Negro Leagues Are Part Of Detroit’s Baseball Lore

By Terry Foster
Updated: July 9, 2005

DETROIT — A buzz hit Detroit’s African-American community every game day.

Fans dressed in their finest and headed for the bus stop en route to Mack Park, Hamtramck Stadium or Briggs Stadium to watch the Detroit Stars and Detroit Wolves.

The Negro League players made sure their shoes were spit-shined and their uniforms crisp. They not only wanted to entertain and look good , but many also played to show they belonged in the major leagues, which were shut to them until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

“Games were something to celebrate,” said Ted Talbert, historian, writer and television producer. “At the time there wasn’t much for black people because segregation was the law of the land. We had blues, jazz, baseball, Joe Louis and the Harlem Globetrotters. That was our entertainment.”

On Tuesday, Comerica Park hosts the 76th All-Star Game. The Negro Leagues will play a featured role in the festivities.

Which is only fitting to some surviving members of Detroit teams.

Many of today’s brightest lights couldn’t hold a candle to Negro League players, according to James “Bullet Jim” Moore.

“I don’t think the Tigers can get me out,” said Moore, 86, who played for the Stars from 1939-41 and the Motor City Giants from 1941-45. “We hit the ball better and we used our head more than they do today. Guys are trying to hit home runs all the time. You hit home runs when you get your pitch. Otherwise we just try to get on base.”

While Negro League players like Turkey Stearnes, Cecil Kaiser and Moore were heroes in Detroit’s black community, their exploits were unreported by the mainstream press. Only the Michigan Chronicle consistently covered games.

Games were played to a mostly black audience except for an occasional game at Briggs Stadium, home of the Tigers.

And those games were bittersweet. Fans were greeted with flyers entitled “proper conduct for Negroes.”

“I thought the flyer was so ignorant that I kept it,” former player Harold Duncan said.

On the other hand, fans were treated to some of the best baseball in the world.

Kaiser and Stearnes were the Stars’ marquee players, but there were others.

Big Bill Gatewood perfected the spitball and once tossed a no-hitter. Andy “Lefty” Cooper finished second in the Negro Leagues with 123 official victories behind Hall of Fame player Willie Foster. Cooper was 6-foot-2 of muscle and finished his Stars career 92-47.

Larry “Ironman” Brown could have broken the color barrier as far back as 1935.

He was a light-hitting catcher, but his defensive play was so superb that major-league scouts asked him to pass as Cuban because of his straight hair.

He refused.

Many Negro League players struggled to make ends meet. While their white counterparts earned comfortable wages, the black players needed to hold jobs on the assembly line, as car porters and as servants.

Harold “Bebop” Gordon quit the game because he had a new family and needed steady income. But he vividly remembers pitching one of his last games — against the Kansas City Monarchs and Satchel Paige.

Gordon, who singled and scored off Paige, recorded a 2-1 victory.

“It was an exciting game,” Gordon said. “Anytime you win and don’t give up but one run, that is exciting.”

Factory work almost cost the Negro Leagues one of its best players when the Briggs Auto Plant caught fire in the spring of 1927, killing 21 workers. Stearnes and 12 other Negro League players had quit their jobs a couple of days earlier to go to spring training.

One of the big contrasts for Negro League players was how quickly they turned from heroes to outcasts. In Paradise Valley and Black Bottom establishments they were larger than life. But if they stepped out of their comfort zone, they faced discrimination.

Former player Melvin Duncan tells the story of stopping at a Detroit diner while passing through town. He said the waitress walked past him for nearly an hour, refusing to wait on him. He got up and left without eating. By then he was pushing it to get to London, Ontario. A police scooter pulled him over.

After recognizing Gordon the officer escorted him through Canada, approaching speeds of 90 miles per hour.

“If we were not playing we were on our way to play,” Gordon said. “The reason we traveled was because of discrimination. We could not stay in white hotels or white restaurants.”

Then again, all the fun was at the black establishments on game day.