How the legacy of the St. Louis Stars is being kept alive
ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - St. Louis is well known as a town with a rich baseball history that has been recognized across the sports world.
But there is a chapter to that history that may not be well known to many: the St. Louis Stars of the Negro Leagues. The Stars began as the St. Louis Giants in 1906, and initially played independently before joining the Negro National League in 1920, which formed the same year.
“The love of baseball was not just a white community thing, it was a black community thing, a white community thing, St. Louis had this underlying history of African American baseball even prior to the Stars,” said local baseball historian and author Ed Wheatley. “It started as baseball swept the county and became this great entertainment vehicle, competitive vehicle. African Americans were no different than whites, and they loved the game, it was a segregated game.”
In 1922, the Giants changed their name to the Stars, and in a few years, became one of the Negro Leagues’ great dynasties. They won titles in 1928, 1930 and 1931. The team fielded five Hall of Famers, led by the speedy James “Cool Papa” Bell, one of the fastest players the game has ever seen. Among the other hall of famers were pitcher George “Mule” Suttles and shortstop Willie Wells. Catcher/outfielder James “Biz” Mackey and centerfielder Oscar Charleston, both in the hall of fame, briefly played for the Giants in the early 1920s.
The Stars were rising at the same time as the Cardinals, but the Stars played with their own style that was distinct from the major leagues.
“They always say people were more attracted to The Negro League style of baseball because it was hipper, it was faster. It was lively, it wasn’t as staid as Major League Baseball. In fact, the Chicago Americans (Negro Leagues), would outdraw the Cubs and White Sox,” Wheatley said.
Many of those wearing a Stars uniform became celebrities themselves, most notably Bell.
“Who were the big people who stood out in the African American community? They were the Black baseball players. Today, everybody knows Cool Papa. Can you imagine what a legend he was in that period? He is the highest of the peak, that’s how a lot of them were,” Wheatley said.
From 1922-1931, the Stars played their home games at Stars Park. The ballpark was located at the intersection of Market and Compton, in the heart of the Mill Creek Valley, a prominent African American neighborhood just west of downtown St. Louis. It was the first professional ballpark owned exclusively by African Americans; most Negro League teams shared their stadium with a Major League or minor league team. A feature of the ballpark that stood out was a short porch in left field due to a trolley barn that was roughly 270 feet from home plate. The left field wall was more than 30 feet high.
The first incarnation of the Negro National League and the Stars folded in 1931 as financial pressures from the Great Depression mounted. Stars Park was sold and torn down.
The ballpark site is currently the baseball field for Harris-Stowe State University. In 2020, Harris-Stowe, along with the Cardinals and Cardinals Care, broke ground on a $1.2 million renovation project for Stars Park, to rebuild the baseball field and add a softball field for the women’s program. The fields were officially dedicated in 2021.
“It means a lot…to know that you are playing on holy ground where legends like Cool Papa Bell actually played, those are the grounds I stand on where legends were at. We’re talking about a stadium that used to hold 10,000 people, one of the biggest in the country. It brings great joy to my heart to know that I’m blessed to have that opportunity to be in the same atmosphere where the first Negro League stadium was owned by a Negro League team. I’m witnessing what greatness really was,” said Harris-Stowe softball coach Larry Young, who also played baseball at the school.
The history of Stars Park and its renovation is chronicled on the field’s outfield walls.
There is also a plaque and sign outside the field detailing the history of the site, its significance, and its renovation.
The renovation and rededication of Stars Park is just one way the Cardinals are trying to keep the Stars’ legacy alive. There is an exhibit dedicated to the Stars at the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, and a statue of Cool Papa Bell outside Busch Stadium.
“What we view as part of our responsibility as stewards of baseball here in St. Louis is to keep telling the Stars’ history because it is pretty fascinating,” said Cardinals President and CEO Bill DeWitt, III.
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