Upcoming conference focuses on Detroit Stars, Hamtramck Stadium

The 1920 Detroit Stars (photo by the Detroit News)

With SABR’s Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference on hiatus until 2020, when it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Negro National League, another group of dedicated baseball historians, researchers and preservationists have stepped up to fill the void with a conference that will recognize and shine a light on another crucial black baseball milestone — the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars.

From Aug. 8-10 at the Marriott Detroit Metro Detroit, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium — a group that works to preserve and promote Hamtramck Stadium, one of only five Negro League home ballparks still in existence — as well as other folks in the Detroit area will host the gathering celebrating the establishment in 1919 of the Stars, a club that played in the NNL for the latter’s entire lifespan (1920-31) and featured lengthy stints by Hall of Famers Andy Cooper, Pete Hill and Turkey Stearnes, as well as other black ball greats like Bruce Petway, John Donaldson, Jimmie Lyons, Bill Holland and Frank Wickware.

Below is a lightly-edited email interview I conducted recently with Gary Gillette, one of the Detroit conference’s organizers, who encourages all Negro Leagues enthusiasts and fans of baseball history in the Motor City to attend.

Ryan Whirty: What was the genesis of the Detroit Stars conference? How did it start and get off the ground?

Gary Gillette: Because 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium were planning several special events. At the same time, the SABR Detroit Chapter was considering making a bid to host an upcoming Jerry Malloy Conference, most likely in 2021. When the surprising announcement was made on March 2 that the 2019 Malloy Conference would not be held, we started to think about whether we could host our own conference to focus on the Detroit Stars’ centennial.

RW: Why did you (the conference committee) feel the need to organize and present an event like this? What about the history of black baseball in Detroit makes this subject intriguing?

GG: The primary organizing reason was the Stars’ centennial, which no one else in Detroit seemed to be thinking about. A second reason was the general lack of knowledge about the history of the Negro Leagues in Detroit. This seemed like a good way to publicize the history of Black Baseball in Michigan as well as seed the ground for more events next year during the national celebration of the centennial of the Negro National League.

The back of the historic marker at Hamtramck Stadium (photo by Karolina Gillette)

RW: Detroit in general, and especially the Stars, sometimes gets overshadowed by more well known “western” Negro League teams like the Chicago American Giants and Kansas City Monarchs. Why do you think that is, and why is it important to remember and celebrate Detroit’s blackball legacy?

GG: The American Giants and the Monarchs were two of the most successful Negro League clubs ever, so it makes sense that they would overshadow the Detroit Stars. Plus, the American Giants had the connection to [original NNL founder and National Baseball Hall of Famer] Rube Foster, and the Monarchs a strong connection with Satchel Paige.

Another key factor is that the original Detroit Stars lasted only until 1931. After 1931, the three major Negro League teams in Detroit weren’t very successful, and each lasted only one season. Detroit should have gotten another franchise in the Negro American League in the 1940s, but never did. Several NAL owners apparently conspired to block that logical move so as to preserve lucrative dates for neutral-site games in Motown, which was prospering due to the wartime economy.

The 1935 Detroit Cubs, another team that played at Hamtramck Stadium (photo property of the Burton Collection/Detroit Public Library)

RW: Preserving and rehabbing Hamtramck Stadium has been a massive, lengthy and ongoing undertaking. How do you think the stadium is holding up today, and do you think the general public, especially in Detroit, realizes its importance and understands why it should be preserved?

GG: In terms of its physical condition, the stadium is about the same as when I first learned about it 11 years ago. After all, these buildings were designed to withstand the weather. Of course, there’s some new graffiti, a few more holes in the bleacher treads, and some general age-related deterioration — but it is still restorable and well worth saving.

The major improvement in the past decade is the awareness of the stadium’s history and its importance to both [the city of] Hamtramck and Detroit. The number of people who know at least a little about the history is many times what it was a decade ago, and the number of people who care about its preservation is hundreds of times what it was 10 years ago.

Former players Ron Teasley and Pedro Sierra at Hamtramck Stadium (photo by Karolina Gillette)

RW: Who is your favorite Detroit Star, and why?

GG: [National Baseball Hall of Famer and centerfielder] Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, one of the most underrated players in baseball history. His life story is fascinating. Note that I can’t claim objectivity here, as the Stearnes’ family in Detroit has been incredibly warm and welcoming to me. Other favorites are [catcher and outfielder] Andy Love and [third baseman and NBHOFer] Ray Dandridge. Love was a star prep athlete at Hamtramck High School who was a utility player for the Stars’ in 1930–31, their first two years in Hamtramck. Hall of Famer Dandridge made his pro debut in Hamtramck with the 1933 Stars.

Turkey Stearnes later in life (photo by John Collier)

RW: What do you think was the Stars’ greatest team?

GG: There’s no question that the best Stars’ team was the 1930 club, which played at a .750-plus clip in the second half to end up in the Negro National League Championship Series against the powerful St. Louis Stars. Detroit lost that hard-fought Championship Series in seven games.

RW: Who would you say was the greatest Negro Leagues player born and raised in Detroit and surrounding areas, and why?

GG: There weren’t many Negro League players born in Detroit, probably because the black population of Detroit was pretty small before 1920. The best of the native Detroiters was Mike Moore, an outfielder in the pre-league era. However, he only lived in Detroit until age 13 or 14, when his parents moved to Chicago. Because Turkey Stearnes came to Detroit very young (22) and stayed for the rest of his life, I consider him to be a native Detroiter. If one agrees with me, then there’s no competition for the greatest native …

Major League Baseball legend Ty Cobb throwing out a first pitch at a game in Hamtramck Stadium (photo property of Avanti Press)

RW: Of course, there’s much more to the Negro Leagues in Detroit and the state of Michigan than just the Stars, from the Page Fence Giants forward. What other subjects will be presented and discussed at the conference? How would you describe the black baseball legacy of the state of Michigan overall?

GG: Certainly significant, but after 1931, essentially a lost opportunity for the reasons outlined above. The Page Fence Giants were pioneers, but the club lasted only four years. If baseball had integrated in the 1930s, Detroit would have been remembered as one of the most prominent Negro League venues, but by the time Jack Roosevelt Robinson took the field for Brooklyn in 1947, Detroit’s Black Baseball history had faded.

For more information on the Detroit Stars Centennial Conference or to register for the event, check it out here. For more info on the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, head here.

All photos provided courtesy of Gary Gillette and the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium.