Vanessa Rose stands at the ready in center field. In a half-crouch with her glove-hand resting on one knee and her throwing-hand resting on the other, she stares in at home plate as the rock star Jack White digs his cleats into the batter’s box.
The fact that Rose is facing a 12-time Grammy-winner is thrilling enough for the 36-year-old public high school teacher and basketball coach from the westside of Detroit. But more magical is that she’s standing in the footsteps of her famous grandfather, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, who played center field for the Negro League Detroit Stars here in 1930 and ’31, and again in ’37.
The field has seen better days. The ground is uneven, the basepaths faded, and behind the White Stripes and Raconteurs frontman is a hulking and rusted out structure in which homeless people regularly seek shelter. But Rose can see the potential — she can imagine what her grandfather would have seen nearly a century ago: The Hall of Famer Josh Gibson at the plate, in the uniform of the Homestead Grays, and a newly minted grandstand teeming with thousands of African Americans recently emigrated from the Jim Crow South and dressed in their Sunday best.
“No jeans and flip flops,” Rose says upon coming into the dugout and recounting what she was picturing between plays. “They definitely would have been wearing church clothes and dressed to the nines. In the Jim Crow era, to come out and see other black people being their best selves, I’m sure that was not taken lightly.”
As the granddaughter of Turkey Stearnes, and as such a direct link to the field’s storied past, Rose is here with White — an avid baseball fan and favorite son of Detroit — to help bring awareness to a local grassroots effort to restore Hamtramck Stadium (pronounced ham-TRAM-ick) to the glory that earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
From his side of the field, White offers his reason for showing up at the stadium on this bright summer day of last year: “It’s Detroit history, and it’s also American history, and those two things combined are pretty amazing. Right now, we can do something to try to preserve it and keep it alive for the next generation to learn from it.”
In addition to the $10,000 White contributed to the preservation effort, today he has attracted hundreds of fans, who mill around behind a white rope along the first-base line, aiming to get a glimpse of the reclusive rocker. This number, however, is just a fraction of the size of the audiences that came here in the ballpark’s heyday. The grandstand, built in 1930, used to accommodate up to 10,000 African Americans, who worked in the auto plants of Hamtramck and Detroit and, on their day off, came here to see stars of the Negro Leagues (which celebrate their centennial this year) and future National Baseball Hall of Famers such as Satchel Paige, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, and, of course, their hometown slugger, Turkey Stearnes.
According to Gary Gillette, the baseball historian and founder of Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium (FHHS) — the nonprofit helping to raise the roughly $1.5 million needed for the park’s restoration — the Detroit Stars started playing in Hamtramck (a two-square-mile city almost entirely surrounded by Detroit proper) in 1930, a year after a fire at Mack Park on the east side of Detroit, where the team had played since its inception in 1919.
Gillette’s research shows that Stars owner, John Roesink, likely chose to relocate because 1920s Detroit had become increasingly hostile to its black population.
“The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of City Hall in Detroit in 1923,” says Gillette. “The mayoral races in Detroit featured a very strong candidate openly supported by the KKK in the 1920s, and the 1925 Ossian Sweet incident [in which a black physician was wrongly charged with murder for defending himself against a violent white mob] occurred only seven blocks away from Mack Park.
“By contrast, Hamtramck — while no racial utopia — was very progressive. Its first-ever City Council in 1922 included an African American, black people could buy property and own their homes, the schools were integrated, and African Americans and Poles worked side-by-side at the huge Dodge Main assembly complex on the south side of town.”
Moreover, says Gillette, after the 1929 fire at Mack Park, “white citizens living nearby successfully petitioned Detroit City Council to deny any attempt to rebuild the destroyed grandstand.”
Against this backdrop, Turkey Stearnes loomed large in the pre-war imagination of Black Detroit and Black Hamtramck.
“If my grandfather had been born a little later,” says Rose, “he would have gotten enormous recognition — like Jackie Robinson.”
“He never did quite get his due,” adds Joyce Stearnes Thompson, Turkey’s daughter and Rose’s mother, who cheered on her daughter from the dugout. “At least not while he was alive. And I’m just sorry he’s not here to see this.”
Thompson’s sister, Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown, says that she and Joyce were born after their father’s playing days, but they recall fondly how the older people in their westside Detroit neighborhood used to crow about their dad and how he blasted home runs so hard and far they’d say “he hit it in somebody’s kitchen!”
And how did he get his nickname?
“He was fast,” Rosalyn says. “You know, turkeys can run as fast as 40 miles an hour.”
