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.

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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 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.