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 Double Life and Strange Death of Phils Manager Arthur Irwin

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about former Phillies managers*. By far, the most interesting tale I’ve found has been that of Arthur Irwin, manager of the team from 1894-1895.  He was quite a character. He is credited with adding fingers to the baseball glove (he did so to protect two broken fingers) when he was a player, he was UPenn’s head baseball coach for numerous years, he was an innovator of the electric scoreboard, and as a pro manager he led one of my favorite squads in Phillies history, the mid-1890s squad led by Big Ed Delahanty and lefty catcher Jack Clements. After leaving the Phils, he continued to manage and scout for a number of minor league teams.

But it is his death in July of 1921 that makes him worthy of further study. He had relinquished his position as scout for the Hartford club of the Eastern League a few weeks earlier due to abdominal trouble, caused by stomach cancer (Supposedly. The doctor who diagnosed him was never found). The former Phillie skipper was also suffering from “nervous attacks”. He decided to book a berth on a ship, the Calvin Austin, to ride from New York to Boston. Once at sea, he told a fellow passenger on the steamer, “I am going home to die.” Irwin didn’t make it home. When the steamer pulled up in Boston, Irwin was not on board. As a newspaper reported the next day, “Irwin was with a party of friends aboard the steamer. Members of the party said today that he was depressed when he left them before midnight.”  They never saw him again.

It was a few days after his disappearance that the incredible truth was revealed. The July 20th New York Times screamed: “IRWIN’S DOUBLE LIFE BARED BY SUICIDE” in all caps. It turned out that Irwin had two families, one in Boston, with a wife named Elizabeth and three kids, and another in New York City, with a wife named May and three kids. The New York wife never had any idea she was married to a two-timer. According to the Gettysburg Times on July 22, 1921, “Mrs. Irwin and her son, F. Harold Irwin, first heard of the Boston family from a reporter. They were in the widow’s apartment at 565 West 192nd Street. ‘I cannot believe it,” Mrs. Irwin said. “Since we were married 27 years ago in Philadelphia, Arthur has been a model husband. He was seldom away from home for more than a day or two at a time.'”

Elizabeth, whom Irwin had married first but who he had spent much less time with in the past 30 years, wasn’t quite as unprepared for the news. “I never suspected my husband even when years ago members of my family tried to tell me there was…probably another woman.”  According to the New York Times, “She uttered no blame for her husband, but said the missteps of her husband must have been entirely the fault of the woman in New York.” She further consoled herself with the fact he had been headed for Boston at the time of his death. “I feel confident and happy in the belief that, although he had this other woman in New York, he was on the way to see me when he died-that he knew he was dying and that he turned to me as the woman he really loved at the last. He wanted to die in my arms.”

His death was a compelling human interest story, but it was also a quite a mystery. Did he kill himself because he was so physically ill or because he was so devastated by what he had done? Was he murdered, as perhaps someone knew that he had just made $2000 and were hoping to get their hands on it? Did he die at all, or was it all an elaborate ruse to get out of the hole he had dug for himself? You know, like Elvis. Questions and conspiracy theories abound, spurred on by the mysterious acts of his final days.

Before he hopped on the ship, he sent a check to his “legal” wife Elizabeth in Boston for $500 and a note reading, “God Bless You All”. It was unusual in that he had almost never shipped money home or sent such cryptic notes.

He had made $2000 the day before he boarded the steamer, as he had sold the rights to an electric scoreboard he had helped to create. (You can read about Harvard “watching” the 1920 Rose Bowl on one such scoreboard here. I told you Irwin was an interesting dude.) But the check on the bill of sale was made out to “Seeler”, and no-one named Seeler was ever found. $500 of the sale went to Elizabeth, and the other $1500 went to May in New York. So much for Elizabeth’s claim that he loved her more.

Of course, with any good double life and mysterious death story must come a few conspiracy theories, and this one comes to us courtesy of a great piece on Irwin in the Torontoist:

There were rumours, recounted in David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball (University of Alabama Press, 2006), that Irwin had withdrawn $5,000 from his account prior to sailing—perhaps enough motive to prompt theft and murder. Others, more compellingly, suggested that because the doctor who’d diagnosed Irwin’s fatal illness had never come forward, he had faked his death. According to a 1922 letter at Cooperstown from a former teammate of Irwin queried: “How can Arthur Irwin be dead? I just saw him in Oklahoma.”

