O’Brien: Gibson, Grays and ‘Gridiron Glory’ headline Heinz History Center calendar

July 6, 2012
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Jim O’Brien:  Gibson, Grays and ‘Gridiron Glory’ headline Heinz History Center calendar

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

 Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays and ‘Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame” will be featured in exhibitions at the Senator John Heinz History Center this summer and fall.

         These ambitious and attractive shows will also draw more people to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the History Center, a permanent and ever-improving testimonial to the many sports achievements in this region.  It certifies Pittsburgh as “the City of Champions.”

         I am a charter member of the Champions Committee that is chaired by Steelers’ Hall of Famer Franco Harris and we were treated last week to the unveiling of a life-size statue of Josh Gibson and a new exhibition that calls attention to Negro League Baseball.

         “We Are The Ship” displays 33 of the 41 paintings by American artist Kadir Nelson that appear in a book “We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.”  They are bright, vivid images of an era when talented baseball players of color were forced to play in separate leagues and had to settle for segregated means of travel and housing and entertainment.

         A light shows through these paintings in a Thomas Kinkade kind of glowing manner.

         Gibson was once a mythical figure who was called “the black Babe Ruth,” but baseball historians have researched the sketchy statistics and records that remain from Negro League Baseball and there’s no doubt the husky catcher and his prodigious home runs were the real deal.  Gibson also starred for the Pittsburgh Crawfords.  Pittsburgh was the only city that had two teams in the Negro League.  The Grays played half of their home schedule at Forbes Field in Oakland, and the rest in Washington D.C.

         Gibson’s grandson, Sean Gibson, and members of his family were pleased to see Josh Gibson honored in this way at the Heinz History Center.  Young Gibson is executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation as well as a member of the Heinz Champions Committee.

         There’s a lot to celebrate this year and plans were revealed that will make the Heinz History Center and its Sports Museum a destination point for any serious sports fan in the country.

This will be the 120th anniversary of pro football, the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 50th anniversary of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the 40th anniversary of “The Immaculate Reception” by Franco Harris.  Talk about a perfect storm for sports fans.

         “It’s unreal that there are so many anniversaries all at once,” said Harris, who headed the meeting.  “This is great for Pittsburgh; it’s great for the History Center.”

         They showed a revamped series of sports images that will serve as an entryway to the Sports Museum, and it included magic moments like Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, and, of course, Franco’s famous catch and TD run to snatch victory from defeat against the Oakland Raider in a 1972 AFC playoff game.

         Franco requested that they run the images past everybody a second time, with the sound up.  It was more dynamic the second time around, and Franco sat at the head of the table, his chin resting on folded hands, like he was praying that he wouldn’t drop the ball this time.

         “No, I never get tired of watching it,” Franco confided when we later toured the Kadir Nelson painting exhibition.

         “How many times have you seen it?”

         “Ah come on,” said Franco.  “I can’t answer that.”   

         “Do you ever wonder how your life would be different if you dropped the ball?” I asked Franco.

         He smiled that Franco smile and said, “I’d have been famous either way.”

         As part of its 50th year anniversary, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is taking its show on the road, and Pittsburgh will be the premier city for the Hall’s first-ever large-scale traveling exhibit, “Gridiron Glory.”

         It will include over 200 artifacts from the recently-expanded Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The exhibit will open here on October 6, 2012.  The Heinz History Center has acquired new space in an adjoining building and has plans to expand its offerings as well.  It enjoys a working relationship with the Smithsonian Institution.

         The Steelers are stepping up their promotional game this fall to celebrate the team’s 80th anniversary.  In April the team unveiled a logo commemorating the 80 seasons (1933-2012) calling this “The Year of the Fan.”  There will be broad range of events to celebrate the legacy of the team, its players and its fans throughout the 80th season. 

There will also be the annual book fair at the Heinz History Center during the holiday season in December.

         I never saw Josh Gibson and the great players of the Homestead Grays who are now properly enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in action, but I do remember that, as a 10-year-old, I saw the Homestead Grays play a game at Burgwin Field in Hazelwood.

         That was in 1952.  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, and the Negro League folded after the following season.  But local ballplayers continued to play on sandlots wearing the Grays’ uniforms.

         I checked with local historian Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh professor who has written several books and articles about the Negro Leagues and he said, as I expected, that the Grays I saw were like the singing groups today that call themselves “The Platters” and “The Coasters” but aren’t always the original singers.

         Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien has written 20 books in his “Pittsburgh Proud” series that are available in area bookstores. His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.

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