Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy.
An effort to restore one of the last remaining Negro League ballparks uncovers a hidden history of America’s pastime.
Only a few are left.
Negro League ballparks were a vibrant centerpiece of African-American life in the early 20th century, when black people were banished from the major leagues. Their venues read like a map of the Great Migration: at one end, places like Jacksonville, Atlanta, and Hot Springs, Arkansas; at the other, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cleveland.
It’s taken more than a century, but the historic-preservation movement is finally reaching this neglected part of the cultural landscape. And it’s about time: By one measure, only five still stand.
They include Hamtramck Stadium, where the Detroit Stars played. After sitting as essentially a vacant lot for two decades, it’s gotten a big restoration push recently from local champions of baseball history, family members of a former star player, and also, of all people, Jack White. The rescue campaign interrupts the pattern of preservation tending to favor the structures built by dominant wealthy white people, a pattern that presents a distorted view of the past.
The field and remaining wooden grandstand are in Veterans Memorial Park in Hamtramck, Michigan—a small, dense, and famously diverse community that is bordered on almost all four sides by Detroit. As the home field of the Stars, many of the league’s shining lights played here, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Turkey Stearnes, the Stars’ center fielder and an intimidating left-handed batter, is one of the best to ever play the game. Altogether, 18 people who played at Hamtramck Stadium are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, including Stearnes.
Hamtramck Stadium wasn’t the first home of the Stars. That was Mack Park. It was partially consumed by fire in July 1929, injuring 200 people. While the fire is often described as the reason the team moved to Hamtramck Stadium, it was mostly just luxury seats that burned to the ground. The larger grandstand and other elements of Mack Park remained intact. In fact, the Stars and the Kansas City Monarchs played a game on the field just three days after the fire.
Curiosity about this prompted Gary Gillette, a baseball historian and president of Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, to investigate whether the move had something to do with the tense aftermath of the high-profile civil-rights case of Ossian Sweet, the black doctor who bought a home five blocks from Mack Park in 1925. After his family moved in, the house was surrounded by an aggressive white mob. Shots that came from the house that night put Sweet on trial—twice—where he was defended by the famous litigator Clarence Darrow in one of his last cases.
A lawyer hired by Sweet’s white neighbors petitioned the city council to not rebuild Mack Park after the fire, according to Gillette, and indeed, the permit was refused. To those who wonder whether the community objected to the ballpark itself—whether neighbors simply abhorred the crowds, for example—Gillette notes that semi-pro and high-school sports were played at Mack Park for the next 40 years “with no objection, to my knowledge.”
“It’s hard for me to believe all this wasn’t racist,” he says. “All the signs point to it.”
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Brent Leggs is the director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a campaign launched in November 2017 in the wake of violent unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. The plan: to help preserve 150 black-history sites, and in doing so, to bring balance and depth to how the American story is told in our cultural landscape.
By preserving the tangible evidence of the past, Leggs says, “we allow the public an opportunity to interact and engage with these complex and rich stories in American history.”
Even as the preservation movement in recent years has been working to be more inclusive, he says, traditionally, preservationists have favored the structures associated with wealth and whiteness: the homes of famous industrialists, say, and former presidents. Leggs cites numbers that, in his view, underscore the significant gaps in resources to preserve these places: In the last 15 months, the fund received 1,000-plus proposals from nearly every state, requesting a total of $140 million dollars. “That affirms that African-American historic places are underfunded and undervalued,” he says.
Hamtramck Stadium was built on a former lumberyard. A reporter for the Detroit News said that it “out-rivaled many Class AA plants of the country,” and admired how it had dugouts “just like the Tigers have.” There was easy access from the Baker Street line, the longest track in Detroit’s streetcar system, which passed through African-American neighborhoods. The opening pitch of the Stars’ first game in its new ballpark was delivered by Ty Cobb, who was only two years into retirement from his own legendary career. A few months later, the stadium hosted its first night game—successfully, according to the Detroit News, despite some Stars fans fretting that “it ain’t light enough.”
As the Negro League struggled for stability during the Depression, Hamtramck Stadium hosted a few iterations of the Stars and other black baseball teams. The field had extensive renovations in 1941, which erased many original elements. In later years, the field hosted other community groups, not least the 1959 Little League team that won the World Series. A large chunk of the old wooden grandstand was demolished in 1970. The ballpark was fenced in and closed in the early 1990s.
Even in its current condition, it’s one of the few physical remnants of its kind in America. Gillette acknowledges that the number of remaining Negro League ballparks depend on how you count, but going by his measure of ballparks that served as the primary field for a Negro League team, Hamtramck Stadium is matched only by Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama; League Park in Cleveland; Red Cap Field in Jacksonville, Florida; and Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey.
In the past year, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has invested $1.1 million in 16 historic places, including the Wilfandel Ladies Club in Los Angeles and the home of playwright August Wilson in Pittsburgh. It’s also supporting research into free black settlements in the Midwest and efforts to raise the visibility of the Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite National Park.