Needless to say, if anyone reading this has any further information about this incredible story, we would love to hear it. I have had little success finding any sort of postcript to this story, and would love to hear how things turned out for both families. Please leave a message in the comments with your email address.

*Fun fact, the Phillies had 22 managers during the time that Connie Mack ran the A’s. In the pic below, that’s Irwin holding the ball and giving the “Heil Fuhrer” salute. Love that photo. Check out the babe on the fence ad. 


Happy 77th Birthday to Former Eagle Great Sonny Jurgensen

When I hear the name Sonny Jurgensen, I typically think Washington Redskins. However, Jurgensen played the first 7 years of his career right here in Philly. A 4th round pick out of Duke, he was a backup for the first four seasons of his career. He watched from the bench as Norm van Brocklin led the Birds to a 1960 championship win over the Packers, then finally got his shot in 1961. He didn’t waste much time in showing Eagles fans what he could do. He threw for new NFL records 3,723 yards and 32 touchdowns, doing so at a time when football was considered “3 yards and a cloud of dust”, a sport suited for running between the tackles. (His 32 TDs is still the Eagles team record.) Throwing the ball was risky, and defensive backs could grab, shove, and interfere, meaning deep balls were coin flips. It’s no wonder, then, that the gunslinger Jurgensen threw 24 Int.’s in 1961 and 26 Int.’s in 1962.

For some reason, right out of the gate Eagles fans had it in for Jurgensen. These comments from Jurgensen come courtesy of the Eagles Encyclopedia:

Philly is a tough town. My rookie year, I won 3 of my 4 starts, and they still threw beer cans at me when I came through the tunnel. I said, “My God, what’s going to happen if I do bad?”

One game against Dallas in 1961, I was booed when I was introduced. I mean, I was booed by everybody. The first pass I threw was intercepted. The booing got worse. The 2nd pass I threw was intercepted, and fans started coming out of the stands. Our trainer got in a fight with a couple of them behind the bench. I thought we were going to have a riot. 

I wound up throwing 5 touchdowns and we won going away. The fans were cheering my by the end, but they weren’t loud cheers. It was polite applause, like you’d hear at a tennis match. I couldn’t please them. A friend of mine went to the game. He told me, “Man, I never heard anything like that. Everybody around me was booing you.’ I asked him what he did. He said, “I booed you, too.” It was the thing to do. 

Apparently Jurgensen suffered from “Abreu’s disease”, as I call it. He made things look too easy, he smiled too much, he seemed to be having fun no matter what the score was. That doesn’t go over well here now, and it didn’t go over well then. Things only got worse in 1962, as the team staggered to a 3-10-1 record. Jurgensen spent much of the 1963 season injured, and at that point the Eagles decided to trade him to the Redskins for QB Norm Snead and cornerback Claude Crabbe. The trade took place on April Fools Day, and I’ll give you one guess as to which team played the fool. Jurgensen put up Hall of Fame numbers for the Redskins for the next 11 years (though, notably, never leading them to a postseason win), while Snead would suffer through the Joe Kuharich era, the darkest period in Eagles history. He would then bounce around the NFL, ending his career with 61 more interceptions than touchdowns. Jurgensen, meanwhile, would get to play his former squad a few months after the trade, and absolutely destroy them. Video highlights of his superlative performance can be found here. Happy birthday, Sonny.


Part 3 of Our Interview with Bruce Kuklick: Booze, Rowdy Fans, and the Phils’ Roman Colosseum

Had a chance to sit down with local author and Penn prof Bruce Kuklick recently and ask him about his excellent book, To Every Thing a Season. To read Part One of that Interview, where Bruce talks about who was better the 1929 A’s or 2011 Phillies, click here. To read Part Two, where he talks about Connie Mack and the best and worst things about Shibe Park, click here. Today we present part 3, where Bruce talks about why Connie Mack couldn’t serve beer at the ballpark, when Philly fans first got their reputation as being rowdy, and how Penn’s former President prevented Citizen’s Bank Park from being built downtown.

JGT: One thing I found interesting about the book was Mack’s fight to serve alcohol at the ballpark. And that was something that went on for decades. And he never got it done. They wouldn’t let them serve beer in the ballpark until after the A’s left town. Why was their so much pushback to serving beer in ballparks?

