Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Baseball was first and foremost among American sports, but it is only a summer game. Its place in the seasons bas much to do with its charm. In March and April, after sport’s tiempo muerto, many are willing to endure cold snaps and icy spring rains. But in the fall, each sunset foreshadows season’s end as baseball runs its course. Some pursued it year-round, in Cuba and Mexico, Puer­to Rico and Venezuela, barnstorming through the American South and Cali­fornia, migratory workers chasing the sun. But few could do that and most put away their gloves and spiked shoes as the leaves turned brown. For some, sport was over until next year. For others, the gridiron took the place of the diamond.

Football was a relative late-comer to the American sporting scene, evolving from rugby and incubating within a handful of colleges and universities in the late nineteenth century. In black Pittsburgh as in much of black America, the game had little presence until the early twentieth century, well after base­ball had established itself as the sport of the black community.

Yet, football became as popular as baseball in black Pittsburgh during the twentieth century. At first, many black boys were introduced to the game by white friends or, in some cases, the schools. But while their white friends could become part of a burgeoning sandlot, collegiate or pro football net­work, there were few outlets for blacks. What there was, they created largely on their own.

Their fields of play, as with baseball, were the sandlots. There, black Pitts­burghers built an autonomous network of football teams and informal cham­pionships. There, black youths learned the game and their older teammates clos­ed the gap between the races’ ability to play the game. Some blacks played for white sandlot clubs, usually as paid per­formers for a crucial game or when the betting was particularly heavy. But few teams had even the slightest pretense of presenting an integrated squad.

There were never more than a half dozen black football teams on the sand­lots in any one season during the 1920s and 30s. Teams were essentially neighbor­hood-based aggregations, but as the years passed, squads began recruiting from all over western Pennsylvania. In compari­son with the far more plentiful white sandlot teams, the black squads were under-financed, poorly trained and usually out-coached. But not for long.

It was not until the 1930s that black football teams proved they were the equals of their white sandlot opponents. The club that showed the way came from a relatively small black enclave in the mostly white neighborhood of Gar­field.

They were often called the Homestead Grays of football (after the incom­parable black baseball team) although a more apt comparison would have been with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a sandlot baseball team that evolved into one of baseball’s most formidable clubs in the 1930s. The Garfield Eagles took to the gridirons with much the same verve with which the Crawfords took to the diamond. For almost two decades, from 1928 until the late 1940s, this sandlot eleven played the best football of any black team in western Pennsylvania. The Eagles were more than just a football team. At the core of the Garfield com­munity’s social life and for many their primary reference group outside the family, the Eagles left their mark as much off the field as on.

Garfield is a hilly working-class com­munity in the eastern part of the city, with blacks making up about one-fifth of its 8,400 residents in the 1930s. Blacks often lived side by side white families, but as one climbed the streets toward the top of Garfield Hill, the frequency of black faces increased. Black and white children played together and many of the men worked beside each other in the mills and factories of the nearby Lawrenceville district. That “there was none of this racial hatred we have today” is a common theme in recollec­tions by its residents.

The dozen black youths who formed the Garfield Eagles in the late summer of 1928 had grown up with each other. They had played pick-up games with groups from nearby neighborhoods and when they entered Peabody High, most of them went out for the team. Only Lee and Rink Davis and Merle Thacker made the school team, however. The rest were left with one alternative if they wanted to continue playing ball – to start their own team.

The depression came early to black Pittsburgh, and it came on strong. Most team members were still in school, out of work or under-employed. They had time, though, and were willing to use it to learn how to become a team.

Their first move was to get a coach. Ed Lewis’s exploits on the cinder track of Peabody bad made him into a local hero of sorts. He was from the neighbor­hood and agreed to take on the job, cau­tioning he knew little about the game. He could do little about their tactical or strategic development but he could run them into condition. He had them on the field practicing twice a week and running wind sprints nightly.

A group of white Garfield boys known as the Garfield Merchants soon challenged the Eagles to a game at the neighborhood’s Fort Pitt playground. They knew enough about each other to assign themselves positions. A few, like Rink Davis and Merle Thacker, had im­pressive natural ability and the rest had, at least, the benefits of Lewis’s condi­tioning program. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to turn back the attack of the Merchants on the third Sunday of September 1928. The Eagles pushed the ball across the Merchants’ goal line once and though the conversion attempt failed, they won 6-0. “We were sticking out our chests, then,” center Ray Irvin at­tests.

The rest of that year, they learned the game by playing it. Their sense of them­selves was molded in part by the common sacrifice of their training regime and in part by playing the last seven games on the road against white teams. They played .500 ball and showed they could succeed off the field, too. Finding sponsors and raising funds to keep the team going was an important victory for a group of young men who weren’t ex­actly setting the world ablaze elsewhere.

