The day the Tigers finally integrated

The Detroit Stars, circa 1920, inside old Mack Park. In the center, wearing the sweater, is owner Tenny Blount. Catcher/manager Bruce “Buddy” Petway is third from right.

Eleven years after Jackie Robinson opened the door for blacks to play in the major leagues, the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox were the only two all-white teams left in baseball. But on June 6, 1958, Ozzie Virgil, who had emigrated to New York at age 13 from the Dominican Republic, changed the face of baseball in Detroit forever.

The press took little notice of his arrival and neither did his teammates. Virgil himself thought being the first black Detroit player was no big deal. But the crowd at Briggs Stadium that day did. The 29,000 fans gave Virgil a standing ovation as he took the field. And as an exclamation point, Virgil went five for five as the Tigers defeated the Washington Senators, 9-2.

Virgil stayed with Detroit until 1961. He later played for Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and in 1968 he became a coach in San Francisco.

Other black ballplayers who labored in the Tigers farm system were not so lucky. In 1953, Claude Agee, an 18-year-old outfielder, and other players became the first blacks invited to the Tigers’ minor league training camp. The others were outfielder Grover Moses, 18, of Detroit Northwestern High; pitcher Arthur Kay, and shortstop Henry Gaskins, both 19. The Tigers that year also bought the contract of right-hander Arthur Williams, also 19, a California State League star. But none was able to work his way through the system to the parent club.

ImageOld Mack Park at Mack and Fairview, as it looked in the winter of 1945.

That doesn’t mean no one ever saw good black ballplayers play ball in Detroit. The city has a rich history in the Negro leagues. The Detroit Stars formed in 1919 as part of the Negro National League, and started play the next year at Mack Park, at Mack and Fairview on the east side. They quickly became one of the league’s most popular teams.

“They say that we were not organized. We were organized. We had two leagues. We had a 140-game schedule. We played an all-star game every year in Chicago. We had sellouts. We had a world series at the end of the season. If that’s not organized, I don’t know what organized is. “
–Sammie Haynes.

The brightest Star was Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, who had a habit of flapping his arms while running bases. His batting average, always in the high .300s, hit .430 in 1929. Born in Nashville in 1901, he came to Detroit to work at Briggs Manufacturing Co.

ImageOne of the brightest stars on the Detroit Stars was Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, shown here in 1971 with his grandson, Tony.

Walter O. Briggs, then co-owner and later sole owner of the Detroit Tigers, allowed blacks to work at his factory, but not on his white ball team. It was reported that Briggs himself made clear his policy against black ballplayers with the slogan “no jigs with Briggs.” He held fast to this attitude until the time of his death in 1952, insisting the team could not find a black player of major league caliber. Indeed, no black player was signed until after his death.

Ted Radcliffe, a teammate of Turkey Stearnes, recalled that when Turkey played, “We’d outdraw the Tigers.” Crowds swarmed the street cars down Mack, hoping for one of the 8,000 seats.

“You can talk all you want to about the players from the Negro leagues that made the Hall of Fame and they all deserved it. But unless Turkey Stearnes is in there, too, ain’t none of ’em should be there.

“He played in Detroit at the same time as Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann and Heinie Manush and Charlie Gehringer were with the Tigers and all four of them ended up in Cooperstown. But I saw him play and back then Turkey Stearnes didn’t have to care for nobody.

ImageTed “Double Duty” Radcliffe, a teammate of Stearnes, got his name when sportswriter Damon Runyon saw him catch the first game of a doubleheader and pitch the second game.

“After the 1927 season, a bunch of us got together and barnstormed with a bunch of those Tigers. Beat ’em 11 games out of 13. Of course, Cobb wouldn’t play against us at all.

Stearnes hit 128 homes runs in Detroit from 1923 to 1929.

“He could hit real hard,” Radcliffe said. “In one game in Cuba, I saw him hit the ball over the centerfield wall and into a lake. That ball must have traveled 520 feet. I never saw a ball hit that far.

“And he was a fast man, a great fielder. In fact, the only man I saw could move faster in the outfield was Cool Papa Bell. When we barnstormed with the Tigers, Cool Papa moved Turkey out of centerfield. I believe he was the only man who was fast enough to do that.”

(Editor’s note: In 2000, a year after this story was written, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.)

