Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Detroit Stars All-Star Team: 1919-1931

The Detroit Stars were a charter member of the Negro National League in 1920

(Photo Credit: MLBemuseum.com)


On December 16, Major League Baseball announced that it will now officially recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920-1948 as major leagues.  Historians have long considered baseball played in these leagues as comparable in quality to the White major leagues.  It is about time that they these leagues get their due recognition.  

It is of course tragic that the Black leagues were not integrated with the White leagues and shameful it has taken so long for them to be classified as major leagues.  Now that it has finally happened though, it is time for more baseball writers and analysts to delve into the records and stories and make the rich history of the Negro Leagues more widely known.  

For those of us who love statistics, it is important to understand the challenges of analyzing Negro Leagues data.  Hall of Fame historian Jay Jaffe discussed these issues in a recent FanGraphs article.  I will summarize some of them here:

  • Negro Leagues statistics are only about three quarters (73%) complete according to Ben Lindbergh, writer at The Ringer.  It varies by era depending on how frequently newspapers printed box scores and accounts.  For example, the 1920s era is mostly complete while the 1940s era is only about half complete. 
  • Seasons prior to 1920 will be excluded.  For example, Hall of Fame outfielder Pete Hill played for the Chicago American Giants, one of the greatest Black teams ever, from 1911-1918 but those years will not be counted in official major league statistics.  His statistics from 1920-1925 with the Detroit Stars and other teams will count.
  • Seasons after 1948 will be excluded.  So, seasons for players, such as Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, playing in the highly competitive Negro American League from 1949-1962 will not be recognized.  
  • Players like Jackie Robinson who played in both the Negro Leagues between 1920-1948 and also the White major leagues will have their official total statistics altered to include their time in the Negro Leagues.
  • The Negro Leagues had shorter seasons - usually somewhere between 50 and 100 games - than the White majors.  Teams may have played 100 or more additional games outside of league play often against inferior local teams, but these games will not be counted.  
  • The official site for Negro Leagues statistics is Seamheads.com.  It is a fun site and you should get to know it.  

My first dive into the Seamheads database and other more anecdotal sites will involve putting together a Detroit Stars All Star team similar to the decades teams I have been assembling for the Tigers.

The Detroit Stars were established as an independent league team in 1919 and became a founding member of the Negro National League in 1920.  The Stars played through 1931 when the Negro National League collapsed due to the great depression.  A different Negro National League was established in 1933.  The Detroit Stars played in the league the first year, but were not very successful and played under 40 games.  

My All Star team is going to be based on 1919-1931.  While 1919 is not officially recognized, they had a strong team in a competitive  league that year.    

In prior posts, I have assembled All Star Teams for the Detroit Tigers by decade:       






The Stars All Star team will be constructed similarly.  I will select nine position players, one for each position on the field plus one other hitter.  This ninth player could be a multiple position player who didn't fit neatly into one position and/or the best hitter who didn't get selected as a position player.  I refer to this final hitter as the utility player.  I will also select five pitchers.  

The All Star teams are listed in Tables 1 and 2 below.  Player profiles follow. 

Table 1: Detroit Stars All Star Position Players: 1919-1931









Bruce Petway







Edgar Wesley







Frank Warfield







Bill Riggins







Claude Johnson







Wade Johnston







Turkey Stearnes







Pete Hill







Ed Rile








Table 2: Detroit Stars All Star Pitchers: 1919-1931









Andy Cooper







Bill Holland







Bill Force







Bill Gatewood







Yellow Horse Morris







Ed Rile







Player Profiles

C Bruce Petway

Bruce Petway was one of the top catchers in the early days of the Negro Leagues.  He was a great receiver with a strong accurate arm and was one of the first catchers to consistently throw to second base without coming out of his squat.  Playing in exhibition games in Cuba in 1910, he reportedly threw out Ty Cobb three times in three attempts.  Petway was also very fast for a catcher and was a good bunter and base stealer (Negro League Baseball Museum, nlbemuseum.com). 

Petway played for the Stars towards the end of his career starting at age 33 from 1919-1925.  He also managed the team from 1922-1925.  He batted just .251 with a 69 OPS+, but was known more for his managing and catching at that point in his career.  His best offensive years for the Stars were 1921 and 1924.  In 1921, he batted .301 with a 105 OPS+ in 249 plate appearances.  He batted .326 with a 124 OPS+ in 110 plate appearances in 1924 at age 38.  

1B Edgar Wesley   

Edgar Wesley was a big left-handed slugger and strong defensive first baseman and was considered the best all around player at his position in the early years of the Negro National League.  He was also known to be an aggressive base runner.  Indianapolis catcher Larry Brown recalled Wesley barreling into home plate so hard that he cut his chest protector: "My mask went one direction, my glove went the other and the ball went up to the stands" (Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars).