The following season was much the same as the first, with only a slightly altered cast of opponents and players. It was during their third year that the Eagles underwent a radical transforma­tion. There was one main difference when the Eagles returned to their prac­tice field in the summer of 1930 – Joe Barranti. Barranti was neither black nor from Garfield. His in-laws wondered why, if he had to coach, he couldn’t coach a white team. Joe had grown up in Overbrook, a white neighborhood south of the Monongahela River and played ball for Carrick High. Carrick football in the 1920s meant strenuous training, daily practice and a stress on execution. Barranti was one of its products.

The brother of one of Joe’s friends ran a drugstore in Garfield where Bar­ranti encountered Ray Irvin. When Joe’s football background came up, Irvin ask­ed if he might be able to lend a hand. Barranti replied, “Let’s go up on the field and we’ll see what you got.” Out­side of a “nucleus, they didn’t have nothing,” Barranti recalled, “not even enough guys to scrimmage.”

That summer, with the economy still plummeting, the players and their new coach had plenty of time. Barranti insti­tuted practice from 6 to 11 P.M. or later four nights a week. When the squad ran plays, two cars with headlights on lit the field so they could see what they were doing. Except for a few players, Barranti was confronted with a team sorely lack­ing in the fundamentals. He demon­strated how to block and tackle and ran them through drills till they had it right. The players built their own tackling dummies, ran through tires and flung themselves on the ball in fumble drills. Barranti added few innovations to their single wing offense, mainly some fakes, reverses and the then popular flying wedge. The squad averaged only 140-150 pounds per man, so Barranti taught them how to finesse their frequently heavier and stronger opponents. His board drills illustrated plays and how to defense them, elevating the team’s understanding of strategy to a level not usually found on the sandlots.

There was another dimension to Bar­ranti’s relationship with the team. “The man would do anything in the world for us,” Benny Jackson remembers. “He even had a brand-new car he’d lend to us.” Barranti’s wife, Gertrude, often drove players home from practice and once was stopped by a policeman who couldn’t understand what she was doing alone with a black man after midnight. Joe taped each player’s ankles before games and, after a victory, his culinary repasts were celebrated as much as his coaching. His homemade wine and spaghetti dinners became part of the team’s legend.

Their first year under Barranti’s tutelage, the Eagles won five, lost three and tied two. In his second and third seasons, the club went undefeated, com­piling a record of twenty wins, no losses and five draws. The Eagles built a repu­tation as the Negro champions of Pitts­burgh and crucial plays became sandlot lore. One can still bear a spirited descrip­tion of Ralph Roy returning a punt 85 yards through the mud against the McKeesport Crimsons in their first un­defeated season or a point-by-point ac­count of Rink Davis scoring all thirty-­four points in the Eagles’ 34-0 white­wash of Marshall Tech.

In their seventeen seasons, over three hundred men donned the orange and black jersey with an eagle on the front. During their rise to the top, the Eagles went from a team composed of only Garfield residents to a squad drawing from all of black Pittsburgh. Some played a season or two, others for a decade or more. At first they came with­out much of a football background, but increasingly the team tapped the best high school grads around. Frequently, men who had gone to one of the black colleges picked up with the team after­ward. And as the Eagles reached the caliber of many black college teams, some of their players, like Pete Rembert and Muscles Harris, gained scholarships to them. Of 164 games, the Eagles won 98, lost 47 and tied 19. In 1943 and 1944, as in 1931 and 1932, they went undefeated.

Along with changes on the field came changes on the bench. Joe Barranti left after three years because of work com­mitments. He was succeeded by a number of mentors. The two who coach­ed the longest had both played for the Eagles. Pete Rembert served as coach in the late 1930s and Henry Yandel took over when Rembert left for a coaching job at a black college.

“When we got Yandel,” halfback Gabe Patterson argues, “be upgraded the football team 100%.” While Rembert had been a straight running play coach, Yandel introduced the T-offense. In Patterson’s estimation, Yandel “changed the whole outlook of sandlot football in the city.” He had the Eagles calling audibles at the line of scrimmage and using flare passes and triple pivots. His offense was essentially the same as that employed by the col­leges and pros. “With him, it became a twenty-four hour game cause it was nothing for him to call you in the middle of the night and say l just thought of a play and 1 know it’s for you,” Patterson attests. “The man ate and slept the game. One night he kept the whole back­field out until five o’clock in the morn­ing teaching us the audible signal play. He’d pound and pound until you got it.” Yandel quit his job to devote more time to coaching and eventually lost his family in the process. “He was really only alive,” in Patterson’s opinion, “when he was on the football field.” Under him, the Eagles recaptured the elan of the Barranti years, going un­defeated in back to back seasons and winning the West Penn Conference title both years.

