Adventures in Baseball Archeology: the Negro Leagues, Latin American baseball, J-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports.
The Missouri History Museum has uncovered an astonishing find: a photograph of Stars Park, home of the Negro National League’s St. Louis Stars in the 1920s.
See here for some (limited) views of the park’s interior, and here for a diagram of the lot (after the park was demolished).
Given that Negro league ballparks were often in well-travelled, well-populated sections of large, often-photographed towns and cities, it seems extraordinarily likely that more such images exist, waiting to be found.
(Thanks to Scott Simkus & Kevin Johnson for pointing me to this.)
Brian Campf, who sent this photo along, identified Williams by comparing the photo with this shot of the 1928 St. Louis Stars—Williams is in the back row, second from right (it’s the same shot used for Williams in the Seamheads DB, by the way).
But what’s interesting here is not so much Flick himself, though it’s a fine photo of him. It’s what’s in the background. Williams is wearing the uniform of the St. Louis Stars. From 1922 through 1931 the Stars played in Stars Park, where left field was cut off by a city trolley car barn. It was only 250 feet down the left field foul line.
As Brian points out, if Williams is pictured in Stars Park, then we’re looking at the left field line, with third base to the right of Williams (where a player is standing with hands on knees), and home plate would be either behind or slightly to the left of Williams. And down the left field line, after the grand stand and taking the place of a left field wall, is certainly what looks like a building to me, rather than an outfield wall in a ballpark. Could this be the famous trolley car barn?
If so, this would be the only real image of Stars Park I know of (aside from backgrounds to team photos such as the one of the ’28 Stars above).
UPDATE 7/24/2014Scott Simkus pointed out that these photographs, of St. Louis Stars Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell, also show the same structure in the background, which he has always assumed was the trolley barn.
Mark Aubrey has got a series of posts up about Walter Claude “Steel Arm” Dickey (mentioned briefly in this post), a lefthanded pitcher who toiled mostly for southern teams, but appeared briefly with the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League in 1922, before he was murdered in Etowah, Tennessee, in 1923.
As Mark notes, there are numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in the various accounts of Dickey’s death. Unsuprisingly the two white sources (the Chattanooga and Knoxville newspapers) see Dickey and his “crowd” as the aggressors, with the white killer, Waldo Keyes, acting in self-defense and escaping in an automobile that just happened to be passing by. The two black sources (the Chicago Defender and Cool Papa Bell) say Keyes was the aggressor; the Defender says he arrived with companions in what would be his getaway car. Anyway, you can read Mark’s posts and the articles and come to your own conclusions.
A tangential note: the Chicago Defender article, unlike the Knoxville and Chattanooga papers, is keenly aware of the racial geography of the area. It makes sure to point out first that Dickey was murdered in the “Jim Crow section” of Etowah—that is, the very small black neighborhood—and, crucially, that after the killing Keyes fled to Copperhill, a small town right on the Georgia state line. The Defender article chooses its phrasing carefully, calling Copperhill “a city that is dangerous for any person of color to even pass through in the day time.” “Sundown towns” were southern communities where blacks might work, but could not live, and were expected to clear out by sundown. In other words, the Defender was linking Keyes to a place it considered even worse than a sundown town.
What I’d originally intended as a couple of posts about the ballparks used by the St. Louis Giants, especially Giants Park (1919-1922), has turned into a kind of impromptuhistory of the Giants themselves. The most important thing I hadn’t realized in taking up this subject was just how many obstacles the team faced over the years, far more than any other northern Negro league team of the era that I’m aware of. From their beginnings in 1906 through 1918, the Giants had to contend with rapacious white financial backers, the resentment of local white semipro teams, difficulties finding a home field, hostility and outright interference from the major-league St. Louis Browns, and the vicious race riots in East St. Louis in 1917.
But Charlie Mills and the Giants persevered, and in 1919 things finally took a turn for the better. Mills was able to lure back a number of the team’s stars from previous years, and the owners put up the capital to build an entirely new field for the Giants. This new Giants Park was adjacent to the old Kuebler’s Park (itself also known as Giants Park), and stood at the corner of North Broadway and East Clarence Avenue, bounded by Prescott Avenue in left field and Holly Avenue in right, and across the street from O’Fallon Park, a public park. Here are a couple of articles from the St. Louis Argus, the first from April 25, 1919 (p. 4), the second from May 2, 1919 (p. 4).
(Click to enlarge either story.)
