The Numbers game

Idris Elba at a 2007 American Music Awards aft...

Any resemblance between Jay Evans and Idris Elba is on purpose. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I originally put this post two years ago while I was working on A Treasure of Gold, which releases on November 10, 2015.  Besides, it’s always good to have an excuse to look at Idris Elba, who is Jay Evans in my mind.  Enjoy and I’ll see you in a few weeks!  

The blog post this week was triggered by my reworking of my Golden-Heart nominated story A Champion’s Heart. The story starts off when the hero encounters a numbers boss to ask him for money to engage in a prize fight.  The numbers racket or what’s also known as the policy game, was a form of small-stakes gambling engaged in by mostly people in the African American community.  The stakes were small ones, but once won, (determined by the last three or four digits of the volume of the New York Stock Exchange or from the Clearinghouse) the winner would have a nice pot of money that would last a little while.

The men who ran the policy game in Pittsburgh, where my stories were set, performed a certain kind of community service in using their profits to fund scholarships or as in the case of Gus Greenlee, to fund the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team in the Negro leagues.  It was no accident that the team was named after the world famous Crawford Grill, where Greenlee held sway.

He was supported in the numbers racket by William “Woogie” Harris, brother of the famous Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris.  Woogie owned the Crystal barbershop in the Hill district where he was headquartered. He also owned the house where the National Negro Opera Company was maintained.

Pittsburgh’s numbers racket was smaller than in large cities like New York in Harlem or Chicago.  Because their stake, at least initially, was smaller, these two men were able to run things across all of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods from about 1925 to the 1940’s. However, as it is discussed in Kings by Nathan Thompson, other people wanted to buy into the numbers racket. With Pittsburgh’s smaller stake, it took a longer time for Greenlee and Harris to be pushed out of the racket and they, unlike other numbers men, were able to die as old men in their beds.

Jay Evans, my numbers boss and the hero of A Treasure of Gold, is a tall, handsome, dark-skinned drink of water who dresses in custom-tailored suits and has a big heart for the community. Greenlee and Harris were sort of short, round and light-skinned, but their contributions to Pittsburgh have not been acknowledged until recently.  Their philanthropical attitudes helped me to create this timely African American man who, in his appearances in my two stories set in 1923 and 1935, is very much at the center of running things.

Beat ’em Bucs!

PNC Park

PNC Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia) It’s only a little more than a decade old.   Negro teams played in the Hill District or sometimes at Forbes Field in Oakland.

Okay, so it is about sports this week.  Well, at least in part.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be in the playoffs for the first time since the Heartbreak of 1992 (if you have a heart, don’t ask a native Pittsburgher to talk about it—just take my word for it.  If you need to know, google “Pittsburgh Pirates heartbreak 1992” and Wikipedia will tell you all about it).  Their rise to playoff status this year is the fulfillment of my mother’s hopes over the past few years, so I will be rooting hard for them, even if they do have to play Atlanta—*sigh*. 

                Baseball has deep roots in Pittsburgh. Negro League baseball provided job opportunities for some men in The Great Migration. The hero of my story, A Champion’s Heart, joins the famous Pittsburgh Crawfords after  being told he cannot box any longer for health and safety reasons.  This team, and another Pittsburgh-area team, the Homestead Grays, dominated the national baseball scene for Negro players.   During the 1930’s and 1940’s World War II, these two teams between them, won over a dozen league championships.  Champ joins the team right in between the back to back Crawfords’ 1935 and 1936 winning seasons—exciting times for them. World War II and Jackie Robinson’s integration into to the Brooklyn Dodgers changed that opportunity. 

                When I last visited PNC Park in Pittsburgh two years ago, I was pleased to notice the various ways in which the Pirates organization paid tribute to the players and organizations of the Negro League teams that originated there.  There are parts of the park named for Negro League players, and name plates of other players all around the park.  I’ve been to Turner Field in Atlanta, and I did not see any similar kind of homage to the Atlanta Black Crackers.  Sadly enough, the only homage I’ve ever seen to the Atlanta’s Negro League team were bits of history fashioned into the tabletops at the Whole Foods—now located in the same spot as their former ball park. 

                The Pirates organization has had problems with racism before, but when they built their beautiful new park, it is good to know that they built in an appreciation for a historical time when an African American man could not play ball for their organization.  History must be acknowledged so that the same kinds of approaches and tactics do not happen again.  And since they did such a good job of it, I can say with full-throated enthusiasm:

Beat ‘em Bucs!