If Barranti and Yandel introduced the Eagles to a sense of discipline and commitment on the field, the players also evinced a new sense of themselves off of it. Although they received impor­tant help from older members of the community, they always basically ran the club themselves. Of the dozen youths at the team’s creation, most stayed with the club until World War a took them away. Some found the playing over their heads after the first few seasons but re­mained active with the club nevertheless. Ray Irvin, for instance, realized that as a one-hundred-and-ten pound center going against two-hundred pound defen­sive tackles, he was “just foolish being in there.” instead, Irvin worked behind the scenes, booking games and handling the logistics of a fairly complex club. He, Benny Jackson, Lee Davis and a handful of others constituted the back­bone of the squad.

The expenses for a football squad were considerable in the 1930s, running several thousand a season. The players met this challenge themselves by printing placards announcing their schedules, finding local merchants and individuals to subsidize their efforts, soliciting booster donations and often digging into their own pockets to make ends meet. Through a connection at the police sta­tion in the Hill, Pittsburgh’s largest black ghetto, the young Eagles were able to buy confiscated moonshine at below the prevailing rate. They then sold the prohibition-era hooch to folks having Saturday night socials in Garfield.

The Eagles also held a constant stream of fund-raising parties throughout the year. Each summer, the club roped off a section of Broad Street for a week and held a street fair. With sawdust on the street and Japanese lanterns strung be­tween the street poles, Broad Street was temporarily transformed into an out­door ballroom. An eight-piece jazz band played nightly and hundreds of couples, black and white, danced to their sounds. Those not interested in dancing could play the carnival wheels or buy ice cream. In the clubhouse, team members “were selling whiskey faster than the beer gardens were beer.”

The force behind these efforts was the Garfield Eagles Social Club, the organi­zational embodiment of the team off the field. Its leadership rotated among those most committed to the squad. The Social Club continued well into the 1950s, even though the football team had ceased to exist by the late 1940s. And when the Social Club dissolved, several of its members carried their ex­perience into the Elks and other black community organizations.

Football inspires intense loyalties among those who play it. The Garfield Eagles were no exception. “It was an at­mosphere where we were all for one and one for all,” Gabe Patterson remembers. “If we were in the streets and saw one of our guys doing some­thing wrong, we’d go up to him and take him out of the situation and tell him he’s wrong and that was it. If he was having difficulty at home or with his woman or what not, we’d settle it.” When a man was short on his rent money, his team­mates threw a Saturday night social for him. By taking a cut from the poker game and selling fried chicken, chitterlings and greens, these house-rent socials combined festivity with self-help. “We had like a woman-man relationship be­tween men. No half-way-no b.s.,” Patterson testifies. “It was for real. You could talk about things among the fellows more freely than you could with someone else.” Several players describ­ed the Eagles as a family and the players as brothers.

It was a family that fit snugly into its community. The Eagles directly touched the lives of most blacks in Garfield, and many of the whites, too. Several local storekeepers, especially the few black ones, helped out “when they saw we was trying to do something to stay out of trouble.” Other men coached or drove one of Buck Phillips’s rubbish trucks to transport players to and from practice four nights a week. Two local men, one white and one black, served as linesman and referee at home games. A neighbor­hood doctor often accompanied the team to away games and a half dozen girls led cheers. Finally, a fairly large percentage of residents rooted for them at both home and away games. This community support often transcended race. In L929, when a riot broke out at a game in Brentwood, the Eagles formed a circle on the field and were joined by about twenty white friends who jumped into the fray on their side.

Their main backer, both financially and in terms of fatherly counsel, was the man many called the ‘Mayor of Gar­field.’ Emmanuel ‘Buck’ Phillips, one of the most substantial black businessmen in Garfield, assumed the role of de facto leader of black Garfield. Although he never ran for office, Phillips canvassed for votes and acted as a broker between residents and the ward chairman. Neighbors, both white and black, turned to him when in need of financial or legal help.

