Essential Pittsburgh: The bigger story of ‘The Color’

Essential_Pittsburgh_LogoWhile The Color of Sundays is definitely a football story, it also has strong themes tied to the history of American Civil Rights and the role of the Pittsburgh Courier, as the nation’s voice for black Americans during much of the 20th Century.

That larger story comes out in my conversation with Paul Guggenheimer, the host of Essential Pittsburgh, a daily talk show on 90.5 WESA-FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR station. He really wanted to know a lot more about Bill Nunn Jr.’s early years, his motivations and the challenges he and other blacks faced.

It’s definitely one of my favorite interviews so far. You can listen to it here.

Bill Nunn Jr.

The Westinghouse High School basketball team with Bill Nunn Jr., top row, third from the right. Teammate Chuck Cooper, first row, second from right, went on to become the first black player drafted into the NBA.

 

 

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The Color of Sundays pre-order

Updated Front CoverI’m pleased to announce that my latest book, The Color of Sundays, will be coming out October 1. Pre-sales have started, and we are working to set up several signings and lecture events around Western Pennsylvania. Details to come.

Bill Nunn Jr. never wanted me to write this book. But he ultimately gave me his blessing and for that I am grateful. Bill was first a pioneering African-American athlete. Then he ranked among the nation’s best-known black sports writers — and became the first to sit in the press box at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field baseball stadium. Ultimately, he turned into the secret weapon that brought the Pittsburgh Steelers from decades of failure to unmatched championship success.

Bill Nunn Jr. Journalist and Steelers scout

Bill Nunn Jr.
Journalist and Steelers scout

The Color of Sundays tells this story against the backdrop of American football, the nation’s struggles over Civil Rights and the Steelers’ emergence as a premier franchise. Along the way, the book uncovers details that have been lost to history: Branch Rickey, the Dodger’s general manager who integrated Major League Baseball, played football in 1904 with the first black professional football player. And Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player Rickey signed, played football at UCLA with the two men who reintegrated the National Football League after World War II.

When Nunn said he didn’t want this book, he meant that it shouldn’t just be about him. He challenged me to learn about the other men who had come before him and who stood beside him. He meant that I should seek the larger story. And in the process, I uncovered a rich American tale about men who struggled to rise above — and who exceeded beyond their dreams.

Finding lost images

John Brewer examining some of the thousands of Courier photos he is preserving. Photo by Sidney Davis.

John Brewer examining some of the thousands of Courier photos he is preserving. Photo by Sidney Davis.

While researching my upcoming book about the Steelers’ secret strategy for winning championships, I met John Brewer. He’s a historian who had the good fortune of finding a cache of old production books from the Pittsburgh Courier that everyone thought had been lost. Brewer has since started the tedious process of preserving the newspaper’s images. Because the Courier was the nation’s leading black newspaper for much of the 20th Century, its archives show the history of African-Americans across sports, entertainment and every day life. I wrote about Brewer’s experience for the Tribune-Review, and interviewed him for WESA-FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate.

As Courier publisher Rod Doss told me: “A lot of the photographs captured the culture of a community that otherwise was not seen in other media. It showcases the community activities, the lifestyle activities, the dress that was maintained, the nightlife, the Negro leagues. All those things were captured in these photographs.”

For someone with a keen eye, the images also present some of the rarest moments in sports history. Brewer has one image (below) that shows Satchel Paige, the great Cleveland Indians hurler, inside a Hill District club when he played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro leagues. He’s there with Gus Greenlee, the Crawfords’ owner and notorious numbers-runner, along with Wendell Smith, the Courier sports reporter who famously advocated for Major League Baseball to integrate (familiar for anyone who has seen “42”), and Bill Nunn Sr., the paper’s managing editor and the father of its black college All-America teams. More on that to come later this year.

You can find my full Trib story here: http://triblive.com/news/allegheny/8394422-74/courier-brewer-pittsburgh#ixzz3bFiNChTB.

And you can hear the WESA-FM segment on Essential Pittsburgh here: http://wesa.fm/post/forgotten-courier-closet-yields-wealth-pittsburgh-black-history.

satchel

Photo (of the original photo) by Sidney Davis.