Baseball by candlelight: The Detroit Stars and a history making game

Detroit Free Press
Ken Coleman |  Special to the Detroit Free Press

The year was 1930.

A small bottle of Coca-Cola would set you back one nickel. Thirty cents would buy you a ticket at Detroit’s Riviera movie theater on Grand River Avenue at Joy Road to see Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert in “The Big Pond.”

Six miles east of the Riviera, on June 27, the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League played the first known professional night baseball game under lights in local history.

The Friday game took place at Hamtramck Stadium. The Kansas City Monarchs won the contest 17-4 before a roaring crowd of 6,500 fans. Norman “Turkey” Stearns, one of the leading Stars players, had three hits in the game, including a triple.

A June 28 Detroit Free Press brief and box score read:

“Nocturnal baseball, used in several of the minor league parks throughout the country, proved to be all that the advance notices claim. Flooded by more than a million candle power lights, the park was as light as day. The flight of the ball, no matter how high, was plainly visible to the fans from all sections of the stand.”

The first night game in Major League Baseball (MLB) history didn’t happen until 1935 when the Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2–1 at Crosley Field in the Queen City. Now, most MLB World Series games are night games to capture the lucrative prime time TV audiences.

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At the time of the Stars’ historic night game, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the nation and its Black population had soared from about 5,700 residents in 1910 to 120,000 residents by 1930. It was a period that has come to be known as the Great Migration. African Americans moved to the Motor City, mainly from the South, in hopes of securing automobile and other industrial jobs.

However, in some ways, they endured the same type of race discrimination in Detroit that they experienced in the South, especially when it came to housing. Many Black Detroiters lived in the aging frame homes in the Black Bottom area on the lower east side, a vibrant neighborhood that was destroyed to build I-375. Neighborhoods in the area would later became known as Lafayette Park, Elmwood Park and the McDougall-Hunt community.

The Stars enjoyed great support from the city’s Black community and some whites attended the games, too.

The Detroit Stars were founded in 1919 by African American Texas native Rube Foster, who was considered the “Father of Black Baseball.” Established in 1920, the Negro National League (NNL) was the first successful Black baseball league of the segregated era. Foster was also the league’s founder, according to Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller and Dick Clark, co-authors of “Black Baseball in Detroit.”

The Stars were one of the most prominent Negro League clubs in the 1920s. They regularly played against strong white semi-pro teams and won the city’s prestigious semi-pro championship regularly in the 1920s.

They also regularly pleased fans. 

On June 6, 1921, William “Big Bill” Gatewood of the Detroit Stars tossed the first no-hitter in Negro Baseball League history. The Stars won 4-0 over the Cincinnati Cuban Stars. The 6-foot, 7-inch, 250-pound, spitball-throwing Gatewood was 38 years old at the time.

The Stars featured five future Hall of Famers between 1919 and 1931, including Stearns. In October 1923, the Stars defeated the St. Louis Browns of Major League baseball 7-6 in an exhibition game played at Mack Park. The Stars rallied with three runs in the ninth for the victory.

The original Stars team and Negro National League disbanded in 1931. In 1933, the Indianapolis ABCs were rebranded as the Detroit Stars in a new NNL but that team and league only lasted a few years. As Major League Baseball began to integrate during the late 1940s, Negro League baseball began to fade. The last incarnation of the Detroit Stars folded in 1961, along with yet another Black league, effectively marking the end of the Negro League era.

Between 1940 and 1950, Detroit’s Black population doubled from 149,000 residents to 300,000 residents making it the largest big American city with the highest percentage of Black residents.

But Black Detroiters would not see representation on the city’s major league team for years.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, the Detroit Tigers were one of the last two MLB teams to play Black and brown players. The Boston Red Sox is the other team. Many African American Detroit residents criticized then-Tigers owner Walter Briggs and accused him of racism.

Three months after Robinson, the son of sharecroppers, played second base for the first time at Ebbets Field and days after the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby, also African American, the Michigan Chronicle’s Bill Matney blasted the Detroit Tigers in his front-page story “Other Clubs Seek Negro Player, But Not Tigers!”

He wrote: “The Detroit Tigers have NOT considered the possibility of a Negro playing baseball in a Bengal uniform! At least this was the general impression given by Tigers general manager, William ‘Billy’ Evans, in a telephone conversation with the Chronicle last week. When asked if there was a possibility that the Tigers might sign a Negro star in the future, or if they might consider having a Negro on the squad, Evans said: ‘That is a situation, we have given no consideration. It is something that will have to be worked out in due course of time. Other than that, I have no comment. I am not in a position to say one way or the other.’ ”

Six years later, Matney, in his “Jumpin’ the Gun” column, blasted the Detroit Tigers for not having signed an African American player. He writes: “Could it be that the 15 other clubs in the majors are wrong and only the Tigers right?”

Ozzie Virgil of the Dominican Republic suited up and played his first game for the Tigers on June 6, 1958. Black Americans like Jake Wood and Willie Horton would follow in the early 1960s.

There is an ongoing effort to restore Hamtramck Park. In 2012, Hamtramck Stadium was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places and a state of Michigan Historic Marker was dedicated at the site in 2014. In 2020, the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Historic Preservation Fund awarded Wayne County $490,729 to carry out its restoration — one of the few remaining Negro League ballparks in the country.

Eventually, the Stars got their well-deserved respect from the Tigers.

Beginning in 2002, the Detroit Tigers have presented an annual celebration of the Negro League experience. In 2007, Stearns was honored by the Tigers and a bronze plaque of him was unveiled at Comerica Park. He had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 2000. In 2019, the Tigers held several events to celebrate the Stars’ 100th anniversary.

Ken Coleman is a lifelong Detroit resident who has a passion for chronicling Black life in Detroit. 

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