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, in fact, 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 10?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.