In eight years with the Stars, Wesley hit .322 with a 144 OPS+.  He led the league with 11 home runs in 1920, but his best was yet to come.  He had a monster year in 1925 leading the league in batting (.404), slugging percentage (.715) and OPS+ (202). He also hit 17 home runs in 264 plate appearances which was second to his legendary teammate Turkey Stearnes (19).   

2B Frank Warfield

Frank Warfield was an elite defender who had good speed, reactions and a strong arm.  He also had a unique underhanded snap throw to first base which helped him in turning double plays.  He had little power, but was a slap hitter who could draw walks and was an excellent base runner.

The five-foot-seven-inch 160-pound infielder was an intense competitor on and off the field.  While he was a smart player, he was very sarcastic and caustic with teammates and opponents and he carried a knife.  He was unpopular enough that he earned the nickname "weasel".  He once got into a violent fight in Cuba with teammate Oliver Marcelle and bit off part of Marcelle's nose.  All of this was the result of a dice game and $5 which Marcelle owed Warfield (Negro League Baseball Museum, nlbemuseum.com).  

The Weasel batted mostly leadoff for the Stars between 1919-1922 hitting .278 with a .347 on base percentage and 96 OPS+.  He was remarkably consistent with OPS+ of 98, 96, 99 and 93 over the four years.  In 1921, he finished second in the league in walks (43) and seventh in runs scored (72). 

SS Bill Riggins

There is some confusion about Riggins' real name.  It appears that he was named Arvell at birth, but it's often spelled Orville (Agatetype.typepad.com).  During his playing career, he went by the name Bill or "Mule".  Before his playing career, he worked in the coal mines of Southern Illinois.  Mule was a heavy drinker, but it didn't seem to affect his playing skills.  He was an excellent fielder and baserunner and Bill James ranked him the fifth best shortstop in Negro League history (The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract)

Riggins played with the Stars from 1920-1926 batting .286 with a 102 OPS+ in 538 games.  In 1926, the switch-hitting shortstop batted .300, finished second in the league in stolen bases (25) and fifth in runs scored (80).  He also finished second in steals in 1925 with 26.  In both cases, the league leader was Cool Papa Bell, the fastest runner in Negro League history.

3B Claude Johnson

Claude Cecil Johnson started out as a second baseman with the Cleveland Stars in 1921 and also managed the team in 1923.  Hooks joined the Detroit Stars 1n 1927 and played mostly third base.  His best season was in 1928 when he batted .333 with a 123 OPS+ in 75 games.  He finished seventh in on base percentage that year (.421).

LF Wade Johnston

Like Claude Johnson above, William Wade Johnston started out with the Cleveland Stars in 1921.  He joined the Detroit Stars in 1928 and became their starting left fielder for four years batting .310 with a .391 on base percentage.  He was small at five-foot-seven-inches tall and 142 pounds, but he had good power,  In 1929, he finished third in the league in homeruns (16) and sixth in OPS+ (164).  He apparently had some patience as he led the league with 35 walks in just 200 plate appearances in 1931. 

CF Turkey Stearnes

Norman Thomas Turkey Stearnes was the top player in Detroit Stars history and one of the best in Negro Leagues history.  He was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Stearnes was quiet and unassuming off the field, but he was a dynamic player on the field.  The legendary Satchell Paige once said that Stearnes "was one of the greatest hitters we ever had.  He was as good as Josh (Gibson).  He was as good as anybody who ever played" (BaseballHall.org).  

If Turkey played today, he would be described as a five-tool player.  Cool Papa Bell said "that man could hit the ball as far as anybody and he was one of our best all around players.  He could field, he could hit, he could run.  He had plenty of power. (BaseballHall.org).

The left-handed hitting outfielder batted .348 with a 173 OPS+ in 1,049 games lifetime.  His 197 home runs was the third most behind Gibson (238) and Oscar Charleston (211) in recorded Negro League history.  

In nine years with the Stars, Stearnes lead the league in homeruns four times and in OPS+ twice.  He finished in the top ten in OPS+ every year and the top five seven times. 

RF Pete Hill

Pete Hill played most of his career in the pre-Negro League era prior to 1920.  His organized baseball years ran from 1899 to 1925 and he was one of the pioneers of Negro League Baseball.  He was the captain of Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants from 1911-1918, the most dominant African American team of the time.  Foster created the Detroit Stars in 1919 and named Hill the manager.  Foster then organized the Negro National League in 1920 and the Stars were one of the original franchises.  

Negro League statistics were not accurately kept or well published and statistics for Black baseball prior to 1920 were even worse, but Hill was considered an excellent fielder with a cannon arm and great glove.  Offensively, he was a line drive hitter and a speedy base runner.  Prominent baseball historian and author of Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Baseball James Riley said that he would include Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Pete Hill in his pre-1920 era all star outfield.  

