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).


The Stars Win the 1984 USFL Championship

On July 15th, 1984, the Philadelphia Stars met the Arizona Wranglers in Tampa, with the USFL Championship on the line. The Stars had lost the championship game the year before, 24-22, in a thriller against the Michigan Panthers, and they did not want to get denied again. They stormed through the regular season, finishing a league best 16-2, then easily dispatched of Brian Sipe, Herschel Walker, and the New Jersey Generals in the first round of the playoffs, 28-7. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they cruised past the Birmingham Stallions, 20-10.

The Wranglers had a tougher road into the finals, finishing the season 10-8, then knocking off two future Hall of Fame QBs in the playoffs, Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers and Steve Young of the LA Express.

The Stars were led by their superstar running back, Kelvin Bryant, who had outgained Herschel Walker that season, running for 1406 yards and 13 TDs. At QB, they had the solid if unspectacular Chuck Fusina, who looked for receivers Scott Fitzkee and Willie Collier. The Stars had a terrific O-line, anchored by Irv Eatman and Brat Oates. Their defense, known as the Doghouse Defense, had allowed a stingy 12.5 ppg in the regular season.

Tampa Stadium was packed, and the 52,662 fans on hand were about to be treated to a clinic. On their first possession, the Stars methodically moved downfield, grinding up 66 yards on 10 plays before little used Bryan Thomas scored on a draw from 4 yards out to make it 7-0. After their defense shut down Greg Landry and the Wranglers offense, the offense went back to work, moving 54 yards in 9 plays before a Fusina QB sneak made in 13-0. The 2nd quarter was more of the same, but two Stars fumbles and a missed FG meant that Arizona was only down 13-3 at the half, despite being outgained, 249 yards to 49.

allen_harvin_1984_07_15The second half saw more of the same, with the Stars dominating in every phase of the game, and when the final gun sounded, the Stars were USFL champions, having won by a score of 23-3. The Doghouse Defense had allowed Arizona a mere 119 yards of total offense and less than 17 minutes Time of Possession. Kelvin Bryant had rushed for 115 yards despite a bad toe, and Chuck Fusina was named MVP after a methodical game at QB.

The team would have a parade at LOVE Park the following week. It would be their last game as the Philadelphia Stars. The owners, spurred on by Donald Trump, made the fatal error of voting to move to the fall in 1986. KNowing he couldn’t compete with the Eagles, owner Myles Tanebaum moved the team to Baltimore that offseason. They would win a title as the Baltimore Stars in 1985 (despite practicing and maintaining their headquarters in Philly), but the league would fold before the 1986 season.

The Stars would finish as the best team in USFL history with a 48-13-1 record, and there were some who thought they could have competed in the NFL. In fact, legend has it that Tanenbaum and Tose once ran into each other at Old Original Bookbinders. Tanenbaum challenged Tose to a game between the Eagles and Stars. Tose wanted to bet $1 million on his Eagles. Tanenbaum replied, “Leonard, if I thought you were good for the money I’d do it in a heartbeat.” The two men had to be seperated, and sadly, the two teams never played. Sadder still, the most succesful pro sports team in Philadelphia history only called Philly home for two years.

If you want to learn more about the Stars, I highly recommend this piece in Jerseyman Magazine.  


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…


The Tragedy of Slim Jones

The Philadelphia Stars took on the Chicago American Giants in the 1934 Negro National League Championship. It was a highly emotional and controversial Series. The Chicago American Giants got to host the first 4 games, winning three. The teams came back to Philly, where the Stars won Games 5 and 6 (interestingly, all of the Philly games were played on what is now West Philly High’s baseball field.) Game 7 was called of darkness with the two teams tied at 4, a finish only Bud Selig could appreciate. So the teams played a Game 8 the next day.

On the hill for the Stars was their 21-year old phenom, Slim Jones. Jones was 6’6″ and all of 180 pounds, and his season had been nothing short of spectacular. He had finished the year with over 20 wins (his exact record is disputed) with a 2.23 RA (data on earned runs in many Negro League contests is unavailable, so the easier to determine Runs Allowed is used). Earlier in the season, he had gone toe to toe with legendary pitcher Satchel Paige twice in Yankee Stadium in front of crowds of 30,000 plus. In the first game, Jones battled the immortal Paige to a 1-1 tie that both Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and NY Giants great Monte Irvin called “the greatest game ever played.” (In the 2nd game, Paige bested the lefty, 3-1.)

