This article was written by Leslie Heaphy
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
Staying at Chicago’s famous Palmer House Hotel during the 1930s and 1940s allowed guests to enjoy more than just the hospitality, luxury, and impressive guest rooms.1 Guests would also have been entertained by one of the hotel’s baseball teams.
Chicago has a storied history of semi-pro and amateur baseball in addition to the Cubs and White Sox (and their predecessors) along with the Whales and American Giants and other African American teams. The Palmer House contributed four teams of hotel employees over the years but only one of those was African American: the Palmer House Stars. Typical pay for a semi-pro team was anywhere from $5 to $15 a game.
Stars owner L.M. Gamble entered his team in tournaments and exhibition games all over the Midwest, and the team became highly sought. The club earned a strong reputation playing in the Illinois State Semi-pro championship as well as in the National Semi-pro Tournament during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The Stars relied on the solid play of Roosevelt Davis, Bernell Longest, and Maurice Wiggins and also attracted some big-name Negro Leagues stars such as Alex Radcliffe, Jack Marshall, and future Hall of Fame outfielder Turkey Stearnes. Chicago was a hotbed for baseball in general, and black baseball in particular, with the Palmer House Stars providing a strong opponent for local clubs as for any other nine passing through town.
Black baseball in Chicago was not new by the 1930s. The Chicago American Giants had by then become a fixture, building on the foundation laid by Andrew “Rube” Foster and teams such as the Leland Giants, Chicago Unions, and others. Black teams regularly took part in the Chicago City League as well as exhibition and benefit games. This extensive history provided a good foundation for the rise of the Palmer House team.2
In 1934, Palmer House owner Potter Palmer III decided to host an intra-hotel league to entertain his establishment’s guests. During the first year, the league title went to the Tigers, a team made up of players representing the hotel’s accounting department. In 1935 and 1936 the honor went to the Caterers, a club comprised entirely of black waiters. This club became the nucleus of the Palmer House Stars, who remained together as a team through 1941. When the team finally folded, many of the players stayed on at the Palmer House, though some were picked up by the Chicago Brown Bombers, an entrant in the short-lived United States League toward the end of World War II.3
Head waiter Maurice Wiggins was a mainstay of the Palmer House Stars. Wiggins worked at the Palmer House for fifty years as a busboy and then a waiter. In the 1960s, after retiring from the Palmer House, he became a sportswriter for local Chicago papers such as the Courier and Independent Bulletin, penning a weekly column entitled “Wiggins Says.” Like many other black families did in the early 1900s, Wiggins’ family came to Chicago as part of the great migration. His dad, a barber, brought the family north from Water Valley, Mississippi when Wiggins was only twelve.4
Wiggins provided stability and organization for the Stars as well as the hotel. While not a star player, Wiggins manned shortstop as well as helping to arrange games locally and set up barnstorming opportunities. He went on to play for the Chicago American Giants and the Gilkerson Union Giants.
The real heart of team was Alex Radcliffe, younger brother of flashy, well-known Ted “Double-Duty” Radcliffe. Alex came to the Palmer House Stars in 1939 and served as player-manager in 1940 and 1941. During a game, he was usually found at the hot corner rather than in the dugout.
Radcliffe’s impressive Negro League career began with the Chicago American Giants in 1932. Adoring Chicago fans helped vote him into 11 East-West classics during his career. He also played one season in the Cuban Winter League before finishing his career with the Memphis Red Sox in 1946. Radcliffe holds the record for at-bats (50) in the East-West classics and is tied with Josh Gibson for the most hits with 17.5
With Radcliffe at the helm, the Palmer House Stars enjoyed their most successful seasons from 1939–1941. All three seasons, they reached the finals of the Illinois State Semi-pro championship and won the title in both 1939 and 1940. Capturing the state tournament certified the club to play in the National Tournament in Wichita, Kansas, where in 1940 they finished fifth overall. Their trip in 1939 marked the first time Illinois had been represented at the national by a black club. At the 1940 National Baseball Congress, shortstop Jack Marshall was the Stars’ only representative on the all-tournament team, although Radcliffe led all players with a .437 batting average.6
Outside of tournament games, newspaper coverage of the Stars was sporadic. This was a common reality for many black squads, but it did not reflect the quality of the team or the number of games it played. Black newspapers often did not have reporters to cover games and relied instead on teams to send in their own reports. Many smaller towns had no black newspapers, and white papers did not always report on barnstorming games. One is, however, still able to piece together enough evidence to argue that the Palmer House Stars were a strong, worthy opponent for any team. In fact, the Chicago Garfieldian called the club “one of the classiest negro aggregations” in a May 1940 article.7 Later that same year a Freeport Journal-Standard reporter referred to the team as “classy negroes” while describing their play at the state tournament. In that same article the reporter gave a full accounting of a fight that broke out Jack Marshall and an opposing shortstop after Marshall came in high on a slide. This incident did not alter the writer’s view of the players’ athletic abilities or their characters.8
How did the Stars get to the 1939 state tournament? Their season began with spring training in New Orleans in late March. The club played its way north in order to begin a 70-game season by the end of May. While documentation for many of these games has not yet been found, some of the Stars’ opponents included the Toledo Crawfords and Sheboygan Nine. The Stars played two benefit games against the Crawfords, with the proceeds going to help out a presumably ailing Frank V. Messiah, a 25-year veteran head of personnel and waiters for the Palmer House.
