April 15th will mark the 65th anniversary of the great Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. His first week in MLB actually went rather uneventfully, but things turned ugly when he made his first appearance in Philly. His introduction to Philadelphia was his rudest in baseball, as vicious Phillies manager Ben Chapman had his entire team hurl racial epithets at Robinson relentlessly.
But the city has come a long way in the past 65 years (despite what the comment section of Philly.com might suggest), and the Phillies have as well. Not only are two of their African American players (Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard) two of the biggest stars in the city, but in the past several years the organization has gone out of its way to honor the Philadelphia Stars, the Negro League team that operated in Philadelphia from 1933-1952. On Sunday, the Phils will honor the last two surviving members of the Stars, Harold Gould and Mahlon Duckett, at the ballpark.
You can honor these living links to our city’s past as well, even if you don’t attend the game. At 10:30, there will be a Jackie Robinson tribute at 44th and Parkside, where there is a Negro League Memorial in Fairmount Park, and a Jackie Robinson brunch at LeCochon Noir (5070 Parkside). Not only will Robinson be honored, but the Stars will be as well. And 44th and Parkside isn’t just a random address; it was where the ballpark stood that the Stars called home from 1933-1947.
Of course, organized black baseball didn’t start in Philadelphia with the Stars. It started in the 1860s with the Pythian baseball club, organized by one of the most remarkable Philadelphians of all time, Octavius Catto. In 1902, a team called the Philadelphia Giants were born. In 1904, they signed the legendary Rube Foster, and in 1905 went an incredible 134-21. They would win 5 championships in the Eastern League in the 1900s, and played against the Philadelphia A’s numerous times in exhibitions. The Giants fizzled out in 1911 as their best players defected to other teams, and their ownership group split up.
Despite the break up of Philly’s most successful team, the popularity of black baseball in the city did not wane. By the 1920s, there were 30 Negro League teams in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. A team in Darby, the Hilldale Club, proved to be immensely popular and played many of their games against all-white teams (Though pro baseball was not integrated in the 1920s, pro teams of blacks vs. pro teams of whites proved to be box office successes and fairly competitive matches, and thus were fairly routine.)
Most of those teams folded after the Great Depression began. But the Depression led to a stronger centralized league, the Negro National League, and against all odds the 1930s became the heyday of Negro League baseball, as stars such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell gave the league a level of visibility and fan support black baseball had never seen before. The Philadelphia Stars joined the Negro National League just as Negro League baseball was in its prime, and despite some other Philly teams (such as the independent Bacharach Giants), they were the top draw in the city. In 1933, the Stars began play as an independent team, and in 1934 made it into the Negro National League.
In their inaugural year in the league, led by a 20-year old pitcher named Slim Jones, they defied the odds and won the Negro League championship in a thrilling (and highly controversial) championship series. At that time, the Stars played at Passon Field (48th and Spruce), which rather remarkably is the still the home of West Philadelphia High’s baseball team.
In 1936, the team moved to 44th and Parkside Ballpark, where they would play until 1947. The park had originally been constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for its YMCA team in 1906, and was built right next to the railway’s roundhouse. It was not a fun place to play.
As Stanley “Doc” Glenn, a catcher for the Stars who passed away in 2011, wrote in his autobiography, “Don’t Let Anyone Take Your Joy Away“: I used to hate to come to the ballpark at 44th and Parkside. It was filthy. Coal Powered trains used to pull in nearby…Smoke and soot used to waft right into the ballpark. Why, if you went outside with a white shirt on, 20 minutes later that shirt would turn black! Sometimes we even had to stop the games until the smoke blew away.
“Satchel Paige pitched here, Josh Gibson played here,” says Morris Levin, a small business consultant who has a fascination with old ballparks, and who helped organize Sunday’s event. “We all know the history of old Major League Stadiums but we haven’t done the same with the Negro League Ballparks because there weren’t as many accounts and photos. We want to make these guys, and their place in history, accessible.”
And so, on Sunday morning, at 44th and Parkside, there will be a gathering to honor both the field and the players who used to play there. There are only two Stars players still living, and one of them (Harold Gould) is expected to attend and be acknowledged. In a city that celebrates history, this will be a great way to pay homage an extremely vital part of our sports past.
Admission to the events is free, and will be followed by a brunch Le Cochon Noir where Temple Associate History Professor Rebecca Alpert will be speaking. After brunch, the 1864 Athletic Baseball Club of Philadelphia will play a game with 1860s rules, and all are invited to attend. For more info, go to the event’s facebook page.