And now, in Game 8 with the entire season on the line, the slender flamethrower went to work. He allowed a mere 5 hits, and even knocked an RBI double as the Philadelphia Nine shut out the Giants, 2-0, to bring home the only Negro National League pennant the Stars would ever win. Of course, they may have won more if not for Slim’s fatal flaw: the bottle. Jones was a heavy drinker and a hard partier, and by 1935, he was throwing away his immeasurable talent. He reported to the team cocky and out of shape, and finished the year 4-10. He never regained the form that had caused people to predict that he would be the left handed version of Satchel Paige. Jones had one last flash of brilliance, pitching 3 scoreless innings and hitting a home run in the 1935 All-Star game, but his drinking spiraled out of control. The end of Jones’s sad tale comes from an excellent article where I got a lot of this info on a site called Simply Baseball.

Over the next two seasons Jones pitched sporadically, compiling a meager 6-4 record. In the winter of 1938, penniless and with a burnt-out arm, Jones petitioned the Stars for a salary advance. His request was denied, bringing his life to nothing more than a constant search for his next drink.

In an act of desperation Jones sold his coat to buy a bottle of whiskey. On one particularly cold night the former phenom collapsed, falling to the street in a drunken stupor and froze to death. He was just twenty-five years old.

Just as quickly as Slim Jones had rocketed to stardom, he was sent tumbling back to earth, landing with a tragic thud.


RIP Stanley “Doc” Glenn

Former Philadelphia Stars catcher Stanley Doc Glenn passed away a couple of weeks ago. I had the pleasure of interviewing Doc several years ago when I hosted a radio show, and it was one of the coolest interviews I have ever done. I asked him if he played against Satchel Paige. Not only had he played against him, he had caught for him. I asked him if he had played against Josh Gibson. He responded that Gibson had once run over him at home plate. I have the interview saved on cassette somewhere in this house and will not rest until I find it. It wasn’t just the stories, but the enthusiasm and the warmth that went with them that made me extremely sorry to hear that Mr. Glenn recently passed away.

Glenn was born in Wachapreague, Va. and moved to Philadelphia as a youngster. He was a star at Bartram and the Yankees sent out feelers after seeing his stats. When they realized he was black, they backed off (the league was not yet integrated.) He was quickly signed by the local Stars. When the Majors were integrated in 1947, Glenn was signed by the Braves and played in their minor league system before retiring and going into the electrical supply business. In the 1990s, he became President of the Negro League Baseball Players Association, taking the opportunity to speak about the Negro Leagues every chance he got. In an interview he did with sportswriter Chris Murray in 2005, he said of the Negro Leagues,

“Let me tell you something, fella, Negro League baseball was a happening in the Black world. Women came to the ballpark dressed in their Sunday best, high heel shoes, silk stockings and they had hats on their heads on their hats and long-sleeved gloves … Let me tell you something, we married some of the girls. They would be there dressed to kill. You would think you were at a cotillion.”

His enthusiasm for baseball and for life were such that even now, 9 years after I did a 20 minute interview with him, I can hear his voice as clearly in my head as if I just got off the phone with him. In 2006, he wrote a book about the Negro Leagues called “Don’t Let Anyone Take Your Joy Away”. It was the motto Doc Glenn lived by. He dealt with injustice and racism with dignity and self-respect, and when the dust settled, he refused to judge other people the way he had often been judged. Again from the Murray interview,

“Ignorance doesn’t claim any one in particular. If you’re ignorant and your dumb, then you’re just plain ignorant and dumb,” Glenn said.

Stanley Glenn never got a chance to play in the Majors. He was denied the opportunity to sign with the Yankees because of his skin color. He was at times treated harshly by restaurant owners, police, and fans simply because of the color of his skin. But he never stopped loving baseball, never stopped loving people of all backgrounds, never stopped educating people about America’s past, and never let anyone take his joy away. Philadelphia just lost one of a kind. RIP Stanley “Doc” Glenn. This city is a better place for you having lived here.

RELATED: His obituary in the Philadelphia Tribune.