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The oft-overlooked history of the St. Louis Stars

You know the Cardinals well. You might know the Browns, probably less well. You need to know about St. Louis’s other top-level baseball team.

Cool Papa Bell
A pair of legendary St. Louis baseball speedsters, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Lou Brock

I am not an expert on the demographics of Viva El Birdos, but statistically, it is probable that at least one of you does not remember the Cardinals tenure of Albert Pujols. If you are under the age of 20, you probably have little-to-no recollection of Mark McGwire. My personal memories of Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee are, respectively, as Royce Clayton’s backup and as mostly-terrible reserve outfielder. But first-hand anecdotes and video can show me that there was much more to these players than what I saw at the tail ends of their careers.

I have no personal memories of Stan Musial nor Bob Gibson, but I know the iconic numbers—3,630 and 1.12—like I know my birthday. Exactly one of my four grandparents was alive for Rogers Hornsby’s .424 batting average in 1924, and he certainly was not old enough to have any personal memories of it, yet because Major League Baseball has a long legacy of statistics which it promotes not as ancient artifacts but as a living, breathing part of a story which is still being written, I know it nearly a century later.

St. Louis Cardinals history is well-known primarily because it continues. A casual Cardinals fan may still recognize the name “Hornsby” before he or she knows the name of George Sisler, the St. Louis Browns first baseman who led the 109 men who received Hall of Fame votes in 1939, a list which includes Hornsby. Fewer still know the name of Bobby Wallace, the Hall of Fame shortstop whose 62.4 combined Wins Above Replacement with the Browns and the Cardinals (which includes one season when the club was still known as the St. Louis Perfectos) trails only Musial, Hornsby, Gibson, Pujols, and Ozzie Smith for most WAR accumulated with Major League Baseball teams in St. Louis, because his statistics now exist with the Baltimore Orioles, following a franchise relocation which occurred when Wallace was 80 years old and seemingly solidified in his legacy.

The effect continues beyond the two MLB teams to have played in St. Louis. Bob Pettit, 29th in NBA history in Win Shares and 7th in Player Efficiency Rating (every player ahead of him in either statistic is either in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or is not yet eligible), is relegated to afterthought in St. Louis sports lore because despite bringing the city its only NBA title, depriving the Boston Celtics of what would have been one of ten consecutive championships, the departure of the St. Louis Hawks to Atlanta means that Pettit does not have a living monument to his legacy in St. Louis.

Though at least most people in St. Louis seem to know that the St. Louis Hawks existed—the same cannot necessarily be said about the St. Louis Eagles, the St. Louis Bombers, or the St. Louis Gunners. But while these now-defunct franchises make for interesting bits of trivia, none were very successful, and so a city which prides itself on sporting success, to an often-annoying extent, overlooking it should not be considered especially surprising.

But St. Louis did have champions in a major sports league beyond the St. Louis Cardinals, the 1957-58 St. Louis Hawks, or the 1999 St. Louis Rams. They won three championships, in fact—in 1928, 1930, and 1931. However, unlike these other champions, this team does not have well-manicured statistical archives. It does not have video. It barely has photographs. But the St. Louis Stars existed.

Between Moses Fleetwood Walker, who last played professional baseball for the minor league Syracuse Stars in 1889, and Jackie Robinson, who first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, no African-Americans played in professional baseball leagues organized by white men in the United States. Walker was frequently harassed by Cap Anson, and the color barrier was infamously preserved by longtime MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Robinson was intentionally spiked in the field by Enos Slaughter, who reportedly tried to organize a boycott of Robinson’s presence, and manager Ben Chapman hurled racial insults at the man so revered today that MLB retired his number, save for one day a year in which every player dons his famous #42.

Cap Anson played for and managed the forerunners to the modern-day Chicago Cubs, and like Landis, hailed from the North. Enos Slaughter played for the St. Louis Cardinals, and like Chapman, hailed from the South. While there were some good guys in the fight to end the abhorrent practice of segregation, there were far more bad guys, and the bad guys were not a monolithic group—it was a widespread and awful period in not only sports history, but American history.

The St. Louis Stars began their existence as the St. Louis Giants, an independent baseball team comprised of some of the finest baseball players in the country. The best of the players on the team and on the teams against whom they competed were good enough to compete in Major League Baseball, but because of baseball’s color barrier, the team consisted only of African-American players who were barred from Major League Baseball.

From their first season, in 1906, through 1920, their penultimate season as the St. Louis Giants, the club was reasonably successful on an ultra-local level but was generally not considered among the best of the country’s all-black teams. In 1920, the first year of the Negro National League, a more formal baseball association than had existed before which was founded by Rube Foster, the eventual Hall of Fame manager of the Chicago American Giants, the St. Louis Giants finished in sixth of the league’s eight teams.

