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Revitalizing the Detroit-area Negro League baseball stadium

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Now let's go outside the classroom to the story of a group that's also working to preserve African American history by restoring an historic Negro League baseball park in Michigan.

I am, right now, walking across center field, where Turkey Stearnes played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues. This field was largely hidden - lost. I grew up here - a baseball fan. I had no idea it was here. But over the last 15 years, there's been a process of rediscovery, shall we say. It has been recovered. The grandstands are still there, and a field where Turkey Stearnes and Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and so many others played is once again a beautiful, beautiful ballpark.

That's from a trip I took last year to historic Hamtramck Stadium, right by Detroit, to get an early glimpse of the restoration efforts. It's a project being taken on by the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium. And now, after years of work, the park was recently rededicated as Norman "Turkey" Stearnes Field at Hamtramck Stadium. We wanted to learn more about this historic park, so we've called Gary Gillette. He's the founder of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium. Welcome.

GARY GILLETTE: Thank you so much, Don.

GONYEA: Before we jump into the actual efforts to restore this park, just as briefly as you can, why is Hamtramck Stadium so important?

GILLETTE: It's because it's one of only five major Negro League ballparks where major Negro League teams between 1920 and 1948 played official league games. So even a little diamond in the rough like Hamtramck Stadium is really important.

GONYEA: When I visited the park last year, I got to speak with a man named Ron Teasley. At the time, he was 94 years old. And he played in the Negro Leagues. I asked him if he got emotional being back in this park.

RON TEASLEY: I really do. I haven't - I had a chance to play here when I was at Wayne State University. We used this as a home grounds for a few games. And I remember coming to bat here, and I felt so emotional, thinking about some of the men who had played here, men who I knew and adored and idolized. And it just gave me just a wonderful feeling.

GONYEA: You stood in the box where Turkey Stearnes stood. You stood in the box where Josh Gibson batted.

TEASLEY: And I also had a chance to play in one game with Turkey Stearnes. The highlight of that game was Turkey Stearnes scoring from first base on a single - and he must have been in his late 40s at that. But that was a highlight of the game. Turkey was a wonderful person.

GONYEA: Of course, there, he's talking about Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, one of the star players of the Detroit Stars. Can you tell us just a little bit about who Turkey Stearnes was?

GILLETTE: Turkey Stearnes was one of the greatest players in Negro League history - not Josh Gibson, but not too far away. He was a five-tool player, as they say in baseball. He could hit for average. He had a career average around 350. He could hit for power. He was substantially underrated during his time. I and other people have done a lot to restore his reputation as one of the greatest baseball players and one of the greatest power hitters of all time.

GONYEA: How did a place like this get lost to history? And can you talk a bit about how you were even able to identify it in the first place?

GILLETTE: So I was looking to find all the sites where Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball played in Detroit. And I looked up the site of Hamtramck Stadium, and I noticed there was a discrepancy in two reliable sources on where it was on the street grid in Hamtramck. So then I went onto Google Earth and looked at a satellite photo and noticed that what most sources said was the site of Hamtramck Stadium, which is now a high school football stadium, didn't match up. And there was a rusting, small grandstand and the outline of a baseball field on the - sort of covered with weeds and grass where Hamtramck Stadium should have been and was, in fact.

The reason it was mostly forgotten is the last Detroit Stars Negro League team there was 1937. In 1940, the city acquired it for back taxes, rebuilt it. And so slowly, over decades, the amateur history of the ballpark came to dominate the old Negro League history. And people forgot about it.

GONYEA: We mentioned Turkey Stearnes earlier. I got to speak with his daughter when I was there last year. Her name is Joyce Stearnes Thompson. Here's a bit of what she had to say.

Do you feel closer to him when you're here?

JOYCE STEARNES THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. My dad's been - he died in 1979, so it's over 40 years he's been - I keep him here in my heart. He's always with me. But, yeah, when I stood up - especially up there in the grandstand, I can feel him close. And listening to them talk about him, I can feel him.

GONYEA: You named the park after Turkey Stearnes. Now it's been rededicated. What's the community reaction been?

GILLETTE: Wonderfully supportive. The city of Hamtramck has had severe financial problems, like the city of Detroit. It's been under emergency financial management several times in the past couple of decades. From the first time I spoke to the mayor of Hamtramck and the City Council back in 2010, when people were talking about demolishing the grandstand. And I said, I'm not a Hamtramck resident. I'm not even a Detroit native, but nobody should put a bulldozer or a wrecking ball to that stadium without knowing the history. And the City Council and the mayor were wonderfully supportive and have always been supportive.

GONYEA: And what's next for the park?

GILLETTE: Well, you know, we have active programming. There are games - baseball games going on almost every weekend. There's some vintage baseball games, senior men's hardball leagues, high school games. We want this to be a community asset. It was a community ballpark from 1940 until it was closed in 1997. It was a community asset. We want that to be a community asset again. The baseball and the history is what got us the money to rehabilitate the grandstand and the field. But the field and the grandstand belonged to the people of Hamtramck, and they should use it the way they see fit for recreation.

GONYEA: Well, I can tell you, next time I'm in town, I'm going to stop by. I might bring my glove.

GILLETTE: Well, you're welcome to. The field is not fenced. You can stand on the mound and look at the batter's box and think about Satchel Paige pitching to Josh Gibson.

GONYEA: That was Gary Gillette. He's the founder of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, and he was involved in the efforts to restore that historic Negro League park. Gary, thank you for your time.

GILLETTE: Thank you, Don. I greatly appreciate the interest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.