Hamtramck’s Negro League stadium recognized as relic of baseball’s segregated past
Motor City Muckraker
The Hamtramck Review
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Hamtramck Stadium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 2012 by the National Park Service. Hamtramck Stadium is one the few surviving home ballparks of the fabled Negro Leagues era from 1920-1950 along with Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey; and Bush Stadium in Indianapolis.
“The City of Hamtramck is delighted to be a part of the proud history of Negro League baseball, and we look forward to a new future for our Stadium that honors this important legacy and recognizes its continued relevance to new generations,” Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski said. “We always knew we had a gem in this city. It’s a special pleasure to share that gem through this official recognition of its historic significance.”
At least 17 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame once played in Hamtramck Stadium, including baseball immortals like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Cool Papa Bell. Dozens of other great Black Baseball players also took the field at Hamtramck Stadium, including at least 43 of the top 100 Negro League & Black Baseball players of all-time (as selected by James A. Riley for Gary Gillette’s and Pete Palmer’s ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia). Riley, author of the landmark Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, is an historical consultant to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Hamtramck Stadium’s resident superstar was Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, a stellar left-handed slugger and one of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history. Posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2000, Stearnes patrolled center field while pounding opposing pitchers during his two decade-long career in baseball’s segregated era. The fearsome power hitter played for the Detroit Stars from 1923-1931 and in 1937. Stearnes hit .344 and led the Negro National League in extra base hits during the Stars’ pennant drive in 1930, Hamtramck Stadium’s inaugural season. In 1931, Detroit’s superstar led the league in runs, hits, extra base hits, and home runs.
“My family and I are elated to hear the news about Hamtramck Stadium,” said Joyce Stearnes Thompson, daughter of Turkey Stearnes, whose family remains in the Detroit area. “Hopefully, now steps will be taken to restore this wonderful field with a wealth of historic value and memories.”
Hamtramck Stadium is a brick, steel, and concrete structure built in 1930 by Detroit Stars owner John Roesink, a local businessman and promoter of semi-pro baseball. It was the home field of the Negro National League Detroit Stars in 1930-1931 and in 1933. The Stadium was also home to the Detroit Wolves of the short-lived Negro East-West League in 1932 and to the Negro American League Detroit Stars in 1937. The deciding games of the 1930 Negro National League Championship Series were played in Hamtramck, with Detroit losing in seven exciting games to the St. Louis Stars.
The Stadium was acquired by the City of Hamtramck in 1940 and renovated in 1941 by the Wayne County Road Commission using WPA funds. Its current configuration dates to the 1970s. The grandstand has not been used since the 1990s, but remains in good shape while awaiting renovation.
The application for historic designation for Hamtramck Stadium was prepared by a volunteer team shepherded by Rebecca Binno Savage, historic preservation lead at Kraemer Design Group, PLC, in Detroit. Ms. Binno Savage is a resident of Hamtramck and was a member of the Mayor’s Committee to Save Hamtramck Stadium, chaired by City Council Member Cathie Gordon. Gary Gillette, a nationally known baseball historian and a Detroit resident, sparked the effort to save the historic Stadium with his presentation to Hamtramck City Council in 2010. Gillette also researched the Stadium’s historical significance for the Mayor’s Committee and made the successful presentation to the Michigan State Historic Preservation Review Board in Lansing in January 2012.
Hamtramck Stadium is located at 3201 Dan Street, a block east of Jos. Campau Street in Veterans Memorial Park on the south side of Hamtramck.
Detroit was one of the most important markets for black baseball in the first half of the twentieth century, playing a key role by fielding clubs in four separate major Negro Leagues. After the onset of the Great Depression, however, all of those teams struggled to survive despite Detroit’s growing population of African Americans.
The Detroit Stars were formed in 1919 as an independent black baseball club by pioneering future Hall of Fame executive Rube Foster of Chicago. The Stars played other professional black ballclubs along with black and white semipro teams. A year later, Foster founded the first major black league, the Negro National League, with the Detroit Stars as one of its eight charter members. Foster installed Detroiter Tenny Blount as the new team’s president, and the Stars finished second in the NNL’s inaugural campaign of 1920. Detroit finished second in 1923 and 1926 as well while generally staying in the NNL’s first division for most of the decade. The Stars also continued to compete very successfully in semi-pro baseball tournaments.