Before the 1921 season, however, the St. Louis club acquired Oscar Charleston. He spent just one season in St. Louis, but of his 183 confirmed plate appearances with the Giants that season, Charleston boasted a preposterous .444 batting average and managed a 1.167 OPS. The Baseball Reference Bullpen suggests he was an even better power hitter than this, citing a .746 slugging percentage, a mark which has only been topped in MLB seasons by Babe Ruth, Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds.

Baseball statistics luminary and historian Bill James, a man who turned five the day that Oscar Charleston died, is confident enough in anecdotes about Charleston that, despite relatively unreliable data about him, James listed Charleston in 2001’s The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract as the fourth greatest baseball player who ever lived, behind only Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays, a player who was routinely compared to Charleston as he went from the Negro American League’s Birmingham Black Barons to the National League’s New York (later San Francisco) Giants. When he played, Charleston was often compared to Ty Cobb. Some called, and still call, Oscar Charleston the black Ty Cobb. Others call Ty Cobb the white Oscar Charleston.

In 1922, the St. Louis Giants became the St. Louis Stars, who inherited the old Giants roster, with the exception of Charleston. But St. Louis was not finished with hosting Negro League superstars, and the Stars would improve upon the second place finish during their final season under the Giants moniker.

Losing Oscar Charleston, predictably, had a negative effect on the Stars in the short term, but in the ensuing years, manager James “Candy Jim” Taylor began to acquire some of the best players in Negro League history, including one of the few players to never reach Major League Baseball whose name recognition can rival Charleston’s—James “Cool Papa” Bell.

Bell joined the Stars in 1922 and spent ten seasons in St. Louis, a remarkably long run by the standards of the time. A native of Mississippi, Bell moved to St. Louis as a teenager and while he was initially a pitcher, Cool Papa Bell became a Negro League legend in center field.

He was legendary for his speed; Satchel Paige, generally regarded as the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, famously quipped that Bell “was so fast he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.” This quote is also occasionally attributed to Josh Gibson, the greatest power hitter of the Negro Leagues. The sentiment, however, is universal among Bell’s peers. Along with Charleston, Bell was listed as a finalist for Baseball’s All-Century Team.

Two more Baseball Hall of Famers played for the Stars. 1997 inductee Willie Wells was a superb shortstop whose 27 home runs in 1926, a historic year for another St. Louis baseball team in its own right, was a Negro National League record. Buck O’Neil, a former Negro Leagues player who was a revered baseball historian into the 21st century, has asserted that Wells is the greatest shortstop in St. Louis baseball history, including Ozzie Smith.

George “Mule” Suttles was a power-hitting first baseman widely regarded as an understated presence who lacked the obvious charisma of the Satchel Paiges of the era but who was ultimately enshrined in Cooperstown forty years after his death. While baseball fans and writers continue to squabble over whether or not to elect players with well-documented statistics and well-anthologized video clips, it is players such as Suttles who give the Hall of Fame a much more profound meaning—recognizing players whom baseball fans probably do not know, but who were among the greatest players the sport has ever seen.

While the Negro Leagues were well-regarded for their quality of play, if not quite as consistent as the Major Leagues then at least as the next best thing, they were a much smaller business than MLB, and therefore committed stadiums, in an era in which MLB teams were still primarily using cozy neighborhood parks rather than multi-million (now multi-billion) dollar coliseums, were rare.

The Stars, however, played in Stars Park, a 10,000-seat stadium located at the corner of Compton and Market in St. Louis. While for decades there were no known photos of the stadium, as Dan O’Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch alluded last November, Missouri Historical Society photo archivist Lauren Sallwasser confirmed that a photo originally belonging to Dr. William Swekosky was indeed the home of the Stars. It was located near Harris-Stowe State University. I have driven by it countless times, unaware that it housed multiple Hall of Fame Baseball players. I am sure that I am not alone in that regard.

The first incarnation of the Negro National League folded in 1931, as did the St. Louis Stars. A few attempts to resurrect the Stars failed, and once black players were frequently signed by Major League clubs following Jackie Robinson, the Negro Leagues soon folded. While it is hard to know how much of an impact it actually made, it certainly did not hurt the credibility of the Negro Leagues when Ted Williams, one of the greatest players in baseball history, used his Hall of Fame speech to advocate for Cooperstown to recognize the great players who were barred from playing in the Major Leagues in the pre-integration era.

Needless to say, the St. Louis Stars are not the St. Louis Cardinals. The two are mostly unrelated entities, aside from a few St. Louis Stars throwback nights, most recently in 2011. But both are part of St. Louis’s rich baseball heritage. The St. Louis Cardinals certainly have every intention of continuing for many more generations, and are hardly a going concern, but they probably won’t exist when baseball ends. Nor will the New York Yankees nor the Boston Red Sox nor any other current club.

Some day, everything we have and everything we hold dear will be an artifact. I realize this sounds bleak, but the Cardinals will have the benefit of a nearly endless supply of information being left to history. The St. Louis Stars do not have that, not even a century later. But this does not mean they did not exist, nor that they did not matter. Because they did exist. And they do matter.