His oldest son, Johnny, was one of the original Eagles and Buck’s three­-room basement with a shower served as a clubhouse and dressing room. “We loafed there,” Benny Jackson recalls. “We’d all bring whatever we had, a few potatoes, a piece of meat and we’d make a big stew and eat there. Not even go home for dinner.” When the team need­ed funds, Phillips reached into his pocket and asked how much. His politi­cal ties helped the team obtain a permit and later a changing room and grand­stands for Fort Pitt Field. On more than one occasion, he got players out of trouble with the police. When the team was attacked in Brentwood, it was Phillips who told them to form a circle so that nobody could get at their backs and then led them to safety. In the after­math, when the mayor threatened to ban Sunday sandlot ball, it was Phillips who persuaded ward leaders to intercede with the mayor. In return, Phillips and the players knocked on doors and worked the polls.

World War II disrupted sandlot ball in black Pittsburgh. The Eagles were virtually the only black gridiron eleven left in the city after the 1941 season, and much had changed. The draft and enlistments cleaned out Gar­field overnight, tearing holes in the roster. By then, Buck Phillips and many of the original members were less active and a group of younger players began asserting themselves. In 1942, the team began playing its home games at Am­mon Field in the Hill and by 1945, the team’s name had been changed to the Pittsburgh Eagles.

During the war, the team also separated itself from the Social Club, most of whose members were in the ser­vice. In part, the split was due to the growing presence of players on the team from outside Garfield and the separa­tion of many of the older members due to the war. Yet there was also a division over finances. At first, no player was paid and no one thought anything of it. After all, they were playing for fun. But as the level of competition increased and the amount of money involved grew, the team began enticing some players with a small sum. There is a great deal of disagreement among the surviving mem­bers of the squad as to how these finan­cial arrangements were worked out. There was Likely just as much confusion then. Despite the relative openness of the organization, not everyone was fully aware how the business end operated. That prompted a certain mystification about increasingly sensitive monetary matters.

Some players believed Buck Phillips was making money on the club and ob­jected to what they perceived as an in­equitable distribution of funds to a handful of players. They described the move to the Hill as a players’ revolt in which the younger members gained con­trol over the money and divided it on a cooperative basis. Others contended that Buck donated considerable sums to the club and viewed the team’s downfall as the result of the desire of some players to get paid.

Despite these disagreements, there is surprisingly little bitterness when former Eagles discuss the move to the Hill. “I didn’t feel bad,” Benny Jackson ex­plained. “No hard feelings …. I went to see them play over there in the Hill and kidded around with them.” For Jackson and most of the rest, the Eagles had run its course as a Garfield team and there was little desire to hang on any longer.

The Hill-based Pittsburgh Eagles car­ried their on-the-field traditions with them through the 1945 season but, cut off from their Garfield roots, the team dissolved within a few years. The club no longer had the extensive behind-the­-scenes support of the Social Club which, unlike the football team, stayed in Garfield and lasted into the 1960s. Further­more, in the post-war boom of Ameri­can sports, black athletes were finding increased acceptance in the collegiate and professional ranks. That meant a team like the Eagles encountered in­creasing competition for players. While sandlot ball experienced a resurgence in the late 1940s and early 50s, the longer­-term trends were about to bury it. The Eagles were not there for sandlot’s last hurrah, but by going out in peak form, they left as they played, with a touch of grace.

Belonging to the Garfield Eagles changed lives, for the team became the main reference group for many members. Players went through a series of bonding experiences, from hard prac­tice sessions to coping with defeat and then unexpected success. The Eagles car­ried them through economically depress­ed times and left them, not only with the aches and pains of a football career, but with a better sense of organization, themselves and the role of sport in black Pittsburgh.

Although black sport was affected by racism, the sandlots were largely un­touched. There, black Pittsburgh ex­perienced a sense of its own competence that was often missing in its ghettoized social conditions and work world. The Eagles were, perhaps, the most impor­tant black institution in Garfield during the 1930s. The team touched the lives of many in the neighborhood and was the only agent that could bring most blacks together in one place for an event. It was the first black enterprise to gain widespread acceptance among Garfield whites, representing a breakthrough of major proportions. Evaluating its im­pact on racial consciousness is difficult, but the bottom line is that the Eagles forced many to consider, at least tem­porarily, a new side of black Pittsburgh. Its athletic and social legacies are part of the oral history of the city, a subtle counterpoint to today’s sportsworld.

 

Conversations with Ray Irvin, Gabe Pat­terson, Benny Jackson, Joe and Ger­trude Barranti, Larnell Goodman, Catherine and Vernon Phillips, Fred Clark and Walt Hughes provided the basis for this article. Interviews with these individuals were conducted by Norris Coleman, David Madison and Mr. Ruck under a grant from the Na­tional Endowment for the Humanities.

 

Rob Ruck, co-author with Jim Barrett and Steve Nelson of Steve Nelson, American Radical (1981), currently teaches the history of sport at the University of Pittsburgh and is writing about sport in black Pittsburgh.