Note that motion pictures were to be made of the first game in the new park, vs. the Mexico (Mo.) Grays, a white semipro team. As it happens, the originally scheduled date (Sunday, May 11) was rained out, but the game went on the following day, when the ballpark was dedicated. You have to wonder: does any footage of opening day 1919 in Giants Park still exist somewhere?
Here’s another piece from the Argus the following spring (May 28, 1920), discussing an expansion of the ballpark made in preparation for the first season of the Negro National League. Here we find confirmation that the grandstand was built at the corner of Clarence and Broadway, with bleachers in the outfield, and Holly Avenue as a boundary.
(Many, many thanks to Patrick Rock and Dwayne Isgrig for providing material from St. Louis newspapers for this period.)
And here’s a Sanborn fire insurance map from 1931 showing the location of Giants Park, though no ballpark is depicted (East Clarence Avenue is on the left margin; Holly Avenue runs between lot 3446, where the park was located, and lot 3445):
The dimensions noted in the Argus (400 x 560 feet) seem right for the distance between North Broadway and Prescott, which were about 400 feet; but 560 feet the other way would extend considerably beyond Holly Avenue, and seems to indicate a pretty deep right field fence. At the same time, I’ve seen a number of mentions of home runs hit over the right field fence (usually by Charlie Blackwell or, in 1921, Oscar Charleston), so it probably was not that deep.
The St. Louis Giants played their home games in this park through both their seasons in the Negro National League, including the very successful Charleston-led squad of 1921, before Mills was ousted before the 1922 season and the NNL St. Louis franchise awarded to a new group led by Richard Keys and Samuel Shepherd. They changed the team’s name to the Stars and, because Giants Park was still rather distant from the city’s major black neighborhoods, made plans for a new park at Compton and Market. This would be Stars Park, with the famous trolley car barn impinging on left field. The old Giants Park became the home of the St. Louis Tigers, a Negro Southern League Club; but because Stars Park was not ready until July, 1922, the Stars (featuring rookie southpaws Cool Papa Bell and Earl C. Gurley) played their first nine home games at the old field.
Giants Park apparently still existed for a number of years, and in 1937, when Dizzy Dismukes managed a new version of the St. Louis Stars in the Negro American League, the team used the site, now called Metropolitan Park, as its home field. By 1950, however, the space had been taken over by the McCabe and Powers Auto Body Company. Today no sign of Giants Park is left.
(Thanks to Kevin Johnson, who started the search for Giants Park and other Negro league ballparks in St. Louis.)
I’ve got a piece in the latest Outsider Baseball Bulletin about Cool Papa Bell’s rookie season with the 1922 St. Louis Stars. In February 1925 there appeared a series of articles in the California Eagle penned by Earl C. Gurley, who like Bell had been a rookie southpaw with the Stars in 1922. (Gurley played the 1924/25 winter season in Los Angeles with a team called the St. Louis Giants, organized by Lorenza Cobb, former catcher and longtime manager and promoter.) This is actually a rare and valuable document, a fairly detailed, first-person account of the early 1920s Negro leagues that was written very soon after the events described. It covers Gurley’s introduction to professional baseball with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts in 1919, his move to the Nashville Elite Giants the following year, and his signing with the St. Louis Stars in 1922 on the advice of outfielder Charles “Doc” Dudley.
It also gives us an account of Gurley’s first game, a June 15 start against the Chicago American Giants in the old Giants Park in St. Louis (Stars Park would not be finished for another three weeks). Gurley, like Bell, has a very precise memory of the game, including the exact score, a 7-6, come-from-behind victory by Gurley and the Stars over Ed Rile. Gurley, perhaps out of modesty, manages to avoid mentioning that he helped his own cause considerably by knocking out the game’s only home run.
My Pitching Experience
By Earl C. Gurley Of The St. Louis Giants California Eagle, February 13, 20, and 27, 1925.
Part One In the spring of 1919, while helping to pitch Howard high school…to the championship of the city schools in my home town, Chattanooga, Tenn., by luck I won the deciding game of the series. While leaving the field a fellow came up to me and said that was a wonderful game you pitched and you should be in the Southern League. I thanked him and started off, when he continued, I can get you a job, if you want one. I turned to him and said, all right. The next day [Saturday] he came by my home…and said come on[,] they are waiting on you, and really it seemed like a joke, but when I got over to the field where they were practicing for the Southern League, I found out differently. He gave me an introduction to the manager, whose name was Bishop. Then he asked me what I could do, so I said I can pitch a little, but there is a lot I can learn. He acknowledged that with a smile and said here is a uniform. I put it on in a little house nearby. After practice he said you will report to me Monday at 9:30.
