Stars Park project a tribute to history, college

Harris-Stowe State field on site of St. Louis Negro League team

July 14th, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- When Matt Janocik learned his college baseball team was getting a new home baseball field, the first question that he had was where the new field was going to be. And when he learned the renovated field was going to stay on the same site, his excitement level for his senior season skyrocketed.

Janocik and a handful of his teammates at Harris-Stowe State University were on hand Tuesday when the Cardinals, along with Cardinals Care and Harris-Stowe, broke ground on a $1.2 million Stars Park renovation project. Stars Park was home to the St. Louis Stars of the Negro National League from 1922-31, and the field that is there today is still close to where the original one was in the 1920s.

The historic location is as important as the actual field itself for the players. There is pride in playing on a field that was home to Negro League legends like speedy Cool Papa Bell, slugger George “Mule” Suttles and defensive wizard Willie Wells. The Stars won three championships in their existence and were a major part of the Black community in St. Louis.

“[Head coach CJ Bilbrey] reminds us every day that we play on a field that means something and we should treat it the way it should be treated,” Janocik, a first baseman, said. “We talk about the history every day. We talk to other teams about it. That’s part of the pride we have playing on this field is the history behind it. We get to play on a field that people we look up to got to play on.”

Construction is expected to begin Wednesday. Located on the southwest corner of the Harris-Stowe campus on the corner of Market Street and Compton Avenue, the baseball field will be rebuilt and shifted slightly to the right, closer to Market Street, to make room for a new softball field. Harris-Stowe’s softball team currently doesn’t have a home field and plays its home games on different fields around St. Louis.

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“There’s a different feeling when you get to play on your campus, with your school in the background," Janocik said. “It’s a different sort of pride that comes with it. We want that for our softball team, too.”

With Clayco leading the construction, the project is expected to take three months to complete, and the renovated park will be formally dedicated in mid-October. The Cardinals have been working on this project since 2018, when the university approached Cardinals Care about a donation for a new scoreboard. While the field as it stands is not in bad shape, Cardinals Care executive director Michael Hall realized it could be upgraded after visiting the field and having conversations with the university and athletic department.

What made an impression on Hall and Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III was seeing the players maintain the field themselves -- cutting grass, lining the field and even fixing the fencing around the field. Cardinals Care has built or renovated 24 youth baseball fields and established baseball leagues throughout the St. Louis area to help bring kids into baseball, but for this project, the Cardinals are doing something a little different. The enthusiasm for the game is already there; the Cardinals want to help sustain it.

“These kids have a passion for the sport,” DeWitt said. “And sometimes you focus so much on growing the game that you forget that people that are already in the game need a little support to keep it going too, and that’s a little about what this is.”

Harris-Stowe is practically in the Cardinals’ backyard. It’s a little over two miles from Busch Stadium, and Stars Park has Cardinal ties. Bell, said to be the fastest man baseball has ever seen, gave baserunning tips to Lou Brock and was at Busch Stadium when Brock broke the single-season stolen base record in 1974. Bell has a statue outside of Busch Stadium and settled down in St. Louis until his death in 1991.

“When your team gets folded into -- in the case of the Negro Leagues, they all folded and moved over to the Major Leagues -- you have that desire to connect with a team,” DeWitt said. “I think he had that with St. Louis and the Cardinals, and it’s great to be able to celebrate his life. We have a couple things in the museum from his career that we like to point out. And of course here, it’ll live on, with our plaques and whatnot at Stars Park.”

The timing of the project’s construction wasn’t planned, but 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. Harris-Stowe is also a historically Black university (HBCU), and Stars Park was in the center of African American life in St. Louis in the 1920s and ‘30s. The history, the location and the passion the Cardinals found on the field with the players made the project “a good fit on so many levels,” DeWitt said.

“It’s all come together at a perfect time,” Hall added. “And with this university, they have a robust interest in baseball. They have a passion for it. I’ve seen it. They take pride in this field, and they take pride in the location because of the history. It’s great to be a part of bolstering that and be part of helping the softball team have a field of their own on their campus and bolstering that program as well.”