The Philadelphia Stars: Philly’s Negro League Baseball Team

Until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, American Major professional baseball had been segregated. African-American baseball enthusiasts were forced to form their own leagues, known collectively as The Negro Leagues. From 1933-1952, the Philadelphia Stars were the team that represented Philadelphia’s black community. They were founded by Ed Bolden, the former owner of the Hilldale Athletic Club. The team was also partially owned and financed by Eddie Gottlieb, the owner of the SPHAS basketball team and the future owner of the Philadelphia Warriors NBA franchise.  They played at 44th and Parkside in West Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company YMCA Ballpark, except for on Monday nights, when they played at Shibe Park. In 1933, the Stars were an independent team, meaning they were not part of any official league. However, the next year saw them join the Negro National League, the country’s premier baseball league for African Americans.

That initial NNL season would be a great year for the club. Behind the superb pitching of Stuart “Slim” Jones and the hitting of Baseball Hall of Famers Jud Wilson and Biz Mackey, the Stars controversially won the 1934 National Negro League Championship over the Chicago American Giants. During the 6th game, a scuffle broke out in which a Stars’ player apparently touched the Umpire. As this was an ejection worthy offense, Chicago’s manager protested, but the player was not ejected. The Stars would win game 6 to tie up the series at 3-3. The deciding game 7 would be called due to darkness at 4-4. In game 8, Slim Jones would dominate the Giants lineup, pitching a shutout on the way to a 2-0 Stars victory. However, neither team was pleased. The Stars claimed that the Giants used illegal players, while the Giants were upset that there were games played at night. The NNL commissioner threw out both complaints, and the Stars were declared champions. This championship was to be the team’s only triumph in their history. The team’s fortunes slumped with the performance of Slim Jones. Jones died in December of 1938 of pneumonia at age 25 after, allegedly, selling his coat for a bottle of whiskey.

Due to the lack of consistent record keeping in the Negro National League, much of the history of the Stars is unknown.  However, what is known is that they played in the NNL until 1948, when the league went under. After Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the talent level in the Negro Leagues declined severely as black players were poached from their Negro League clubs. This left only the Negro American League for the Stars. The Philadelphia Stars played two more seasons in the NAL before the team folded.

The Stars had some notable players not named Slim Jones. They had several Hall of Famers play for them, including but not limited to: legendary pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige (two separate stints 1945, 1950), Philadelphia’s own Roy Campanella (1944), Jud Wilson (1933-39), and James “Biz“ Mackey (1933-1937). Additionally the Stars fielded 1956 MLB All-Star Harry Simpson (1946-1948), and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, a player-coach for the legendary barnstorming New York Renaissance basketball team. (1940).


Philly’s 1934 Champions

 

Excited to add a new member to the PSH clan. Michael Collazo and I used to work together for the Camden Riversharks in 2002, and we were pretty good buds, since we were both such sports history buffs. I knew he loved old sports stuff, and I knew he was a pretty good writer, so I recently asked him to join the team. He said he’d love to do an occasional piece. Here’s his first column, about the 1934 Philadelphia Stars. If you’ve got a Philly Sports History piece you’d like to write, please gimme a heads up. If it’s good, I’d be happy to post it on the site. 

In 1934, Philly fans followed their teams on an infant medium called radio, not via the Internet or Twitter. In those days, fans flipped through the sports pages of the Bulletin or the Inquirer, not through the channels of the MLB Extra Innings package. And fans then didn’t have cupholders – they sat their brew on bleachers and they liked it!

What fans in 1934 also didn’t do: cheer their sorry teams playing in North Philly.

I mean, the Phillies always sucked. No shocker there. Philly guys my age in the early 1930s longed for the days of Grover Cleveland Alexander…ok more accurately, barely ANY Philly guys my age in the early 1930s cared much for the Fightins. The Phillies sat seventh in the standings and at the bottom of the league in attendance. Ethan Allen – not the department store, the baseball player – led this team in hits and on-base percentage. Dolph Camili led the team in diggers with just 12. One Phils pitcher salvaged a winning record; the team ERA hovered at 4.76.

Meanwhile in the American League, Philly’s love affair with the Athletics was being tested. A’s fans found themselves watching The Titanic after the great A’s championship run of the late 20s and early 30s. By 1934, Connie Mack was slowly dismantling the team to save money. Sure, the A’s still had the great Jimmie Foxx – he blasted 43 HRs in ’34 – but there was no more Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane or Lefty Grove. This pitching staff struggled to a 5.01 ERA.