White Detroit haberdasher John Roesink bought the Stars in 1925. (Roesink is frequently described as Jewish in both contemporary and historical newspaper articles and books, although recent scholarship has confirmed that he was not Jewish.) A sports promoter very involved with semi-pro baseball, Roesink owned Mack Park on Detroit’s East Side, where the Stars played from 1919 until 1929. Although a fire at Mack Park on July 7, 1929, destroyed the main grandstand, the Stars played the rest of the 1929 season there before moving to their new facility in Hamtramck.
No source has yet been found that documents why Roesink chose to relocate the Stars to Hamtramck. Many factors could have played a role in his decision, including the deteriorated condition of Mack Park even before the fire. Numerous references of the time comment on Mack Park’s dilapidation which, for a 15-year-old wooden structure, wouldn’t have been unusual. One source even says that Mack Park had been condemned a year before the relocation.
A major influence on the site choice was the proximity of Hamtramck to Paradise Valley, the heart of Detroit’s growing African-American community located east and north of downtown. The Detroit Street Railway’s lengthy Baker Streetcar Line ran along Jos. Campau Street through Hamtramck, Paradise Valley, and downtown Detroit on its way to and from Ford’s enormous Rouge Complex, carrying thousands of Polish and African-American workers to their factory jobs. Those same streetcars provided quick and convenient access to the new ballpark site for many fans of the Stars, who wouldn’t have to pay for a transfer like many would have had to do to get to old Mack Park.
Roesink leased a parcel of land on the closed Hamtramck yard of the Detroit Lumber company instead of purchasing it, which must have been extremely inexpensive during the Depression. Another possible financial incentive was avoiding Detroit taxes: while Mack Park was located in Detroit in 1929, it had been built by Roesink in Grosse Pointe Township just outside of Detroit years before the land was annexed by the expanding city.
Finally, as historian Dr. Thaddeus Radzilowski has noted, relations between Detroit’s African-American and Polish communities–while not perfect–were reasonably good in 1930 and lacked much of the friction between African-Americans and other white ethnic groups. Roesink, a friend of Hamtramck mayor Rudy Tenerowicz, likely had that in mind in selecting his new location.
Playing in newly built Hamtramck Stadium in 1930, Detroit won the NNL second-half title before losing the League Championship Series in seven games to St. Louis. Roesink lost control of the Stars after the 1930 season. Under new ownership, the Stars along with the NNL fell victim to the Depression during the 1931 season.
In 1932, Detroit saw the birth of a new franchise in a new league: the Detroit Wolves of the East-West League, whose roster included five future Hall of Famers. As ranked by noted black baseball historian James A. Riley, center fielder “Cool Papa” Bell, shortstop Willie “The Devil” Wells, and pitcher “Smokey Joe” Williams were three of the ten greatest black ballplayers of the segregated era. The Wolves also featured premier slugger/first baseman Mule Suttles and star pitcher Ray Brown. They posted the best record in the NEWL before both Detroit and the league collapsed in midseason.
The following year, a new incarnation of the Detroit Stars would take the field along with a new Negro National League. While the new NNL would last until 1948, these Stars went out of business after the 1933 season. For the next three years, Detroit was without a Negro League home team.
Detroit became a charter member of the new Negro American League in 1937, again invoking the storied?Stars?name. That club would last but one summer, and Detroit would have no hometown Negro League team until 1954 when yet another Detroit Stars club appeared in the NAL, a league barely clinging to existence after integration of the formerly white major and minor leagues.
Unquestionably the greatest player who spent the majority of his career in Detroit was Norman “Turkey” Stearnes. A power-hitting center fielder, Stearnes was one of the best home run hitters in the Negro Leagues. Stearnes was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fall in 2000, 21 years after his death. Stearnes made his Negro League debut in 1923 with Detroit, playing for the Stars until 1930. After a brief absence, he rejoined the team in 1931. He also played for the successor Stars in 1937.
Other Hall of Famers who played for the Stars in the 1920s or 1930s included third baseman Ray Dandridge (enshrined in Cooperstown in 1987), pitcher Andy Cooper, and outfielders Pete Hill and Cristobal Torriente (all enshrined in 2006). Stars like Bruce Petway, Bingo DeMoss, Bill Holland, Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe, and Candy Jim Taylor also wore a Detroit uniform during the Negro Leagues era.