Historic Negro League baseball field in Hamtramck to get new life

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All photos by Joel Knoop.

The Navin Field Grounds Crew is set to help save another historic local ball field – storied Hamtramck Stadium, where 17 Hall of Famers appeared in Negro League games in the 1930s.

“You can just feel the history at this place,” said Tom Derry, founder of the volunteer group that preserved the field at Michigan and Trumbull for six summers, gesturing to the wooden grandstand and grown-over diamond on the south side of Hamtramck.

Derry’s group plans to start next spring mowing and cleaning up the field where the Detroit Stars and Detroit Wolves once played, including home run legend Turkey Stearns.

This time around, city government will be working with him instead of trying to chase him away.

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When Derry started reclaiming the abandoned former home of the Detroit Tigers in May 2010, he was threatened with arrest – and for six summers got no help from the city of Detroit. Earlier this year, the city sold the site to the Police Athletic League to build a youth stadium with artificial turf, while some officials denigrated the grounds crew’s efforts because the Tigers were once owned by notorious racist Walter Briggs.

But the city of Hamtramck has an entirely different attitude. Kathy Angerer, city economic development director, was excited when Derry offered his help.

The Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, headed by baseball historian and activist Gary Gillette, has worked on the project for years, getting historic designation for the site. It’s soon going to launch a nationwide fundraising campaign for the restoration.

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Angerer envisions the site as a multi-purpose venue for baseball, soccer, and other sports that would include appropriate artistic and educational installations to honor its long history. The project will take time and money to do properly, she says, and in the meantime the city is trying to keep homeless people from camping out on the crumbling remains of the old grandstand.

The field in its heyday had 8,000 seats for fans and major-league playing dimensions. The site also includes a Little League diamond where the world champion Hamtramck team, led by Art “Pinky” Deras, played in 1959.

The grounds crew can help in cleaning up brush and garbage and keeping the field mowed. Derry, ever the can-do optimist, is thrilled about the new challenge.

The site is still used for occasional soccer and softball games. In 2012, the city put in a concrete cricket pitch in the middle of the outfield, and the growing local Bangladeshi community uses it regularly to play. Angerer says she’d like to keep the field available for these and other uses, and if necessary the cricket pitch can be moved to a better location on site.

Hamtramck Stadium is a living museum of history – with railroad tracks running along the first-base side and working-class homes beyond the left-field fence. And Hamtramck, one of the most diverse communities in the entire region, understands its significance. It looks like it will be a triumphant return to work for the stalwarts of the Navin Field Grounds Crew.

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Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.