Ballpark that hosted Negro League games, Hall of Famers is preserved

Hamtramck Stadium looks like any forgotten baseball field.

Knee-high grass covers the infield. A graffiti-tagged pavilion behind what used to be home plate is collapsing. Concession stands are boarded up.

It’s hard to imagine thousands of fans, black and white, flocking to the ballpark in the 1930s to root for the Detroit Stars of the storied Negro League. The field hosted at least 15 future Hall of Famers, including legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, Josh Gibson and local hero Turkey Stearnes.

After many years of neglect – and not even a sign commemorating the field – the stadium will be preserved and celebrated after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places this week.

“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.”

A group of volunteers, including baseball historian and Detroiter Gary Gillette, spearheaded the two-year effort to preserve the stadium in Veterans Memorial Park on the south side of Hamtramck.

 Although the Detroit Stars were wildly popular, their history is not.

Fans piled into streetcars in the 1920s to watch the Stars at their first stadium, Mack Park, at Mack and Fairview on the city’s east side. But in 1929, the park needed a new home after more than 100 fans were injured when a grounds crew intentionally burned gasoline on the field to dry up the rain-soaked ground.

Detroit Stars owner John Roesink, a local businessman, built Hamtramck Park, and Ty Cobb threw out the first pitch in May 1930.

Although the Stars were never a dominant team, they had superstar Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, a southpaw slugger who seemed to hit the ball for miles. The modest hometown hero won six home run titles in the 1920s and ’30s and excited crowds.

“I never counted my home runs,” he once said. “I hit so many, I never counted them, and I’ll tell you why: If they didn’t win a ball game, they didn’t amount to anything.

The stadium hosted the Stars in 1930, ’31 and ’33.

But the Depression and competing leagues led to the Stars’ demise, leaving black ball players without a coherent professional league.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors when he debuted as a Brooklyn Dodger.

In 1940, Hamtramck bought the stadium and used it occasionally until shutting it down in the 1990s. It has been vacant since.

On a recent summer day, Richard Foster was jogging when he saw me taking photos of the stadium.

“When are they going to tear it down?” he asked me. “It’s been like that for as long as I can remember.”

Foster said he knew nothing about the park’s history and became fascinated when I told him about the Negro League. What for so long had been an eyesore to him was now a subject of intrigue.

“I hope they can do something with it,” Foster said of the park. “It would be a shame to lose that history.”

As Foster jogged off, an eery stillness enveloped the stadium, pierced occasionally by a nearby train.

While the stadium will be preserved and may find use again, dozens of parks are abandoned across Detroit and neighboring cities because it’s too costly to fund a team and maintain a ballpark in struggling neighborhoods.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.