O’Brien: She knew Homestead and the Grays


She knew Homesteadand the Grays

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

I met a wonderful woman last week at the Heinz History Center.

Dolores Redwood is a spry 97-year-old treasure, with bright eyes and champagne-colored smooth skin, a quick wit and a memory that would be envied by anyone over 60.

         She is small in stature but big in my eyes because she experienced things I never experienced, and saw and heard things I never saw and heard, and I have always been excited to be in the company of someone like Dolores Redwood.

         I felt like I was on a first date, even though my wife of nearly 45 years, Kathleen, was sitting at my side.  Kathleen was just as captivated by the company of Dolores Redwood, a rare woman, indeed.

         This woman not only remembered her hometown ofHomesteadin a different era, but also the Homestead Grays.  She not only saw the Homestead Grays play but she also partied with the Homestead Grays.

         “They were a fine group of men,” she said with a wink of those bright eyes, “and they were fun to be around.  They liked to dance and I liked to dance.  When they were in town it would be a big weekend for the girls.”

         Ms. Redwood was at theHeinzHistoryCenter, along with her son Carl Redwood Jr., to be witness to a special event involving their good friend, Herb Douglas Jr.  The late Carl Redwood Sr. had been one of Herb’s closest friends.

         Young Carl teaches in theSchoolofSocial Workat theUniversityofPittsburghand is a community activist; always fighting for what he feels is deserved byPittsburgh’s African-American community. He serves as chairman of the Hill District Consensus Group which represents a host of community organizations.  He’s in frequent communication with the powers-that-be of the Pittsburgh Penguins to make sure the redevelopment of the Lower Hill has input from the community’s black leaders.

         HerbDouglasis proud of Carl Redwood Jr. and what he stands for, and the feeling is mutual.  HerbDouglaswas one of my boyhood heroes and he has stood the test of time.  He grew up in Hazelwood and still owns and maintains his boyhood home at160 Hazelwood Avenue.

         When I was in seventh and eighth grades at St. Stephen’sCatholicGrade Schoolback in 1955 and 1956, I often stood in front of theDouglashome, hoping to catch a glimpse of Herb Douglas, whom I heard had won a bronze medal in the 1948 Olympic Games.  Even then, I was a big fan of the Olympic Games, and even formed my own track & field team in my neighborhood.

         I would pass the home each Friday on the way to released-time classes in metal shop or wood shop atGladstoneJunior High School, just up the street from theDouglashome.  This was in the same neighborhood, mind you, where August Wilson lived for about four years as a teenager. Wilsonsaid he educated himself at the Carnegie Library branch between his home and the home of Herb Douglas. Wilsonwon two Pulitzer Prizes for his playwright efforts.

         More often than not, I would see Herb Douglas Sr., a proud blind man with his seeing-eye dog, a successful business man in an auto repair and storage shop in Shadyside, when it was unusual to see anyone with a seeing-eye dog.  Mr. Douglas had gone blind after suffering a stroke at age 41. His wife, Herb’s mother, was 27 at the time.

         Their son, Herb Jr., had been a star athlete at Gladstone Junior High and then Taylor Allderdice High, and then theUniversityofPittsburghafter a brief stay atXavierUniversityinNew Orleans.

         Herb was a sprinter and long jumper, and the second black behind Connellsville’s Jimmy Joe Robinson, to play football at Pitt in 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball.

         Herb finished third in the long jump in the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium in London.  Pitt is sponsoring Herb’s return to Londonfor this summer’s Olympic Games.  He is 90 now and still standing tall, even if he can’t do the long jump anymore.  Like Dolores Underwood, he still likes to dance, as he did for five minutes at his 90th birthday party that was held at theHeinzHistoryCenter.  “They pushed me into doing that,”Douglas declared.

         There were many prominent athletes at his 90th birthday party, such as Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett and Edwin Moses and Roger Kingdom, and other Olympic medal winners, as there always are at any shindig Herb hosts.  We were fortunate enough to attend his 80th and 85th birthday celebrations but couldn’t make his 90th shindig because we were inNew York at the Big East Basketball Tournament this past March.

         He has kept company with four American Presidents, Barack Obama being the latest, and the likes of South African President Nelson Mandela.  President Obama put his arm around Herb and told him, “I’m standing on your shoulders.  And I hope, when I’m 90, I look as good as you do.”

         HerbDouglas, along with Jackie Robinson and Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers, were the first black athletes to parlay their success in sports into prominent positions with national corporations. Douglaswas an executive with Schieffelin & Somerset Co., a major importer of premium wine and spirits.

         I attended a church service inHomewoodwhen Herb’s friend Carl Redwood Sr., died 12 years ago.  I was there to offer my support to my friend Herb Douglas.  He had lost one of his closest friends and allies.  I had been advised by Art Rooney Sr. years earlier that it was more important to attend a funeral when a family member or friend loses someone than it is to attend that person’s funeral.

         I told Ms. Underwood I was there that day and she smiled.  “My husband was a good man,” she said.  “He was a handsome man and that got him in trouble a few times with me.  He could stray.  We separated for a long time, but we got back together.  That’s why I’m glad Carl Jr. is so busy.  He doesn’t have time to get in trouble.  He does a lot of community work.”

