Hot Dogs for a Nickel

Just north of the GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on Harper—where they made Chevy Volt, and soon they’ll be making the Cadillac ELR—there’s a little baseball stadium, maybe half the size it used to be. The bleachers are empty, surrounded by a tall, imposing fence, and the old baseball diamond is now just a barely perceptible bulge in the ground. The clubhouses are boarded up, long forgotten, a ruin in the center of Veteran’s Park.

There’s no crack of the bat, no plumes of dust, no shouting ushers. No one plays here anymore, on the wide, open field of Hamtramck Stadium, where Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes—with a face like leather—dominated every batting category in the Negro leagues, while Elvis William “Bill” Holland—nicknamed Speed, and Devil—struck batters out like nobody’s business. They played for the Detroit Stars, an all-black squad that started out in about 1920. Well, actually, Bill left before Hamtramck Stadium was built, but he’d play for visiting teams from New York, like the Lincoln Giants and New York Black Yankees. And on cool, clear nights, when ghosts can dance in the corner of your eye, you might wonder if he ever really left.

Of course, the Detroit Stars were way before Jackie Robinson, when major sports like baseball were still strictly segregated. You had the best black ballplayers in the civilized world stuck in what was basically the minor leagues, playing against guys with half their talent. They’d string together unbelievable win-loss records and home run tallies that would make Babe Ruth look like just another pudgy, hot dog-devouring schmuck.

They were living legends in Detroit neighborhoods like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where most of the blacks in the city lived. In the winter, they’d go back to work in the factories like everyone else, or wherever they could make a few bucks to get by until next season. It wasn’t right, but you had to make do.

Hamtramck Stadium was built in 1929 by Detroit Stars owner John A. Roesink—a white guy—after the stadium in Mack Park on Detroit’s east side burned down. The densely packed, two square mile Hamtramck was a kind of an odd fit, considering the city was almost exclusively Polish, but somehow it worked. Blacks, after all, weren’t unwelcome in Hamtramck, even if they weren’t exactly welcomed, either. William Brooks, a black Hamtramck citizen and reverend, put it best when he said “despite our [city’s] problems,” you’ll find “there’s no better race relations … than here in Hamtramck.” The thousands of Polish immigrants in Hamtramck were still trying to cut their slice of pie out of the American dream at the time, fighting against discrimination from more established ethnic groups. They understood what it was like.

Ultimately, Hamtramck Stadium attracted not only blacks but white fans, too, and Ty Cobb threw out the stadium’s first pitch. The stadium could seat over 8,000 people and had cost tens of thousands of dollars to build. Inspired by their new digs, the Detroit Stars went to the playoffs for the first time in club history, losing to the—wait for it—yes, the St. Louis Stars (at least it wasn’t the Philadelphia Stars…). Now ain’t that a bitch!

Things were looking up until the Great Depression hit the local economy like an F5 tornado. Factories laid off workers and the shops closed up. The National League suddenly folded in 1932, leaving Hamtramck Stadium without a home team. There’d never be a replacement team.

That’s not to say that the stadium was left to rot. High school teams, amateur and youth leagues for every sport you could imagine—they all played there. Hamtramck Stadium was renovated twice – in the ’40s and the ’70s—and reduced in size and scope. Though it’s disused and in disrepair today, there’s hope. A few months ago, the stadium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and enthusiasts are trying to raise the funds to renovate the structure yet again.

One dark night, I decided to check out Hamtramck Stadium for myself.  Some of the floorboards were ripped out, but otherwise, it was structurally sound. Tall weeds blocked the view from the lower bleachers. I cracked a beer open on one of the I beams and gazed out into the field. Center field used to be an impressive 515 feet deep, but the memories seem a lot farther away than that.

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