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How did marching bands energize baseball crowds?

By Eric Schaefer

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An umpire shouts “Strike!” The crowd emits a cheer. A vendor calls “Ho-o-o-t Dogs!” And an organ cues the familiar “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” These are some of the sounds we might expect to hear at a baseball game. Yet, American baseball didn’t always sound like this. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th century, marching bands were used regularly in baseball. They provided music at ceremonies, such as opening day or special events at the ballpark. Between plays or after a big win, the marching band united the crowd in celebration with lively marches. Many played popular marches by Philip Sousa, but some bands played pieces specifically written for baseball teams, such as this two-step written by J. Ignatius Coveney for the Boston American Baseball Team. Marching bands gave the games a festive atmosphere and helped build a sense of community pride.

Baseball march written in 1903 for Boston team. Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection.

The Hill District community had good reason to be proud of their local team, the Pittsburgh Crawfords who played in the Negro American League. The pictured 1932 team shows three players who are celebrated in the Hall of Fame: Josh Gibson with a remarkable batting average of .661; first baseman Oscar Charlston, who was both a player and club manager; and finally, ace pitcher Satchel Paige. Gus Greenlee, owner of the popular jazz club called the Crawford Grill, bought the Crawfords in 1930 and built a field for the team, the first African American-owned ballpark Greenlee Field at Bedford and Chauncey. Greenlee’s investment in the team boosted community spirit. His players were well-paid. The facility and team buses were top notch. And Greenlee also understood that marching bands were essential to boost pride for the home team.    

Standing: Benny Jones, L.D. Livingston, Satchel Paige*, Josh Gibson*, Ray Williams, Walter Cannady, Cy Perkins, Oscar Charleston*
Kneeling: Sam Streeter, Chester Williams, Harry Williams, Harry Kincannon, Henry Spearman, Jimmie Crutchfield, Bobby Williams, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe 
(*Denotes Hall of Famers)

Crawfords Dedication Event
00:00 / 01:42

Re-creation of Dedication Event at Gus Greenlee Field
Audio clip created by Eric Schaefer

This audio clip is a re-creation of the dedication event at Greenlee Field on April 29, 1932. Thousands of locals gathered at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Junilla Street to be the first inside when the doors opened. After batting practice ended, the teams and the marching band paraded to a flagpole in center field. Listen to the six thousand fans cheering for the team, and roaring when they see Greenlee drive around the field in a white Cadillac. Listen carefully for the horn of Greenlee’s Cadillac and for the man selling refreshments and snacks. As the team hoists the American flag, the marching band strikes up the Star Spangled Banner, traditionally played at baseball games since 1862. The marching band unified the fans with pride for their home team and for their nation. 

Marching bands have always been connected to community because the players are usually local amateurs. It’s likely that players at the Greenlee Field dedication were Westinghouse High School students or graduates. The band music certainly energized fans, but spectators were probably equally excited to see their neighbors and kids parading on the field. Today, we see how marching bands continue to boost local pride, such as Pittsburgh’s May Day Marching Band that performs in the annual parade in Pittsburgh's Polish Hill neighborhood. However, we no longer see marching bands on baseball fields, this tradition fading away by mid-century. Fans are now connected through new sounds and traditions, still feeling a sense of community when they root for the home team. 

Gus Greenlee, Owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords Baseball Team

What sounds make you feel like you are part of the community at a ball game?
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SOURCES

The Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro Leagues.” MLB.com. n.d. Accessed May 3, 2024.
 

 “Pittsburgh Crawfords Hall of Fame Register.” Baseball. n.d. Accessed May 3, 2024.
 

Baseball Music and Songs at the Library of Congress: Chronological Song Index.” Research Guides at Library of Congress. n.d. Accessed May 3, 2024. 


Whitaker, Mark. Smoketown. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

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