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Gus Greenlee was born in Marion, North Carolina in 1893 and migrated to the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1916. After working several menial jobs, he established a bootlegging business that he operated from his taxi. He later made his reputation as a numbers runner and racketeer, as well as the owner of the Crawford Grill nightclub and the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team.
Making it into baseball
Greenlee knew little about baseball when he first started out. He took interest when the promoters of the Crawford Giants ran out of money and he decided to give a charitable donation of the money he made from a speakeasy that he owned and money he made from getting into the banking business. His large payroll attracted some big name players in the Negro leagues. He would eventually make the Crawford Giants his team by getting rid of the players that were there before him and bringing in new players. Greenlee also owned a future light-heavyweight boxing champion, which added to his reputation.
In 1933 Greenlee organized the annual East-West Classic, an all-star baseball game in Chicago, at Comiskey Park between Negro League stars, which became the centerpiece of the baseball season. That same year he was the primary founder of the second Negro National League, which he served as president for five seasons.
For a while the Crawfords were the best-financed team in black baseball. Revenue generated from his gambling and bootlegging operations allowed Greenlee to sign black baseball's biggest names. The 1935 squad may be the best ever to play in the Negro Leagues, as it fielded five Baseball Hall of Fame players. Money also enabled Greenlee to build his own ballpark. When he bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1930, he was insulted that his players were not allowed to use the dressing rooms at white-owned or -controlled venues like Forbes Field, Ammon Field, and others. In 1932 he opened Greenlee Field, the first black-owned and black-built baseball park in America.
Following the 1938 season, Greenlee left baseball. He sold the baseball team and razed the ballpark, partly because he had lost the best players and partly because he owed money on a heavily played number.(Riley) In 1945, he made a comeback in alliance with Branch Rickey, related to Rickey's projected integration of the major leagues. They established the United States League in competition with established Negro leagues and operated for two seasons. Greenlee left baseball permanently after 1946 but continued to operate the Crawford Grill until its 1951 destruction by fire.(Riley)
Greenlee was known as a philanthropist who helped fellow blacks in his community with scholarships for schooling and with grants to buy homes.
He died of a stroke July 7, 1952. He is buried in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery. He was born to a mother whose parents were mixed race, so Gus had more of a beige skin color than brown. His father was a masonry contractor that built the courthouse in Marion, North Carolina. He had two brothers one who was a doctor and the other a lawyer. Gus did not finish college but rather hopped a freight car to Pittsburgh in 1916. When he got to Pittsburgh he worked many jobs such as; a fireman, a cabdriver, and an undertaker. He also served in the black 367th regiment during World War I.
Gus Greenlee purchased a plot of land in 1932 and built the first ballpark for a Negro league team. The stadium was made of concrete and steel. It seated 7500 fans. The ballpark was designed by an architect named Bellinger and cost Greenlee nearly $100,000 which he financed over half of. Lights and a tarp to cover the fans from the sun were added in 1933. The first game at the field brought 4,000 fans due to some of the seating still being under construction. The field was also used for the Pittsburgh Steelers football practice.
- Bankes, James (2001). The Pittsburgh Crawfords. Jefferson: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-0992-4.
- Riley, James A. (1994). "Greenlee, William Augustus (Gus, Big Red)". The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Carroll & Graf. pp. 338–39. ISBN 0-7867-0959-6.
- (Riley.) William "Gus" Greenlee, Personal profiles at Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. – identical to Riley (confirmed 2010-12-12)
- Thompson, Nathan (2003). Kings: The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers An Informal History. Bronzeville Press. ISBN 0-9724875-0-6 (2003) — see also POLICYKINGS.COM