Restoration of Hamtramck's Negro Leagues stadium shines up a historic baseball diamond | Michigan Radio
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Restoration of Hamtramck's Negro Leagues stadium shines up a historic baseball diamond

Sep 23, 2020

It’s been a long time since the historic Hamtramck Stadium has heard the roar of a crowd. One of the few Negro Leagues ballparks left in the nation, it’s stood empty and neglected for years. But in its heyday, back before professional baseball was integrated, it was home to the Detroit Stars. Legendary Black ballplayers like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played there. Now, a local nonprofit wants to honor the stadium’s history and restore it to its former glory.

The stadium was built in 1930 to house the Detroit Stars. It's located in Hamtramck's Veterans Memorial Park. Gary Gillette, founder and president of Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, says the stadium was once used for all kinds of sports—including baseball, football, soccer, softball, and boxing—as well as community events.

“It had church leagues, it had concerts, it had war bond rallies during World War II. It was an amazing place,” he said.

After Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color line when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Negro Leagues gradually disbanded. The Hamtramck Stadium stayed open for decades as a field for church leagues, schools, and little league teams. But it has stood quiet and neglected since it was closed off in the 1990s. Gilette's group, in partnership with Wayne County, the Hamtramck Public Schools, and the Michigan Municipal League Foundation, hope to return Veterans Memorial Park and its athletic facilities, to their former role as a community asset. 

One of the group’s first steps to the restoration, Gillette says, was giving the stadium’s infield a name to honor its history as a Negro Leagues ballpark. It's now known as the Norman “Turkey” Stearnes Field. Stearnes was a legendary center fielder, Detroiter, and member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who played for the Detroit Stars from 1923 to 1931.

While Stearnes was born in Nashville, he made his home and raised his family in Detroit. He also worked for years at the Ford Rouge auto plant. Gillette says he wanted to see Stearnes get the recognition the baseball legend deserves. 

“It’s a Detroit story. He is as Detroit as they come, except for not being born here. He was an admirable man,” Gillette said.

The field was restored this past month, complete with a brand-new infield and a soccer pitch added to the outfield. Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium and its partners have been working to gather resources to revive the surrounding Veterans Memorial Park. They've secured federal funds, as well as funding commitments from the Detroit Tigers and other organizations, to restore the park and the stadium’s grandstand, beginning next spring or summer.

Gillette says when everything is finished, he expects the stadium to be in use every day there isn't snow on the ground. He envisions high school baseball or vintage baseball games, soccer games, and other community activities.

“I hope that it’s a community asset like it once was,” he said. “I’d love to see high school sports there. We want to see kids playing pickup games there. We are going to dedicate a block of time each week for community usage where kids—and adults too—can just come and play.”

An online symposium on the Negro Leagues, hosted by the Detroit Historical Museum, will take place September 24, with presentations from historians and athletes. Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium and the Black Historic Sites Committee have also organized a free, self-driving tour of Negro Leagues sites in Detroit for the afternoon of September 24.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.