KUKLICK: Well first of all, you’ve got to understand, it’s Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is not a dry state, but it’s one in which there are enough rural Protestant Republicans who really want to control drinking to the extent that they can. And this has been true long before the 20th century and it has nothing to do with sports per se.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. What do they represent? They represent bad things to a lot of these people. Because they’re urban, there’s a lot more liquor, women, and things like that. And another thing, there are a lot more Catholics in the big cities in comparison to the rest of the state. Mack is a Catholic. And so when he starts agitating for liquor at the ballpark, this represents to the powers-that-be something that is off-color, it’s vulgar, it’s nasty.

JGT: So is Mack fighting more the state or the city?

KUKLICK: He’s fighting the state. There’s a whole series of blue laws which not only control drinking but control your behavior on a Sunday. You know what they say today. They say today, “You’ve got Pittsburgh and you’ve got Philadelphia, and in between you’ve got Alabama.”

I don’t think that Mack saw this as a Catholic drinking issue, which a lot of people have accused him of. He saw it as a revenue stream. And (when it came to drinking laws) from the 1930s to 1970s (They allowed sales of beer in the ballpark starting in 1961, but no beer on Sundays until 1972) it was always politicians in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia against the rest of the state, and the politicians in the big cites get their biggest support from professional sports teams.

JGT: So other ballparks in the country were serving beer well before Shibe?

KUKLICK: Yeah. I don’t know what the exact history of the other ballparks is, but Philadelphia was particularly noted for its dryness. One of the things I didn’t put in the book is that you have so much smuggling of beer into the ballpark. Which is one reason why a place like Kilroy’s (The bar located behind right field where Phillies relief pitchers sometimes snuck into to grab a drink during games.) does so well, because people just grabbed beer there and put it in a bag. So there was a lot of technically illegal beer drinking. Which I think in football contributed to a lot of this rowdy behavior. There’s this history of people smuggling stuff into the parks.

JGT: Speaking of rowdy behavior, Philly fans have a reputation of rowdyism. Does that go back to the Shibe Park days?

KUKLICK: Yeah. Well it first starts in the first decade of the 20th century when the A’s are battling the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb (“Sliding” into home, right). And Philadelphia fans hate Cobb. And I find out that they send a death threat to him. And at one point he’s riding on a subway to get to the park and fans come and topple over this subway and he runs scared and runs out. Now, I don’t know that that’s the beginning, but that’s the earliest time I could trace it. They say that today this (CBP) is the only stadium where the crowd can really rattle an opposing pitcher because the fans get so boisterous and angry. There’s a tradition of it here, it goes back over 100 years. Why we got it? I don’t know.

JGT: A guy I interviewed a few weeks ago who was a fan of the A’s in the 20s said that Al Simmons, one of the stars of that team, couldn’t catch a break from the fans. Then you had Del Ennis in the 50s…

KUKLICK: And then you had it with Mike Schmidt.

JGT: So this strange phenomenon of Philadelphia fans beating up on their own is nothing new.

KUKLICK: There’s a story of one guy, Gus Zernial, who was a slugger kind of like Ennis but he didn’t have that long of a career in Philadelphia (note: he played here from 1951-1954). He fell and broke his leg trying to catch a fly ball, and they all cheered when he broke his leg. They’re out for blood.

JGT: Getting back to the ballpark. Looking at what’s happened in the neighborhoods surrounding Wrigley and Fenway since the teams decided to stay, and how those neighborhoods have come back up, had they decided to rehab Shibe instead of tear it down, do you think that neighborhood would be different today?

KUKLICK: I absolutely do. My wife and I went on vacation one time to Club Med, and we were talking to some people, and we said, “Where are you from?” and this guy said “Wrigleyville.” He didn’t say Chicago. And we knew exactly where he was talking about. That ballpark is known all over the Western World. And every once in a while, I think, “Gee if they had only had the foresight.” But basically that area went through a really terrible period. It’s now come up considerably on its own. It’s a lot less nasty and dangerous than it was.

But Carpenter (The Phillies owner at the time) was just not interested.  He didn’t think in those terms at all.

JGT: Like the guys in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, he thought, “I can save a fortune by not having to grow grass.”

KUKLICK: When I teach Vietnam, I’ll say, “Those ballparks that they are now tearing down (Riverfront, The Vet, Three Rivers, etc.), they were all built during that period, and it’s kind of our Roman period. The United States thinks it’s going to conquer the world. And we have these ballparks that look like Roman Colosseums.”  So Carpenter isn’t alone.