The fund’s multi-year effort to raise $25 million for grants ranging between $50,000 and $150,000 continues. But much more will be needed to fully fill the gap. Many of the most vulnerable sites in black history, Leggs says, are those affiliated with black women. That’s why he’s particularly fond of efforts to preserve, say, Madame C.J. Walker’s estate in Irvington, New York, and Nina Simone’s birthplace in Tryon, North Carolina. But they are still all too rare.
Leggs, as it happens, also spent five years working on the preservation of Hinchliffe Stadium with a number of partners, including the city, the public school system, and the National Park Service. It now has a master plan, designation as a national historic landmark, and nearly $1 million from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its conservation. Leggs says that the revival also created opportunities to meld hands-on preservation work with community education. Seven hundred volunteers showed up for a one-day community service project: painting the stadium’s interior. “So many youth there that day were unaware of the history in their community, but left being educated and inspired to learn more,” Leggs says.
While the majority of Negro League ballparks have been lost to demolition, they were, as Leggs puts it, “they were the heartbeat of so many black communities.” For the few that remain, “it’s critical that we preserve these places.”
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Rosilyn Brown is the daughter of Turkey Stearnes, and an accompanist who works with Detroit Public Schools. It’s plain to her how quickly history can be lost. Even for herself and her sister, “we knew dad played, but we didn’t know how great he was,” Brown says. “He didn’t talk about those things.” Nonetheless, he was a regular at Tigers home games and encouraged his daughters’ participation in sports. Brown remembers him getting chastened by her coach when he complimented her on a home run by saying “you hit just like me!” The coach said, “Mr. Stearnes, why’d you tell your daughter that? Now I can’t tell her nothing.”
She remembers the evenings when one of her father’s best friends, Satchel Page, came over, and regrets that she and her sister didn’t think to record them as they traded stories of their ball-playing days. “We didn’t realize we were listening to history.” When they talked about baseball, “we thought this was just guys shooting the breeze.”
But the breadth of Stearnes’s talent didn’t dawn on her until she was older. He was a fast runner, despite an awkward gait, and he was formidable in the left-handed batter’s box. While Negro League statistics are incomplete, Stearnes is credited with a career batting average of .344, including 585 RBIs and 176 home runs. It’s believed that he led the league in home runs six times. Satchel Page called him “one of the greatest hitters ... as good as anybody.”
Historians and other supporters started to spotlight him in books and in campaigns to get Stearnes in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Indeed, the latter was something of a sore spot. Brown’s mother had been writing letters for 20 years to the Hall of Fame, advocating for Stearnes, which were all ignored—except for the time the Hall responded to say that this wasn’t going to work and to stop sending letters.
To her amazement, it actually did work. Stearnes was inducted into Cooperstown in 2000, 21 years after his death. It was also nearly two decades after a Detroit Free Press columnist championed his inclusion in a short piece that remembered the fun of watching Stearnes play. “Black American baseball is, or was, a comparable phenomenon [to jazz],” wrote Lawrence Carter in 1982. “I hope its history is comprehensively told one day. And I pray that Turkey Stearns (sic) is included in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.”
Nowadays, Brown hopes to do her part in passing on the history. For a K-8 performing arts school, she wrote a musical about Negro League baseball. “I found our kids didn’t know anything about the Negro Leagues,” she says.
Brown teased them by telling the children who were filling the crowd in grandstands that baseball fans didn’t wear blue jeans and gym shoes to games. “Ms. Brown, what did they wear?” they asked her. She told them that was their homework: to find out and to come to the show in an appropriate outfit. And indeed, they came in their Sunday best. “They had fun,” she says, and the visual element helped them see the past as something that is alive. Now some of the same kids she taught are not only teaching others about Turkey Stearnes, but they’re going to Tigers baseball games when the Negro League is celebrated. For those games at the Tigers ballpark, Brown and her sister sing the National Anthem.
She and her family are grateful for the people working to revive Hamtramck Stadium, which earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Gillette and other volunteers are in regular contact with her about facts they’re digging up and plans for the future.
There’s been a jolt in momentum with financing from, among others, the National Park Service, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and a crowdfunding campaign. In the spirit of Hamtramck’s cultural diversity, the rehabilitation of the field will not only restore the old grandstand and baseball field, but it will also open up the park to soccer and cricket games. It can also host other community events, like movies. While it’s not clear how long the restoration will take, the expectation is that it will be integrated with plans for the nearby Keyworth Stadium, home of the Detroit City Football Club and Playfair Field.
“I want to see interpretive and educational exhibits outside the ballpark that give people a chance to understand history,” Gillette says. He also wants to see that campaign extend beyond the field itself, with traveling exhibits, apps, and a website about the Negro Leagues and black baseball in Detroit.
“My dad would be so pleased,” Brown says. “He always wanted to encourage people to play baseball.” She notes that while baseball diamonds were everywhere when she was coming up, they’ve largely been replaced by basketball courts and football fields. And people are very visual, she says. When it comes to history, “they need to see it to believe it.”
“Our kids need to know,” she says. “If they don’t know the history, they don’t know where they’re going.” And there’s another message, too, that she hopes the revived ballpark communicates: “Do what you love doing, and don’t let anyone discourage you.”
Additional reporting by Joe Riesterer.