While Stearnes lacks the name recognition of the flashier Josh Gibson, who earned the nickname “The Black Babe Ruth,” he exceeded Gibson’s home run total, amassing around 180 career dingers—more than any other Negro Leaguer — during a career that spanned the 1920s and ’30s. The numbers are gaudy considering a Negro League season was roughly a third of a Major League season. They’re also rough, as is much of the history of the Negro Leagues, because just like the African-American population at large during the time, Black ballplayers were treated as second-class citizens. Negro Leaguers made less money than white minor leaguers; whole teams squeezed into cars for road games; on the road they were always on the watch for hostile police and Ku Klux Klansmen; and there were no official statisticians tracking their numbers. Even Stearnes himself didn’t keep tally, reportedly once saying, “I never counted my home runs. If they didn’t win a ball game, they didn’t amount to anything.”
There are other reasons Stearnes — who despite the poor record-keeping is the undisputed home run king of the Negro Leagues — isn’t as famous as some of his contemporaries, says Gillette. In Detroit, he received less media attention than Gibson did with the Homestead Grays, who were perennial pennant winners and, despite hailing from Homestead (a suburb of Pittsburgh), played half of their home games in media-rich Washington, D.C. And, Gillette adds, “Turkey was a very quiet guy. He didn’t carouse and didn’t brag about his accomplishments to reporters.”
Like many of his peers, Stearnes retreated to a prosaic working-class life after his playing days. When the Negro Leagues began to disappear in the 1950s — a slow fade due to integration into Major League Baseball and a society that had finally been shaking off its Jim Crow past — Stearnes rooted for the Detroit Tigers, just like the white men he worked beside at the Ford River Rouge Complex in nearby Dearborn. During his playing days, he worked at the auto plant in the offseasons, and year-round for another 20 years after he hung up his cleats.
“He worked in the foundry, the worst place to work in an auto plant,” Rosalyn recalls. “Suffered severe hearing loss and burns all over his body. And here he is, a future Hall of Famer.”
“He didn’t get inducted into the Hall of Fame until the year 2000, which was 21 years after he died,” adds Joyce, who pulls up on her smartphone a letter that William Clay Ford, Jr., sent to her mother on the occasion.
In the letter, the Ford scion congratulated the Stearnes family on the achievement and acknowledged the 27 years that Stearnes worked for Ford. Seemingly a nice gesture — but Joyce says her mother cried over the letter, which she felt was an insult for all that it didn’t say, for all that it didn’t offer. No plaque at Ford River Rouge, and no honorarium, like the one given to former Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson when he was inducted into the Hall: a Ford Windstar for the drive to Cooperstown.
“How many corporations can actually say they had a Hall of Famer that used to be an employee?” asks Rosalyn.
The Stearnes daughters are grateful, however, that their father will be honored with a monument at the restored Hamtramck Stadium. By spring 2021, FHHS expects the field to be finished, and enough work done on the stands to allow a grand reopening event featuring a tribute game between two Black high school teams from the Detroit area wearing vintage Negro League uniforms.
There are plans for other exhibitions and programs to link the past and present. Mike Wilson — a 64-year-old Hamtramck native, FHHS boardmember, former minor league ballplayer, and the son of a former Negro League player — says Hamtramck Stadium would eventually like to host games between a Black Detroit high school team and Black high school teams associated with the five other Negro League ballparks still standing: Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey; Red Cap Field in Jacksonville, Florida; and League Park in Cleveland.
In the meantime, Wilson runs sports clinics for neighborhood kids on the stadium grounds. On another summer day of last year, Wilson gathers about a dozen or so Yemeni and Bangladeshi kids just off the right-field line of Hamtramck Stadium. Historically an enclave for Polish immigrants, the city today has become one of the many parts of greater Detroit that have large Middle-Eastern and South Asian populations. As such, the old baseball coach includes cricket and soccer in his sports clinic — but the lessons of the stadium’s past remain.
“All right, fellas, you know where you’re at?” Wilson asks the kids, who’ve been divided into blue and red numbered jerseys and are bouncing around ahead of the day’s drills. “This is Hamtramck Stadium, and there’s some major significance to this place. Some of the greatest players in the history of baseball played here. They were walking around on the same grounds that you’re walking on right now. People like Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, Turkey Stearnes, Josh Gibson. Those guys are in the Hall of Fame. This is hallowed ground. Some of the greatest players played right here — but some of you right here are gonna be some of the greatest players, and potentially future legends.”
It’s unclear if baseball or the Hall of Fame resonates with these young immigrants and first-generation Americans, but their faces light up at the mention of Turkey Stearnes. They at least know he’s important enough to be the subject of the mural on the brick wall beyond the third-base line, along with the depiction of a crowd of brown faces — not unlike their own — cheering him on from the grandstand.