[When] training season [was] nearly over[,] I really doubted myself when they were letting those didn’t make good go, but to my surprise the manager did not let me go. Well, the season started. My first game I lost, ten to three. The manager came to me and said you will have to beat that. All my teammates were talking around that I could not pitch and why should he hold me, but I guess he still saw something good in me, and too, I suppose I was more nervous than anything else. However, with all that discouragement I still believed that I could pitch. Then all the stars began to falter, and to my encourageable spirit, I began to win. Then came a most trying test. Nashville at that time was tied with us for third place, and we were then in Nashville. We won the first game, lost the second and tied the third. Sunday came and a large crowd really did me a lot more harm than it does now. Well[,] again fate played my hand. I won.
That night I could send a telegram home to tell the good news. After a couple more months the season closed again and I went back to school.
And the next spring  I was traded to Nashville for a couple of players. Part Two In Nashville, 1922, was one of the hardest years of my career. There were four leading pitchers and all of them favorite[s] of the Nashville fans. Pitchers Noel, Moore, Young and Miller, but I felt as if I would make good. However, fate dealt me some more hard luck. In spring training my arm went wrong and it was about the tenth of June before I could do any pitching, although it was only relief duty. All I could hear was, Mr. Noel, Moore, young and Miller. I went to Mr. Wilson, the manager of the team[,] and said, “I believe I had better go home—my arm won’t let me do anything.” But Mr. Wilson replied, “Don’t be a joke of the fans.”
And that night I lay alone in my bed at home trying to think of some way to get my arm in condition. They next day I got a hot water bottle and put some water in it as hot as I could bear it and the next day, while pitching in batting practice[,] I cut one down the alley pretty good[,] and that is where my arm seemed to come around.
So we moved over to Memphis for a series of games. I asked to start the first game. I won after fifteen innings of hard work. When we came back to Nashville everyone asked me, How did you do it? The only thing I could tell them was that my arm had come back to me.
At that time, Dudley, the right fielder of the St. Louis Stars, was there with us. He was also a student of the Meharry Medical College, [and] didn’t have to report to St. Louis until his school was over for the year. Pretty soon he left and in a few days I received a telegram from St. Louis asking if I would like to pitch for them. Naturally, I said yes. All of the boys who at one time made me the joke of the team wanted to shake my hand—“Bully for you, and hope you make good,” were their remarks. Before long I reported to the St. Louis Stars, which at the time [were] playing at sixty-nine hundred Broadway, before they built their new park on Compton and Market.
The next day I was slated to hurl against Rube Foster’s club. What will fate do, [and] what will become of all of the hardships of the past? Did I win or not?
Part Three …The manager of the St. Louis [Stars] was Bill Gatewood[,] in days gone by one of the greatest pitchers of the Negro National League.
Manager Gatewood came to me and said, “Warm up, lad.” I started the game and before I could get any one out, three runs had crossed the plate. Then suddenly the game was halted and my manager came out to the pitcher’s mound and what he said to me wouldn’t look good in print. Some of the things I shall never forget. Among other things he said, “Here you are[,] large enough to beat Samson[,] and yet you couldn’t break a window glass with the balls you are throwing.” To be frank he really made me angry.
I began to cut the ball across the plate like a rifle shot…but after the smoke of battle had passed away the score was five to nothing against me.
Manager Gatewood did not take me out of the game nor did he have any other pitcher warm up, and in my mind I was sure to be back in Nashville before twenty-four hours.
But fate was kind to me for I managed to hold Foster’s team to six runs while my team mates scored seven runs and won the game.
Now I could send a telegram home with the great news and from that day on I have had my ups and downs[,] but I am still holding on and trying to make good.
And dear fans of Los Angeles, I am very grateful to you all for attending our ball games this winter, and I am sure that the entire club feels the same way.
Very soon we will board a rattler for home and when the Eastern fans ask me about our trip, I can say you can’t beat Los Angeles.
Keep on boosting your colored athletes and before long the whole world will have to sit [up] and take notice.
Here’s another find by Kevin Johnson: the location of Stars Park in St. Louis, from a 1932 Sanborn map. The baseball park is not actually marked here, so as Kevin notes it’s possible that the location had already been turned into a city park by the time the map was made. Nevertheless the ballpark’s lopsided shape is quite apparent, with the famous trolley car barn cutting off left field.