In West Philly, however, Philly big-league baseball had a winner — Great Depression be-damned. The Philadelphia Stars may have played at smallish Passon Field (48th and Spruce) – it only played on Mondays in North Philly’s Shibe Park — but the Stars indeed were the best team in town in 1934. In its first Negro National League season, the Stars won the second half title (the first and second half champs served as pennant winners).

You think the 2012 Phillies team is aged – the Stars’ two biggest stars were in their late 30s. Hall of Famer Biz Mackey (right), a switch-hitting catcher, was a .300-caliber hitter even at age 36. Mackey, who many historians consider at least Mickey Cochrane’s equal, had his best days in Darby, PA playing for the Hilldales of the 1920s. Another Wheez Kid of West Philly was Jud Wilson, whose .347 average and line drive power led the team, despite being 38 years old. On the mound, a hard-throwing, hard-drinking cat from Baltimore MURR-lyn named Stuart “Slim” Jones enjoyed one of the most impactful career years in Philly baseball history (read Slim’s ultimately tragic story here). A lefty whose fastball was compared to Lefty Grove’s, the 21-year-old Jones served as Philly’s undisputed ace, winning 20 games and keeping his ERA under 2.00.

The 1934 championship series matched the upstart Stars against the Chicago American Giants, which fielded four players now enshrined in Cooperstown: Turkey Stearns, Willie Wells, Mule Suttles and Bill Foster. Considered one of the most fiercely contested series in Black Baseball history, the Stars basically intimidated its way to a title, despite dueling protests and scheduling issues. With Chicago up three games to two, Game 6 saw a fired-up Jud Wilson basically clock umpire Bert Gholston – yet was allowed to stay in the game. Later in the game another fight flared up – again without resulting in an ejection. As Gholston would admit in a meeting later that week, he relented from ejecting anyone in Game 6 because he feared the damage Wilson or a fellow Star might do to him. Chicago protested the game but Philly came away with a 4-1 win. After a game that ended in a 4-4 tie, the Stars won a replayed Game 7 2-0, thanks to a brilliant performance by Slim Jones.

As University of Delaware history professor Nel Lanctot wrote in Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Fall of a Black Institution, more was written in the Black press on the confrontations and the questionable administrative decisions of the NNL than the game results itself.

But the 1934 Phils and A’s wished they were so entertaining. The aptly named Philly Stars were champs.

If only we could have had enjoyed a Jud Wilson Twitter feed…


When the Sixers Drafted Back to Back Baseball Players

Most people in Philadelphia remember the 1996 draft as the one in which the Sixers drafted Allen Iverson with the #1 overall pick. And no wonder. Iverson was the player who, for better or worse, defined this team for the next decade. But the Sixers 2nd round picks were fairly remarkable as well, but for very different reasons.

With the 31st pick in the 1996 draft, the Sixers selected 6’9″ Forward Mark Hendrickson. Hendrickson made the team, but played sparingly. After the season ended, he was signed by the Kings. He played a season in Sacramento and a season in New Jersey before calling an NBA career quits and deciding to give baseball a try. He was hardly a hardball superstar, but he was good enough to kick around the league from 2002-2010, pitching for the Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Dodgers, Marlins and Orioles.

The Sixers also held the very next pick in the draft, and used it to select Ryan Minor. Minor was a superstar guard at Oklahoma, averaging over 23 PPG his junior year and 21 PPG his senior year. His junior year, he was named the Big 8 Player of the Year. And he might have played here alongside Iverson if the Sixers didn’t already have a full roster. According to a 1998 Inky article about Minor:

“I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on with that organization,” said Minor, pounding a baseball into the palm of his glove as he sat in front of his locker.

“They drafted three guys in that second round when they already had 12 guys under contract,” Minor said. “They knew exactly who was going to be on their team that year, so all the guys they picked had no shot, no shot at all. What I don’t understand is, if they knew that, why didn’t they just trade a couple of the picks? That would have been the fair thing to do.”

Instead Minor got cut, was picked up by Baltimore, and became the answer to a trivia question: who played 3rd base for the Orioles the night Cal Ripken’s streak finally ended? He is currently the coach for the Delmarva Shorebirds, the Orioles Single A farm club. Here’s a good write up about him from last year. (He has since returned to his job with the Shorebirds.)

 


A Brief History of Booze and Baseball in Philadelphia

With beer week going down this week, here’s a short but sweet history of beer in Philly ballparks. Most of this info comes from this excellent piece on the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society. I also got some info from a book by David Nemec called the Beer and Whiskey League and from a book called the Baseball Hall of Shame 4.

