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Gus Greenlee was born in Marion, North Carolina in 1893. His father was a masonry contractor and his mother was of mixed race. Greenlee did not complete college, unlike his three brothers who pursued professional careers: two became doctors and one a lawyer.
In 1916, Greenlee traveled north by freight car to Pittsburgh, settling in the Hill District. In Pittsburgh he held several jobs in the steel mills, shining shoes and driving a cab. He served in the black 367th regiment during World War I.
Beginning with the purchase of the Collins Inn in 1924, Greenlee became one of the most influential African American business owners in Pittsburgh, making his reputation as a numbers runner and racketeer, as well as the owner of the Crawford Grill nightclub and the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team. Despite the rough figure suggested by terms such as "racketeer," Greenlee was known as a philanthropist who helped fellow blacks with scholarships for schooling and with grants to buy homes. Such opportunities were otherwise impossible to come by through white-controlled financial institutions, leading scholars to suggest Greenlee's success be read as an enterprising attempt to fill a need created by segregation. According to Vernell A. Lillie, professor emeritus of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Greenlee and other "runners" were respected. "They made their money probably from the numbers racket, but they turned that money into something very positive. If anybody wanted to buy a house, they could not go to Mellon Bank or Dollar Savings. They had to go to old man Greenlee, or to [William A. "Buzzy"] Robinson.”
Contribution to 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.
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.
In 1932, Greenlee purchased a plot of land and opened Greenlee Field, one of the early black ballparks. (Contrary to popular opinion, it was not the first; it followed the Walker brothers' ballpark at the corner of Chauncey and Hombre Way, also in the Hill District.) The stadium was made of concrete and steel. It seated 7,500 fans. The ballpark was designed by an architect named Bellinger, who was the first African American architect in Pittsburgh, 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.
- Harper, Colter (2011). The Crossroads of the World": A Social and Cultural History of Jazz in Pittsburgh's Hill District, 1920-1970 (Ph.D.). University of Pittsburgh. p. 68.
- Pfister, Bonnie (June 16, 2007). "Jazz History for Sale in Hill District". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. pp. B1, B6. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
- "William Augustus "Gus" Greenlee". Find a Grave. Retrieved 18 August 2015.
- Riley, James A. (1994). The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Carroll & Graf. p. 338–39. ISBN 0-7867-0959-6.
- Gilmore, Jr., Richard L. (1996). "A Historical Look at the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Impact of Black Baseball on American Society". The Sloping Halls Review 68.