         Later, she referred to those comments as “trash talk.”  I found it intriguing and fascinating that a 97-year-old woman would use that phrase.

         Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the Homestead Grays played half their home games at Forbes Field inPittsburghand half their games at Griffith Stadium inWashington,D.C.  That was when segregation was rampant and blacks were not invited to play in the big leagues.

         “We’d even go to D.C. sometimes to see them play,” said Ms. Redwood.  “But my girlfriends and I loved it when they were back inPittsburghto play.  That would be a big event.”

         She rattled off some of the Grays she remembered, such as Josh Gibson, “Smokey” Joe Williams, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard.  She said she’d never met Satchel Paige.  He pitched for the other Negro League team in town, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, who played their home games at Greenlee Field in The Hill.

         I was talking to Ms. Redwood on Friday afternoon.  My wife Kathie dropped me off afterward at theRobertoClementeBridgeso I could join my friend Ken Codeluppi and some of his fraternity brothers fromWest VirginiaUniversityat a Pirates’ game with the Detroit Tigers atPNCPark.

         As I passed through the turnstile near the corner of Robinson and Federal, near left field atPNCPark, I checked out the life-size statues of players from the Negro Leagues.  The Pirates put a mini-museum of the Negro Leagues in that large runway, and it was the first of its kind at a major league baseball park.  There are statues of the ballplayers Ms. Redwood had mentioned to me earlier, as well as those of Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson, who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

         Men who had played baseball as well as anyone in the country, and are enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame inCooperstown,N.Y., and perhaps had danced with Dolores Thompson, her name back then, were now statues.  They are also honored at the Black Baseball Hall of Fame inKansas City.

         It’s a shame Dolores Redwood won’t be in attendance at theHeinzHistoryCentertoday when there will be a tripleheader at theSportsMuseumto celebrate black baseball history.

         In a way I’m glad because I want to keep Dolores Redwood and her colorful stories to myself.

         I am a charter member of the Champions Committee at theWesternPennsylvaniaSportsMuseumat theHistoryCenterso I will be present for today’s activities.

         We will get the first look at the SportsMuseum’s new overture video and a sneak-peek of the new exhibit, The Story of Negro League Baseball: We Are the Ship.       

         There will be an unveiling of the new Josh Gibson life-like figure with the Josh Gibson Foundation and local media members present.  Sean Gibson, the grandson of Josh Gibson, who is a charter member of the Champions Committee, will be there.  Franco Harris, the committee chairman, should attend.

         There will be a preview party for the new exhibit withHistoryCentermembers featuring ballpark favorites such as hot dogs, popcorn and Cracker Jacks.

         Dolores Redwood was Dolores Thompson when she lived near the Homestead High-Level Bridge, which was renamed theHomesteadGraysBridgeback in 2002.

         Ms. Redwood knew Cum Posey and his family.  Cum Posey founded the Homestead Grays in 1912 and they stayed in business for 38 seasons.  Cum Posey had been the first black to play basketball atDuquesneUniversity.

         She knew the family of Mal Goode, who got his start as a newscaster on WHOD in Homesteadand went on to become the dean of African-American media, reporting on network television from around the world.  Mal Goode teamed up with his sister Mary Dee on WHOD, and they were thought to be the only brother-sister radio team in the country.  Ms. Redwood knew Mary Lou Williams of East Libertywho went on to become a singing star.           Ms. Redwood went to Pitt for two years on an academic scholarship.  “That’s where Herb and my husband first became friends,” she said.  “They both went on to graduate.”  She said she even did some writing for The Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s African-American weekly newspaper.

         Her family was originally from just outside ofLynchburg,Virginia.  “There were seven girls and one boy in our family,” she recalled.  “During the war they were looking for men to come and work in the mills inHomestead.  My brother and my father came here first.  Then my mother came here with seven girls on the train.

         “We lived in the lower part ofHomestead,” she said.  “Back then the people who lived high on the hill thought of themselves as high society.  Imagine that.  We were the common people down by the railroad tracks, the wrong side of the tracks I suppose.

         “We lived onSecond Avenue.  I graduated from Homestead High.  Mr. William Campbell was the athletic director back then, as I recall.  We went to see teams play at West Field, up near the cemetery.  We’d do things to help out at the ballpark.

         “When I went to Pitt, I used to walk across the High-Level Bridge and get a street-car, otherwise you had to pay two fares.  That was in 1931 and 1932, the height of The Great Depression.  Streetcar tokens were 10 cents apiece or three for 25 cents.  If you got on the street car on theHomesteadside of the bridge you had to pay two fares.

         “Our lives revolved around church back then.  We’d be there Saturday night and just about all day Sunday.  We never missed.  I sang in the church choir.  That was at the SecondBaptistChurchon 12th Avenue.  It’s still there.”

         And, thank God, so is Dolores Redwood.  As she spoke, I swear I could hear a church choir singing “Amazing Grace” in the background.  I went to theHeinzHistoryCenterto see Herb Douglas put many of his personal memorabilia into a time capsule, but I came upon a wonderful woman who proved to be the highlight of the day.

         It didn’t hurt that the Pirates played a terrific game that evening before a full house and tamed the Tigers, 4-1.

         Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has books in his Pittsburgh Proud series called “Hometown Heroes” and “Glory Years.”  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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