JGT: So now they’re at Citizen’s bank. Not in a neighborhood. Are you a fan of Citizen’s Bank?

KUKLICK: Oh yeah. I’m not overwhelmed by it, but I do like going there. I’d like it a lot better if it were in the city. I was one of the people who, well, I’ll tell you this story. The previous President at Penn was a woman named Judy Ronin, who had no sense of baseball or sports at all. And then there were plans to put a stadium on stilts next to the Walnut Street Bridge, so that a home run would go into the river. They had all of these terrific downtown urban plans, and she said, “I don’t want those baseball drunks pissing in my University.” And she vetoed it. I wanted it right there.

You know, Philadelphians have never wanted to build their ballparks right in the middle of the city. When they built Shibe, it was the countryside. I think you have to have more of an urban mindset more so than these planners have had in Philly.

 


The Fast Rise and Tragic Fall of Tyrone “The Mean Machine” Everett

I first came across the name Tyrone Everett in a list of Philly’s Best Ever Fighters compiled by Bernard Hopkins in The Great Book of Philadelphia Sports Lists. Everett’s entry was a mere two sentences long, but the 2nd sentence more than piqued my interest.

He was robbed in his 1976 Spectrum title fight against Alfredo Escalara and was tragically shot to death just 6 months later.

An athlete dying young and a potentially fixed fight? It was worth looking into. I would soon discover that Tyrone’s story was more than a tragedy. It was pulp non-fiction, a story that included the Mob, transvestites, drugs, snakes, and a mysterious murder.

Tyrone Everett  was born in April of 1953 in South Philadelphia and started boxing at a young age. It was quickly recognized that the lefty had some serious talent, and his fame grew in South Philly, where young girls would jump rope while chanting “Ty, Ty, Butterfly.” The superfeatherweight was a regular attraction at the Spectrum’s Monday Night Fights in 1973 and ’74, and he won every bout. Along the way he earned the USBA superfeatherweight title. In June of 1975, “The Mean Machine” as he was known, finally travelled off his home turf to fight in Honolulu. The exotic locale didn’t affect his fury. He won by KO in the first round. By 1976, he was undefeated and a national contender for the WBC World Title. On November 30, 1976, he got his chance.

Now with a record of 34-0, Everett was given a shot at title holder Alfredo Escalara. Escalara was a flashy showman, known for his love of salsa music and for entering the ring with a snake around his neck when he fought in his native Puerto Rico. Though he was the challenger, Everett got to host the fight in his backyard, the Philadelphia Spectrum. There were three judges; a Puerto Rican judge, the referee, and a Philadelphia judge named Lou Tress.

If the fight was close, most people expected Tress to side with Everett, the Puerto Rican judge to stay loyal to Escalara, and that the fight would be determined by the referee. The fight was not close. From the opening bell Everett was the superior fighter, and he ran circles around the Puerto Rican, dominating the 15 round bout. The AP scored it 146-139, Everett. The UPI had it 146-141. Every ringside observer had Everett winning at least 10 rounds. The South Philly southpaw was going to be crowned World Champion. The future was his. And then it was stolen.

Daily News writer Tom Cushman wrote the next day,

“Tyrone Everett won the junior lightweight championship of the world last night. Won it with a whirling, artistic, courageous performance that brushed against the edges of brilliance. Tyrone was standing tall, proud, bleeding in his corner after the 15 rounds, waiting for the championship belt to be draped around his waist, when they snatched it from him. Picked him so clean it’s a wonder they didn’t take his shoes and trunks along with everything else.”

Years later Cushman wrote a book called Muhammad Ali and the Greatest Heavyweight Generation. And though Tyrone was far from a heavyweight, Cushman decided to include a chapter about Everett. In it, he wrote that Everett’s promoter, J Russell Peltz happened to run into renowned Philly fixer (and Frank Sinatra buddy) Blinky Palermo a few days after the fight. Peltz asked him if he thought that the fight might have been fixed. Palermo responded, “You can buy Lou Tress for a cup of coffee.”

Everett handled the screw job well, bouncing back to win his next two fights and setting up a rematch with Escalara that was to take place in Puerto Rico. The fight never happened. 10 days after his last fight, Tyrone Everett was killed, shot through the head in South Philly.

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