Stars inspired positive change in Detroit
Negro League team sparked excitement in neighborhood
KANSAS CITY -- In the early 20th century, black baseball featured one dominant team: Rube Foster's juggernaut Chicago American Giants. But, in 1919, Foster wanted to expand his base and start a league.
Detroit was the perfect place.
A train ride from Chicago, Detroit presented an ever-growing black community and a population that loved baseball -- and Foster created the Detroit Stars. The next year, Detroit became of one of the eight original teams in the Negro National League, a league that included the Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Stars.
And Detroit left a lasting impact.
While the squad finished no better than second in any season and never won a pennant, it played in front of huge crowds and developed into a beacon of hope for a poor town.
Talent-wise, Detroit yielded Hall of Famer Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, one of the greatest baseball players in history. Helped by Stearnes, the Stars also delivered a crushing blow to the Major Leagues in 1923.
"As much as any civil rights march or Senate bill, the pioneers of black baseball, such as Stearnes and his friends, forced the integration of America," author Bruce Chadwick wrote.
The Tigers' three-game homestand this weekend will be the club's fourth annual Negro Leagues Weekend Celebration, including a ceremony to honor Stearnes and the Stars.
In the 1920s and 30s, thousands of blacks lived in an area of Detroit called Black Bottom. Situated on Detroit's lower east side, Black Bottom's 60 square blocks were a haven for the numbers racket, prostitution and poverty. The Stars represented an outlet for entertainment -- especially on Sunday afternoons at Mack Park.
"The Stars inspired considerable hero worship in many Black Bottom residents," Richard Bak wrote of Stearnes and the Detroit Stars. "Everyone from barefoot boys begging to carry their bat bag to the dugout to merchants anxious to rub shoulders with some of the few black athletes in the country."
Located at the southeast corner of Mack and Fairview avenues and the current spot of Detroit's Fairview Homes complex, Mack Park was a singled-decked, wood-and-tin-constructed edifice that could sit 10,000 fans. Fans would line up in the streets before the games and some days, the Stars would outdraw the inter-city Major League team, the Detroit Tigers.
In 1923, the Stars received a huge boost of elite talent when Stearnes joined the club. One of the most unique players in baseball history, Stearnes mixed a colorful personality with elite skill. A 5-foot-9, 165-pound Nashville native, Stearnes displayed an odd stance and an interesting running style.
Like Hall of Famer Al Simmons, Stearnes, batting left-handed, stood with his right foot splayed out and his toe pointed skyward. When he ran the bases, Stearnes flapped his arms like the Thanksgiving bird, hence the nickname "Turkey."
But his talent was rarely matched. Stearnes hit a 470-foot homer out of Mack Park and blasted another one that went over a trolley barn and carried an estimated 500 feet in St. Louis.
Along with Mule Suttles and Josh Gibson, Stearnes was considered one of the most powerful sluggers in the Negro Leagues. He finished with nearly every important Stars record and hit a career .332 with 224 homers. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks Stearnes as the best left fielder in the Negro Leagues and the 25th best player in baseball history.
Others agree. Cool Papa Bell called Stearnes the "greatest player he ever saw."
"Turkey Stearnes was one of the greatest hitters we ever had," Satchel Paige added. "He was as good as Josh Gibson and was as good as anybody who ever played ball."
Stearnes wasn't very social -- he rarely talked with anybody. Bak writes that Stearnes "neither smoked, drank or kept late hours. The taciturn Stearnes usually kept his mouth shut and his coat on."
But crowds could certainly hear him during the games. Stearnes kept up a regular monologue with himself. In the dugout and hotel rooms, Stearnes would also talk to his bats.
"After making an out, he'd ... hold a bat and mumble, 'They say I can't hit, why can't I hit? I hit it good, but he caught it. Next time, I'll get one,'" Bak wrote.
Stearnes certainly hit in a 1923 series against the St. Louis Browns. The Stars (along with Oscar Charleston and John Beckwith) played the Browns in a three-game series that changed baseball history.
St. Louis enjoyed one of its better seasons and posted a 74-78 regular-season record and had several talented players, including Baby Doll Jacobson (.311 lifetime hitter) and Ken Williams (29 homers in 1923).
In front of thousands at Mack Park, the Stars took two of three games.
Detroit came back in the bottom of the ninth to win, 7-6, in the first two contests. Stearnes delivered a key double in the first game and homered in the second one. St. Louis took the third game, 11-8, but the damage was done.
After the series, Major League Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis stopped the exhibitions. He ruled that intact Negro League teams couldn't play intact Major League squads. When Rube Foster asked Landis about the decision, the Commissioner replied, "Mr. Foster, when you beat our teams, it gives us a black eye."
But the Stars' win helped prove that Negro League teams could compete and defeat the Major League squads.
"This is one of those great examples that showed the talent level in the Negro Leagues was extraordinary," Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said.
However, the Stars never became an extraordinary Negro League team. Eddie Batchelor, a white sportswriter, believed the Stars were better than the Tigers for several years in the 1920s, but the Stars could never defeat the Monarchs and St. Louis Stars in the Negro Leagues. Their closest call was in 1930 when Detroit lost, 4-3, in a seven-game playoff with St. Louis. Stearnes batted .481 with four doubles and three homers in those games.
"When the Monarchs and [St. Louis] were consistently good, the difference was definitely in pitching," Kendrick said of Detroit's inability to win a title. "The Monarchs are seemed to have strong pitching and that still holds true today -- great pitching will always beat great hitting."
But the Stars live on in history as a team that transformed a town -- and brought further equality on the diamond.
"They were very important," Kendrick said.
Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.