William Hulbert, the man who helped form the National League in 1876 and served as 2nd president, enforced harsh anti-drinking rules right off the bat. He wanted “classy” people to come to baseball games, not drunks, so he made drinking illegal at the ballpark. This didn’t go over well in some cities, particularly Cincinnati. They had a large German population that enjoyed drinking beer at the ballpark, and in 1880 they broke league rules and started serving brews. They were subsequently kicked out of the NL.

In 1882, 6 cities started playing in a new league called the American Association, including Cincinnati and a team in Philadelphia called the Athletics (below, not affiliated with the current A’s). Several of the early owners were brewers who were happy to serve booze at the ballpark. The haughty-taughty National League saw baseball as more like polo, with rich d-bag fans wearing popped collars to the games, drinking sparkling water, and talking about their stock portfolios. They referred condescendingly to this new league as the “Beer and Whiskey League”. The fans of the AA didn’t seem to mind.

However, fans in Philadelphia weren’t allowed to have the fun their counterparts in Cincy, Baltimore, and St. Louis, among others, were having at their brewery-run ballparks. Blue laws made drinking illegal at Athletics games.

The AA broke up in the early 1890s, but a new league, the American League, started play in 1901. They let each city make its own decision when it came to booze, but  the Athletics had no decision to make. Again, thanks to the PA blue laws, the A’s (like the Phillies) simply could not serve booze at the ballpark. At least Philadelphia fans weren’t as upset as fans in other cities when Prohibition came around.

Connie Mack, despite the fact that he was a teetotaller, tried desperately to get beer in the ballpark in the 1930s after Prohibition got repealed, as baseball suffered along with everyone else in the throes of the Great Depression. His pleas went unheeded by the powers that be (See my interview with Bruce Kuklick for more info on Mack’s battle with local politicians and rural Protestants over beer sales.)

The Philadelphia fans offered quite an impetus to make beer drinking in the ballpark legal. They smuggled in bottles and cans of beer by the boatload, and there were a number of instances where fans would then hurl full cans at umpires and players. Once, in 1949, Richie Ashburn made a spectacular shoestring catch, but the umpire botched the call and called it a hit. Phillies fans went nuts. They launched cans onto the field for 15 full minutes, and the umpires finally called the game a forfeit.

The A’s and Phils tried to make the case that they would serve beer in paper cups, taking projectiles out of the crowd. Their opponents were the unlikely allies of temperance leaders and local bar owners, who were happy selling beer before the games for people to smuggle in.

Finally, in 1961, 7 years after the A’s left town, a couple more ugly instances involving beer cans and umpires in Philadelphia caused a public outcry, and the two Pennsylvania teams (the Pirates and the Phillies) both announced that money raised by beer sales would go towards building new stadiums (with Shibe and Forbes Field both on their last legs.) The powers that be saw this as a safety issue and relented. Finally, almost 80 years since MLB baseball began in Philadelphia, fans could drink at the ballpark. But the blue laws would not go w/o a fight. The sale of beer on Sundays would not occur until 1972, after the Phillies moved to the Vet and the A’s were a dynasty in Oakland.

So next time you are at a ballgame enjoying a cold one, give a cheers to the obnoxious Phillies fans who came before you. By acting like belligerent jackasses, they helped ensure that beer could be served at ballgames in Philadelphia. I’ll drink to that.

Use the discount code “Beer” to get this Philadelphia A’s hat for $24 with free shipping.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy the following:

Searching for Simon Nicholls. The remarkably tragic tale of a turn of the century player on the Philadelphia A’s.

An interview with Author Steve Bucci about Steve Carlton’s amazing 1972 season, when he won 27 games for a Phillies team that won 59 games all year.

 


When Phillies Relief Pitchers Drank During the Games

This hilarious nugget is from a book I just ordered, “To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia“:

The 2700 block of North Twentieth Street was more intimately connected to baseball than any other part of North Penn. Across the street from the bleacher entrance was the obvious place for ballplayers to live. They also frequented the taproom at the corner of Twentieth and Lehigh, Kilroy’s until 1935 and later Charley Quinn’s Deep Right Field Cafe. Relief pitchers would leave the right field gate near the bullpen to tilt a few during the early innings of games in which the Phillies piled up a big lead.

Can you imagine Ryan Madsen heading over the McFadden’s to grab a couple of quick ones in the early innings of a blowout?