Hill's days with the Detroit Stars did not come until he was 36 years of age in 1919.  He was a player manager from 1919-1921 and he could still hit.  He put up Ruthian numbers in 1919 batting .396 with 16 home runs and a 273 OPS+ in 165 plate appearances.  He followed that up with OPS+ of 139 and 153 in 1920 and 1921 respectively. Hill was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.  

UT Ed Rile   

Edward "Huck" Rile was a two-way player (first baseman and pitcher) who played for 11 teams over 14 seasons.  At six-feet-six-inches and 230 pounds, Rile was one of the biggest players in Negro Leagues history.  Huck excelled on both sides of the ball with a lifetime OPS+ of 122 and ERA+ of 110.      

The switch hitting Rile had a fantastic season as both a batter and pitcher for Detroit in 1927.  At the plate, he hit .389 with a .660 slugging average and finished second in the league with a 188 OPS+ in 297 plate appearances.  From the mound, he was second in the league with a 157 ERA+ in 141 innings.  He didn't pitch a lot in 1928, but continued to excel offensively batting .348 with a 147 OPS+.      


SP Andy Cooper  

Andrew Lewis Cooper was a left-handed pitcher who worked for 19 years mostly with the Stars and Kansas City Monarchs.  Sturdily built at six-foot-two-inches and 220 pounds, Cooper was a durable and steady performer.  He went into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 (BaseballHall.org).  

According to Russ J. Cowans in 1941 in The Chicago Defender (one of the leading African American newspapers of the day) "Andy never possessed the fine assortment of curves held in the supple arms of other pitchers.  However, he did have what so many pitchers lack - sterling control.  Cooper could almost put the ball any place he wanted it to go.  In addition, Cooper had a keen knowledge of batters.  He knew the weakness of every batter in the league and would pitch to that weakness when he was on the mound." 

Cooper's best season in Detroit was 1925 when he went 12-2 and was second in the league with a 2.88 ERA in 147 innings.  He had five other seasons of 120 ERA+ or better with the stars.  

SP Bill Holland

Elvis William Holland started 226 games in the official 1920-1948 window which is more than any other Negro Leagues pitcher.  His 1,920 innings pitched total was second to Bill Foster (2,005) and his 1,085 strikeouts was third among Negro Leagues pitchers.  

The Right-handed Holland had a wide array of pitches but was most known for his fastball which is probably the reason for one of his nicknames ("Speed").  He also had a competitive streak and fiery disposition resulting in his being dubbed "Devil".  

Holland's best year in Detroit was 1922 when he was third in ERA+ (153) and second in strikeouts (115) in 191 innings.  In 1921, he lead the circuit with 140 strikeouts in 218 innings pitched. 

SP Bill Force

William "Buddie" Force was a left-handed pitcher for the Stars, Baltimore Black Sox and Brooklyn Royal Giants over a ten year career.  In 1922 with Detroit he finished second in the league in strikeouts (120) and posted a 120 ERA+ in 176 innings pitched.  He had a similar year in 1923 finishing third in strikeouts (92) and registering a 119 ERA+ in 195 innings.  

Buddie pitched a no hitter versus the St. Louis Stars on June 27, 1922 (Detroit Free Press, June 28, 1922).

SP Yellow Horse Morris

John Harold Goodwin Morris had a relatively brief Negro Leagues career pitching six seasons from 1924-1930 with the Stars, Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants.  After his career, he played briefly for one of the famous House of David barnstorming teams.

The House of David was a religious cult that banned alcohol, sex and shaving, but they loved baseball.  They established teams which toured or barnstormed the country playing amateur, semi-pro and eventually professional teams.  They often included well known major leaguers or ex-major leaguers such as Mordecai Brown and Pete (Grover Cleveland) Alexander.  Players grew beards and long hair or had fake beards and hair.  Much like the Harlem Globe Trotters, they entertained fans with trick plays such as hiding the ball in their beards.   

The original House of David team was a White team which often played some of the best Negro Leagues teams.  It was the first time in many towns especially those in rural areas where fans saw Blacks and Whites on the same field.  Later, there were Black teams such as the Van Dyke colored House of David in Sioux City Iowa for which Morris played (Ryan Whirty, Des Moines Register, April 4, 2015).

Morris pitched three seasons in Detroit posting a 102 ERA+ in 417 innings.  His best season was 1927 when he had a record of 14-8 with a 3.16 ERA (120 ERA+) in 185 innings.

SP Bill Gatewood 

According to Bill Johnson at SABR.org, Bill Gatewood was known for three things:

  • He gave Cool Papa Bell his nickname.
  • He taught Satchell Paige his notorious hesitation pitch.
  • On June 6, 1921 against the Cincinnati Cuban Stars, he pitched the first no hitter in Negro National League history.  He later pitched a second no hitter.   

Morris pitched only two years in Detroit but they were dominant seasons.  In 1920, he had a 15-5 win/loss record and 138 ERA+ in 159 innings.  The following year in 1921, he posted a 134 ERA+ in 124 innings. 

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