It was always more than a game for Detroit’s trailblazing black athletes.
Whether they played on a court, a diamond or turf, local legends who donned professional jerseys often competed not only for team victories, but to advance the ideas of excellence and equality for an entire race.
As spring recently marked the 70th anniversary of baseball hero Jackie Robinson’s historic shattering of the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Wayne County celebrated the re-location of its Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame & Gallery collection to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Filled with historic memorabilia and fascinating facts, the exclusive exhibition that largely pays tribute to Negro Leagues players and teams like the Detroit Stars was founded in 1982.
Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans welcomed guests to a formal program, including: former Negro Leagues player and Wayne State University standout athlete Ron Teasley; Joyce Stearnes Thompson, daughter of Detroit Stars legend Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes; Kevin Lloyd, son of former Detroit Pistons player and coach Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player; and baseball historian Gary Gillette. WXYZ Channel 7 TV host Chuck Stokes moderated a panel discussion in the Charles H. Wright Museum theater.
“My charge to them when I took this office was we really want to elevate the Council of the Arts to another level,” Evans said of the Wayne County Council for the Arts, History and Humanities staff and supporters. “And, as the city starts to grow, and as the city starts to come back, I think it’s very, very important that we remember things like the importance of the arts and humanities, and sports and those other things that have a cultural heritage for all of us.”
Previously housed by Wayne County at its former downtown facility, the collection was transferred with the support of the Wayne County Council for the Arts, History and Humanities, and celebrated with a spectacular program and reception, featuring luminaries and scholars of Detroit sports lore.
“These men all had jobs…They would go home, do whatever they had to do at home, and they would be at the field at 5 o’clock ready to practice. And that’s how much they loved the game.” – Ron Teasley, retired Negro Leaguer and Northwestern High School Baseball Coach
Stokes asked panelist Ron Teasley, a retired baseball player who set a batting record that still stands during his time at Wayne State University, to share memories of his Negro League experience and of other legendary players in Detroit.
“The thing I was so impressed with was the fact that these men all had jobs in the factories, or they had jobs at the post office,” Teasley said, noting that he occasionally was allowed to practice with the men while he was an adolescent. “They would be at the field at 5 o’clock. They would go home, do whatever they had to do at home, and they would be at the field at 5 o’clock ready to practice. And that’s how much they loved the game.”
Stearnes Thompson wasn’t shy when asked about her father “Turkey” Stearnes’ stellar talents.
“I would say he was phenomenal, fantastic, awesome,” she said. “He was a switch-hitter and he could do it all.”
An engaged audience often applauded, hearing the achievements of the many unsung and often uncelebrated athletes discussed. Lloyd drew cheers when he announced that his father’s life will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary.
A ribbon-cutting to premiere the Gallery to Charles H. Wright guests highlighted the festivities.
“It takes a very, very courageous person to put all they’ve got on the line in any competition with anybody, at anytime,” Evans said. “It is also very significant to think about the fact that nobody in this world is comfortable with being a second-class citizen, and that probably goes double with athletes. It’s just the competition, it’s a part of them.”
THE FIRST TO DO IT
A new documentary film, “The First to Do It”, highlights the life of Earl Lloyd, the first African-American basketball player to step on to the court in 1950. He played two seasons with the Detroit Pistons and was then named the NBA’s first African-American assistant coach, again for the Pistons. Lloyd also served as the NBA’s second African-American head coach and first bench coach, all for the Pistons. To learn more, visit https://thefirsttodoit.com