William Augustus Greenlee
(Gasoline Gus, Big Red)
- Height 6' 3", Weight 210 lb.
Unlike his two brothers (who became doctors), Gus Greenlee had somewhat of a shady life. After one year in college, he moved to Pittsburgh, PA as part of the Great Migration when southern blacks came north for opportunity. Gus worked in the steel mills, driving a taxi and shining shoes. On October 30, 1917 he was called to serve in the US Army. Working in the 367th Army Division, he was a machine gunner and sustained shrapnel injuries in his left leg in France. He was discharged on March 20, 1919.
Returning to Pittsburgh, he sold whiskey during Prohibition and then went into the nightclub business. His Crawford Grill attracted numerous jazz greats over the year, including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. The Grill was a center of black life in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood. Always seeking new business opportunities, Greenlee became notorious in the numbers (gambling) game. In addition to his business (legal and illegal) activities, Gus was known for his charitable work. Giving out many informal gifts to help with college or business costs, medical care, food or coal, he set up a soup line in the Hill District during the Great Depression. His more traditional charities included hospitals and the NAACP. In addition to baseball, he was very involved in boxing, as a manager of fighters.
In 1930 Greenlee bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords and made the team a short-lived powerhouse with the likes of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell. In 1932 Greenlee Field was opened. He also became the president of the new Negro National League that year and would serve in that capacity for five years. To help stimulate fan interest, he helped institute the East-West Game.
The Crawfords were eventually raided by other high spenders and Greenlee could not keep up. In 1938, Greenlee Field was destroyed. He sold the team to white businessmen in 1939 and the club became the Toledo Crawfords.
In 1945 and 1946, he was involved with Branch Rickey's United States League project. He spent six months in 1950 and 1951 in the VA hospital in Aspinwall, PA and the Grill burned down in 1951. Gus was also sued by the US Government for not paying income tax. Greenlee died a year later.