A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.
ST. LOUIS -- At the corner of Market Street and Compton Avenue, nestled next to Harris-Stowe State University’s baseball field, sits a black plaque that details a large part of St. Louis baseball history.
“Negro National League Baseball played here,” the top of the plaque reads. “A baseball park built for the Negro National League St. Louis Stars stood on these grounds.”
On a sunny day last week, the ballpark, the college and the surrounding streets were quiet. Only a few cars passed by during the lunch hour, with businesses closed and people staying home due to the coronavirus pandemic. But it was easy to imagine what the area would have looked like 100 years ago, bustling around Market Street and Compton Avenue.
The businesses, the jazz music, the trolley line -- and there, right in the center of it: Stars Park. It was home to the Negro National League’s St. Louis Stars from 1922-31, and the team was a major part of African American life in the ‘20s.
Jackie Robinson Day is Thursday, honoring the day Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 2020 season marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League.
“I think it’s important for baseball fans to remember that this is their history, no matter what color they are,” said Dr. Ray Doswell, the curator at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “This is the progression of the game. It is part of the reason why the game is played the way it is today because of the quality and talent of [Negro Leagues] players. The fact that it happened 100 years ago should not be forgotten.
“Hopefully folks don’t forget that impact.”
The biggest piece of evidence for how important the Stars were to the community was the ballpark itself. The plaque states that Stars Park was the first professional baseball park owned exclusively by African Americans, and ballparks built for a Negro Leagues team were rare; many teams had to rely on Major League or Minor League ballparks to play. Having their own ballpark allowed the Stars to play more games in St. Louis instead of traveling to other cities, and in turn, that helped local businesses there, Doswell said.
There were other examples over the years of Negro Leagues teams having their own parks, in Pittsburgh, Memphis and Cleveland, but the Stars were the earliest example. The St. Louis Giants -- the forerunners to the Stars -- had their own ballpark across the street from O’Fallon Park, but that was still miles away from Mill Creek Valley, a prominent African American neighborhood that was demolished in the 1950s for an urban-renewal project that displaced many who lived there.
Stars Park was in the center of Mill Creek Valley, within walking distance of many African Americans. Richard Kent, Sam Sheppard, Dr. J.W McClelland and Dr. G.B. Keys bought the Giants franchise after the 1921 season and built the newly named Stars a stadium in '22.
Among the most captivating features of Stars Park was the trolley car building that served as the left-field barrier. Home plate was only 270 feet away from the trolley car barn, as it was called, but the left-field wall was 35 feet high -- just a few feet shorter than Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
Kevin Johnson, co-founder of Seamheads.com and co-chairman of the Society of American Baseball Research ballparks committee, says the Harris-Stowe field is still fairly close to where the original was in the 1920s. Home plate has been moved a little to the east because the Vashon Community Center was built when the park was torn down in '31.
The grandstands and trolley car barn are no longer there, of course, but if you look closely, the grassy area just beyond left field is still slightly indented where the building used to be.
“Other than that, it’s still one of the few 1920 Negro League parks that’s still being played on, the actual diamond,” Johnson said. “There were never any other buildings built on the site except for community centers there. And then eventually, over time, it became a baseball field again. Most of the other parks from that time, now there’s buildings or apartments or whatever over them.
“But not there in St. Louis. It’s back to being a diamond again.”
With the park as a site of entertainment, it also helped that the Stars were good. The team had three Hall of Famers: speedy James “Cool Papa” Bell, slugger George “Mule” Suttles and defensive wizard Willie Wells -- who later became a scout for Black talent and gave teams reports about Robinson. Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston played for the St. Louis Giants, later returning to play in St. Louis with other Negro Leagues teams.
Bell manned Stars Park’s expansive center field while Suttles and Wells provided the power. Despite playing in a hitter’s park, the pitching was successful. In 1928 -- the Stars’ first of three championship years -- right-hander Ted Trent went 21-4 with a 2.36 ERA, according to Seamheads.com’s database.
The Stars had an epic series against the Chicago American Giants for the championship in 1928. St. Louis came roaring back from being down 2-0 and won the series 5-4, according to Johnson. Wells hit six home runs in the last five games played in St. Louis.
“That was probably the apex of Stars Park,” Johnson said. “The series switched to St. Louis and the scores skyrocketed the remaining games of the series. It was very much a slugfest, and the Stars were able to prevail.”
In 2016, the Missouri Historical Society found a rare image of Stars Park in its photo archives. It was a significant piece of evidence for baseball historians painting a picture of Stars Park being at the center of urban life.
“To be able to have the Stars starting in the early ‘20s and having success pretty early on in the beginning of the Negro Leagues is something they took a lot of pride in,” Doswell said. “It helps when you have talented teams. And then of course there’s all kinds of talent coming through town, with the Negro League players like Charleston, Satchel Paige, among others, would draw crowds there.”
The Stars disbanded in 1931 for a variety of reasons; the Great Depression hit African American communities particularly hard, so attendance was down and game stories hardly appeared in the newspaper. The city was also preparing to widen Market Street, so the grandstands would have to be reconstructed. By the end of the 1931 season, Kent had a deal in place to sell the land back to the city for $100,000. That year was also the end of the Negro National League.
The plaque that stands there now is one of many historical markers around the country commemorating the Negro Leagues, like Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala. Preservation efforts are ongoing for Hinchcliffe Stadium in New Jersey and Hamtramck Stadium in Michigan, and many cities honoring historic land or buildings have worked with the Negro League Baseball Museum to make sure that history is included, Doswell said.
The end of Stars Park wasn’t the end of black baseball in St. Louis. A variation of the Stars joined the Negro American League in 1937, although they weren’t nearly as talented nor popular. The Tandy League was founded in 1922 and was a collection of industrial and semi-professional teams in the early part of the century before becoming a high-level amateur league. It was where St. Louis native Elston Howard got his start before he played for the Kansas City Monarchs and later became the Yankees’ first African American player and American League Most Valuable Player Award winner.
“The message to kids today is just as important as it was to the kids who were watching the Stars in the 1920s and 30s,” Steve Pona, founder of the St. Louis Baseball Historical Society, said. “It’s a message of what’s possible. It’s a message of community, and heritage, and it’s a message of, ‘If people who came before me could do it, why can’t I?’ Here we have, in St. Louis, not only the Negro League Stars and the Giants and the Blue Stockings and the Black Stockings [the two forerunners to the Giants], but we have an incredibly rich history in the Tandy League.
“This is why it’s important today, so kids understand that they can look at that park and know that careers began there. That fantasies were fulfilled there, and that futures were made there.”
Robinson broke the color barrier 73 years ago, ushering in the end of the Negro Leagues. But what African American and Latino ballplayers accomplished before Robinson changed the world shouldn’t be ignored.
“A lot of that was a lot of the groundwork for Jackie Robinson and integration of Major League Baseball,” Johnson said. “A lot of years they spent proving basically that they were some really good players, and the caliber of talent was equivalent to the National and American Leagues. They were important pioneers to help pave the way for Jackie Robinson, and then of course there’s the larger picture of paving the way for all kinds of different advancements in integration and civil rights.”