One of the few remaining former Negro League home ballparks in the country, Hamtramck Stadium could be getting a boost next year as Gary Gillette and other members of the stadium preservation group work to restore the field.
Hamtramck — This new year could mark the start of a new life for the historic Hamtramck Stadium, one of the nation’s few remaining Negro League ballparks.
A nonprofit dedicated to preserving the site on Dan Street off Jos. Campau said it is launching a crowdfunding campaign in early 2017 in hopes of raising $50,000 to restore the field’s baseball diamond, stripe out a soccer field and include a cricket pitch for area youth.
By June, the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium intend to embark on a capital campaign to help repair original brick structures, renovate the grandstand and add new bleachers and railings, said Gary Gillette, founder and president of the group.
“It’s really important for us to see the stadium and field get a new life. We’d like to have kids playing on a renovated, restored field there next summer,” Gillette said. “What we also want to do is honor the heritage of the Negro Leagues.”
Gillette, president of the Detroit Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, said he began looking into the stadium’s history in 2008, when he learned it could be razed. Soon after, he formed a partnership with city officials to ensure the site and its history were preserved.
The stadium was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. A state historical marker was dedicated at the site in 2014.
The stadium was one of a few in the country custom-built for a Negro League team, the Detroit Stars, in 1930. The field also was home to the Detroit Wolves, another Negro League team, and hosted high school baseball and football, community activities, concerts, boxing and soccer games, Gillette said.
Seventeen Baseball Hall of Famers played at the stadium, he said, with eight of them playing for either the Stars or the Wolves.
They included Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, a power-hitting center fielder who started playing in the Negro Leagues in 1920 and played a majority of seasons during his prime for the Detroit Stars at the stadium. Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige and slugger Josh Gibson also graced the Hamtramck field. The stadium was used for Negro League games from 1930-37.
Stearnes was among the top home-run hitters in Negro League history. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 2000, more than two decades after he died.
‘For the love of game’
Stearnes’ eldest daughter, Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown, was born several years after her father retired from the sport in 1942. Her father was a private man, she said, who didn’t spend much time talking with fans.
But she and her sister grew up playing the sport and listening to stories told by her father and his friend Paige, who is regarded as one of the top pitchers in baseball history.
The two played together for the Kansas City Monarchs, but only Paige made the white-majority major league — in 1948 at age 42 for the Cleveland Indians. Even so, her father was never bitter, Stearnes-Brown said.
“Life is too short to be miserable and negative. You should really find something that you love doing and make that your career. If you do, your life will be more worthwhile,” said Stearnes-Brown, 70, a retired Detroit Public Schools music teacher from Detroit.
“That’s what these guys did and I love them for that. They really enjoyed what they were doing. They did it for the love of the game.”
Negro Leagues are a relic of segregation during times when the major and minor leagues didn’t want black players.
The color line lasted until April 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the major leagues in the modern era, signaling the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. The last teams folded around the 1960s.
“By the end of 1940s, the major league clubs had signed so many of the best black players that the Negro Leagues essentially had lost most of their talent and most of their fans were going to major league games to see their players, not Negro League games,” Gillette said.
Team makes impression
Former player Ron Teasley first visited Hamtramck Stadium as a youngster in the early 1930s with his father.
“It was a big event for a lot of African-Americans to go to watch the Detroit Stars play. My father was so enamored with the team. ... naturally it sort of rubbed off on me,” said Teasley, 89, who lives in northwest Detroit.
League players later became mentors for Teasley, who went on to play ball at Northwestern High School, batting .500 and landing a scholarship at Wayne State University in 1945.
He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization’s Olean team of the Pony League in 1948, but was released that same season despite “doing pretty well,” according to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum website. He also played for the New York Cubans in the Negro League and spent two years in Canada from 1949-50.
Teasley then returned to Detroit, finished his degree and worked for 34 years for the Detroit Public Schools as a physical education teacher and coach for baseball, basketball and golf.
He said he is glad efforts are being made to restore the old stadium site where his love for the sport began.
“It’s an excellent idea. Especially now that baseball is not the most popular sport with the younger generation,” he said. “That might help to inspire more young people to get back into the game.”
Hamtramck city planner Melanie A. Markowicz said the stadium was her first order of business when she joined the city in September.
“It’s an amazing historic resource that’s so important culturally and could be in use for the community,” Markowicz said.
Hamtramck, she said, plans to work with the friends group and others seeking to support the city-owned stadium located in Veterans Memorial Park. The city is pursuing grants and funding opportunities for the stadium, Markowicz said.
The Hamtramck Stadium site, which had been rented by the Detroit Stars from a lumber company, came under the city’s control in 1940, Gillette said.
It was then, he said, that Wayne County stepped in and extensively renovated the stadium. Some buildings on the site were constructed in the 1950s, around the time the city put in a skating rink and tennis courts. In the 1970s, other repairs took place and the grandstand was cut back, he said.
High school baseball was played at the site until it shut down in the 1990s. Today, it is informally used for soccer, cricket and baseball games. It’s right next to Keyworth Stadium, the home field for the semi-pro Detroit City FC soccer team.
Gillette said his nonprofit plans to pull together a free, one-day soccer, cricket and baseball clinic for local kids this spring with the help of area coaches. Bengali immigrants to Hamtramck like to play cricket, including students.
“What we want to do is make the field available to all the kids who live here to play whatever sports they are interested in, which would mostly be soccer and cricket,” he said. “We anticipate it ... would be open essentially from dawn to dusk for kids to play on.”
Meantime, the Navin Field Grounds Crew, which spent six years maintaining the old Tiger Stadium site, has partnered with Hamtramck to take over mowing at the
site beginning this spring.
Tom Derry, who founded the crew in 2010, said the volunteer group will care for the Hamtramck site year round and work with Gillette’s group and others on restoration plans for the historic field.
“I got goosebumps when I stood out on the field thinking about the history,” Derry said.