When black teams began to dominate exhibitions with white major league teams, the commissioner of baseball banned individual teams from the matches in order to avoid further embarrassment. Stearnes hit .313 and four home runs in 14 games played against the white pros.

Lawrence Carter, who used to write a column for The Detroit News about old times in the black community, wrote fondly of Turkey Stearnes. “When Turkey swung and missed,” he wrote, “it would set up a great Pentecostal wind in Mack Park. Turkey’s reputation even attracted white fans to the park. It was a great time.”

Radcliffe played with the Detroit Stars in 1928 and 1929 for $175 a month, and for the feeling of “being on vacation. And you always had your pick of the prettiest girls when you came into town.”

Radcliffe was named “Double Duty” by sportswriter Damon Runyon after he saw him catch Satchel Paige in the first game of a double hitter, then pitch a shutout in the second game.

Turkey Stearnes’ last season was 1942. That same year he married Radcliffe’s niece, Nettie, and took a job at Ford. He bore no bitterness toward the Tigers. In fact, he was a huge fan, attending all their home games. He died in 1979 at age 78.

ImageHamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium was home to the area’s first night game under lights when the Stars played there in 1930.

The Stars played Detroit’s first professional night game under lights at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck on June 27, 1930.

The Negro National League folded in 1932, a victim of the Depression. But a new Detroit Stars team arose in 1937 in the Negro American League.

Charles “Red” House got paid “good money” ($300 per month) as a third baseman on the new Stars. House’s pal, famed heavyweight champion Joe Louis, had always dreamed of playing for the Tigers. Louis toured with his Brown Bomber Softball team. House also was a boxer, becoming the 1932 Golden Gloves midwest champ.

House barnstormed with a traveling ball team, the Zulu Giants, who played dressed in African costumes — painted faces and grass skirts. The team drew big crowds, especially whites. “They were crazy about them,” House recalled.

ImageAfter he was overshadowed by black ballplayers in an exhibition series in Cuba, Ty Cobb refused to take the field against blacks.

Ty Cobb, the Detroit baseball legend, once joined his team in 1911 for an exhibition series in Cuba against the Negro players, including John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, who was called the black Honus Wagner. Wagner, the Pittsburgh Pirate great, was pleased with the comparison.

Cobb hit .370 in the Havana series, but Lloyd hit .500. Cobb also felt overshadowed by “Home Run” Grant Johnson. Cobb, proud of his base stealing prowess, was kept honest in Cuba. The black catcher Bruce Petway, player/manager of the Detroit Stars, stopped him every time.

After the Cuban series Cobb vowed never to play a black team again.

ImageOzzie Virgil in the Tigers clubhouse in 1958.

But Cobb insisted on a black youngster as his bat boy, claiming he brought him good luck. The team won 21 of the next 27 games with Cobb’s new bat boy, who stirred the crowds by yelling “Eee-Yah” just like manager Hughie Jennings.

In fairness, Cobb also disliked white players who overshadowed him. He feared that someone else would replace him as “the greatest baseball player in the history of the game.” He hated Babe Ruth, fearing that he was that someone, and regularly called him “nigger.” The epithet led to a free-for-all during a game on June 13, 1924 that involved all the players, a thousand fans and the police. The game ended in a rare forfeit.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the major leagues absorbed the cream of the Negro League ballplayers. One sign of the changing times came in 1950, when The Detroit News reported that the Chicago Giants of the Negro American League had signed their first white players, Louis Clarizio and Louis Chirban. By the 1960s, the Negro League teams that still existed were semipro in nature.

As much as any civil rights march or Senate bill, the pioneers of black baseball, such as Turkey Stearnes and his friends, helped forced the integration of America.

Well — it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.
–Walt Whitman.

ImageThe 1924 Tigers, who were involved in a brawl against the New York Yankees that started with Ty Cobb hurling racial insults at Babe Ruth.

It matters not what branch of mankind the player sprang from with the fan, if he can deliver the goods. The Mick, the Sheeney, the Wop, the Dutch and the Chink, the Cuban, the Indian, the Jap, the so-called Anglo-Saxon–his nationality is never a matter of moment if he can pitch, of hit, or field. In organized baseball there had been no distinction raised–except tacit understanding that a player of Ethiopian descent is ineligible–the wisdom of which we will not discuss except to say by such rule some of the greatest players the game has ever known have been denied their opportunity.

–The Sporting News December 6, 1923.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

By Vivian M. Baulch and Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News