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OUT OF THE PAST: Bringing a Negro Leagues Ballpark Back to Life.

On a late-September afternoon in 1930 at Hamtramck Stadium, the Detroit Stars led the Negro National League Championship Series, three games to two, when longtime Stars slugger Norman "Turkey" Stearnes stepped into the batter's box against the St. Louis Stars' Logan Hensley. The 175-pound, left-handed-hitting Stearnes had carried the Stars on his back with two homers and 11 hits in the Series, but Detroit trailed, 3-2, in the fourth inning of Game 6.

A five-tool center fielder and the winner of multiple NNL home-run crowns, Stearnes drilled a Hensley pitch far beyond the right-field wall, which stood at least 407 feet away to straightaway right. No one had ever cleared that wall at Hamtramck (pronounced ham-TRAM-ack), a cavernous park that had opened that year in the predominantly Polish city of Hamtramck on the East Side of Detroit. Stearnes' blast tied the game and put Detroit's first NNL championship within reach.

It wasn't to be. St. Louis rebounded to win the final two games and the title. And with the nation in the depths of the Great Depression, the NNL folded at the close of the 1931 season. The Detroit Wolves emerged in a short-lived new league the following year and reincarnations of the Stars surfaced briefly later in the decade, but in time Hamtramck Stadium, which could house a crowd of 9,000, sat empty and was mostly torn down. All that remains are the grandstand behind home plate and three adjacent masonry buildings.

Nestled in a poor neighborhood that had once thrived in the auto industry's heyday, the park's remaining structures and its history were largely forgotten until baseball historian-author and Detroit resident Gary Gillette searched out the site a decade ago. Although the city of Hamtramck lacked the funds to restore or tear down what remains of the stadium, city officials bought into Gillette's 2010 pitch to save it.

"It's critical to preserve all of these sites," Gillette said. "You cannot tell the history of African Americans in the 20th century without telling the history of the Negro Leagues. We can't recapture those days, but we can do them justice by preserving some of the history."

Gillette is a board member of Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, a fundraising non-profit that is teaming with the Hamtramck-based Piast Institute to raise the $4-5 million needed to restore the ballpark. Detroit native Jack White, front man for the rock band the White Stripes, kicked off the fundraising with a $10,000 donation and headlined a charity baseball game at the site.

The groups have already raised enough to restore the playing surface in the spring. The plan is to have the field ready for the Detroit Tigers' annual Negro Leagues tribute weekend near midsummer at Comerica Park. Gillette would like an event held at Hamtramck over that weekend to draw attention to the project.

Potential funding could soon reach $1 million, which would be used to install a new roof on the grandstand this summer and replace all damaged structural steel. Additional funding would target refurbishing the grandstand's seating, the surrounding space leading up to its entrances, and the small brick and concrete buildings alongside it, which could be expanded into a concession stand, locker rooms and an interpretive center on Negro Leagues Baseball in Detroit.

The long-term goal is to make the park a community sports facility, including soccer and cricket, which are popular among current Hamtramck residents. Only four parks that were home to a major Negro Leagues team still have a playing field today, so Hamtramck's restoration excites Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

"Detroit is near and dear to us, and we couldn't be more proud of the effort that is going into helping restore the old ballpark there," Kendrick said. "It's lending life to the legacy of black baseball in Detroit."

Gillette tapped into that legacy a few years ago by contacting the daughters of Turkey Stearnes--Joyce Stearnes Thompson and Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown. They had never been to Hamtramck Stadium, where, according to Gillette, their father was one of 18 Hall of Famers to have played or managed on the site.

That includes Satchel Paige, who Rosilyn recalls sitting on the porch of their Northwest Detroit home, visiting their father after their playing days. Paige once said that Stearnes was "as good as Josh Gibson... as good as anyone who ever played ball."

Joyce and Rosilyn were born after their father had retired from baseball. He was a modest, quiet man who didn't talk much about his time in the game and didn't keep souvenirs from his playing days. Joyce and Rosilyn knew little of his stature in the Negro Leagues. Seeing the site where their father had hit that memorable home run in 1930 inspired them to become involved in fundraising efforts.

"They've been a godsend," Gillette said of the sisters. "Having them show up to events, talk about what it means to see progress, talk about what their father was like later in his life. It's been amazing."

Schoolteachers and gifted singers, the sisters sang The Star-Spangled Banner before the July charity game headlined by Jack White's Warstic Woodmen. They, along with Gillette, are part of a growing alliance of baseball historians and enthusiasts, rock stars and preservationists looking to bring an old ballpark back to life.

By Thorn Henninger
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Author:Henninger, Thorn
Publication:Baseball Digest
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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