by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller and Dick Clark
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The 1910 census reported Detroit's black population to be 5,741 citizens, with approximately 25 owning a business. Ten years later, African-American entrepreneurs owned roughly 350 businesses, including a movie theatre, a co-op grocery, a bank, and most importantly, an all-black professional baseball team.
Chicago tycoon Andrew "Rube" Foster owned the city's first professional black team. Known as the "Godfather of Black Baseball," Foster founded the Negro National League (NNL) in 1920. Besides owning the Chicago American Giants, he had majority interest in the Detroit club and the Dayton Marcos. Published reports often referred to African-American John T. "Tenny" Blount, a local gambler, as the team's owner. Blount, lacking sufficient capital to own the franchise, was really the Detroit Stars' general manager. Blount was responsible for scheduling games at Mack Park, arranging transportation, and booking lodging accommodations.
John A. Roesink, a Dutch Jew from Grand Rapids, owned Mack Park. The park was located at Mack and Fairview Avenues in the heart of the German, working-class community, about four miles north of downtown. The single-decked structure seated between 6,000-10,000 spectators on its wooden benches.
The Detroit Stars originated in 1919 with J. Preston "Pete" Hill as their field manager. Approaching 40 years of age, the former all-star had been captain of Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants during the war years. Added to the mix were top quality pitchers Jose Mendez, Frank Wickware, catcher Bruce Petway, and middle fielder Frank Warfield. In their initial year of competition, the Stars won the integrated Michigan Semi-Pro Championship tournament. It was the first of five state titles in a row.
During the twenties, the Stars were comparable to their white counterparts, the Tigers; having superb hitting and less-than-spectacular pitching. Like the Tigers, they often finished near the top, but never quite reached that pinnacle of success. In the first league year, they won 35 of 58 games, a winning percentage of .603 -- good enough to win a pennant in most years, but Foster's American Giants won 32 of 45 games to finish first, three-and-a-half games ahead of the Stars.
In 1921, the Stars fell to fourth place behind the American Giants, the Kansas City Monarchs, and the St. Louis Giants, playing .500 ball with a 32-32 won-lost record. In 1922, the Stars landed another fourth place finish, this time with a much better 43-32 record. The Stars rebounded in 1923 to make a strong run at the champion Kansas City Monarchs, but finished five games back at 41-29.
The Detroit Stars snared third place in both 1924 (37-29) and 1925 (57-41), before dropping a notch to fourth place in 1926 (50-42). They continued to win the majority of their games, posting a 53-46 record in 1927, but finishing a disappointing fifth place. The Stars captured third place in 1928 with a 54-37 record, but fell to fourth place in 1929, with their first losing record, 39-42.
Mack Park, badly damaged by fire in July of 1930, forced the Stars to play in the newly built Hamtramck Stadium, located between Gallagher, Roosevelt, Jacob, and Conant Streets. Despite splitting play at two fields, the Stars finished second (50-33 won-lost) to the powerful St. Louis Stars. The following year, their last year in the league, the Stars slumped to a 32-36 won-lost record and fourth place. It was only their second sub-par finish in a dozen seasons as members of the NNL.
During the Stars' tenure in black baseball's first permanent league, they employed many quality players, with Andy Cooper being perhaps their most prolific hurler. The left-hander pitched from 1920 to 1927, and often led the staff in wins, with the exception of some outstanding performances from Bill Holland, Bill Gatewood, and Mendez in the early years.
Other noteworthy stars included Bruce Petway, perhaps the greatest catcher in Detroit baseball history. Elwood "Bingo" DeMoss, called one of the best second sackers in the game, managed the team from 1927 to 1931. In the early years, their top home run threat was first baseman Edgar Wesley. He was king, until Norman "Turkey" Stearnes arrived in 1923. With speed and power, Stearnes captured several home run titles, becoming a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate in the process.
When the Negro National League collapsed in 1931, a new Detroit team emerged in the fresh East-West League. The Detroit Wolves, owned by Pittsburgher Cum Posey, started the '32 season with the greatest assemblage of black talent in Detroit history. The Wolves lineup was dotted with future Hall of Famers, including "Cool Papa" Bell, Willie Wells, and "Smokey" Joe Williams, as well as several all-stars like Newt Allen, Ray Brown, George Giles, Ted Trent, Quincy Trouppe, and Mule Suttles.
Unfortunately, the aftermath of the Depression kept attendance low, and the league broke up after a few months of action. The Wolves were in first place with a 29-13 record before they disbanded. The new Stars, guided by Walter Norwood, proprietor of the Norwood Hotel, re-organized and played one season in 1933, finishing with a dismal 16-26 record.
Professional black baseball did not return to Detroit until 1937, bringing home a popular, but aging, Turkey Stearnes to roost. The Stars finished in the middle of the pack. Regretfully, the team did not return for the 1938 season. Two semi-pro teams sprang up in 1947, the Detroit Wolves (managed by Dizzy Dismukes) and the Detroit Senators (managed by Cool Papa Bell). They lasted one season. Detroit's black populace would suffer without a league team until 1954.
Enter another Grand Rapids businessman. This time African-American Ted Rasberry financed black Detroit's latest entry. Maintaining the Stars' name, Rasberry fielded an entertaining team until the Negro American League officially folded in 1960.
Foreseeing the demise of the league, Rasberry changed the team's name to the Clowns in 1958, and added acrobatic acts before the games, along with other creative attractions and promotions. They all proved futile in keeping black baseball alive in Motown. By 1960, the Stars' final year, they were advertised as the Detroit-New Orleans Stars. This last edition produced George Spriggs, an outfielder, who would later play in the majors for the Pittsburgh Pirates. There was also outfielder Dave Pope, from the 1947 Senators, who became a fine outfielder for the Cleveland Indians. With more and more Negro leaguers like Pope and Spriggs joining the majors, black baseball in Detroit would never flourish again.
From Black Baseball in Detroit by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller, and Dick Clark.
Copyright © 2000 by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller, and Dick Clark. Excerpted with permission.