While scores were not reported for either game, the short accounts found in the Chicago Defender indicated the fans were treated to exciting matches. In mid-June, crossing the Midwest to play any and all comers, the Palmer House team trounced Sheboygan 15–3. The club hoped to win as many games as possible in order to gain invitation to the State tournament.9
The Illinois State tournament in Peoria went for 16 days—assuming no rain delays—with a double-elimination process. The games attracted large crowds, and winning players each received a trophy and a monetary award. (It was reported following the 1939 series that 11,300 fans attended the games, raising nearly $3,000 through ticket sales. The 1939 championship Palmer House team picked up $577 in cash, or $37 per player.10
At the tourney, the Palmer House got off to a good start, winning early behind the steady pitching of Norman Cross, who led the staff with four wins in the tournament. Cross turned in a one-hit performance against the Hiram Walkers, also from Peoria, to reach the finals, as the Stars romped 16–4; five Palmer House players had two or more hits.11 The final victory was a 15–5 decision against Peoria’s Woodruff nine. Cross pitched a six-hitter in that game, ably called by catcher Andy Drake; the Palmer House club was aided by 10 Woodruff errors. As the tournament winner, the Stars traveled to Wichita, Kansas, where, although they did not win, just by being there they added to their reputation.12
The Stars begin their 1940 spring training in Texas and then played their way north for another 70-game season. A big highlight of the season was the series of games the Stars played against the Kansas City Monarchs. In one report, the Palmer House team was credited with downing the Monarchs six times before finally losing 2–1 to Satchel Paige. Roosevelt Davis took the loss in that game even though he struck out 10 Monarchs (besting Paige’s eight strikeouts). Davis was accused of scuffing the ball, though nothing came of the accusation.13
Other 1940 opponents included the Albion Tigers (who downed the Palmer House 8–6), the Chicago Mills, the Puerto Rican Stars in Wisconsin, and the George Evans Corporate Nine from Moline, IL. The Stars trounced the Puerto Rican Stars 17–6 just prior to the state tournament, gaining revenge for a previous 4–2 loss.14
At the state tournament, the Palmer House Stars fell to the Chicago Mills 5–4 but rebounded with a 4–2 win in a rematch with the same team to win the championship. Melvin Powell led the Stars’ hitting attack with two runs scored, two doubles, and an RBI. The Palmer House also downed the Jays of Peoria, and the George Evans Corporate Nine (Moline) on their way to winning their second straight State championship and another trip to Kansas.15
They lost their first game at the National level to a team from Duncan, Oklahoma, 4–2, but beat Iowa’s Aurilla Merchants 13–6. Alex Radcliffe led the way in the latter game with a grand slam homer. By the tournament’s conclusion, the Stars were fifth, coming in strong behind the pitching of ace Roosevelt Davis. After the tournament the Stars played a series of exhibition games on their way home. In two of those games the Stars beat the Chanute, Kansas nine, 3–2, and the Eldorado club, 15–8.16
With Radcliffe back at the hot corner and as manager in 1941 the Stars completed a 100-game schedule and reached the state tournament for the third year in a row. Their regular season began with a 6–4 loss to McGill Metals in late May. Lefty Cook picked up the loss even though most of the runs were unearned due to Radcliffe’s first-inning error. Other opponents during the season included the House of David, the Aurillia Merchants of Iowa, the Oroville Olives from Sacramento, the Hammond (Indiana) All Stars, the Reno, Nevada Larks, the Butte, Montana Boosters, and, again, the Kansas City Monarchs. In the state tournament, the Palmer House beat the Davenport Maroons 8–2 in their first game and followed up with a 9–8 squeaker over Johnson Motors, but a 5–4 loss to Rock Valley and another defeat against Joliet Schlitz sent them home.
Following the conclusion of the 1941 season, the Palmer House Stars folded. Many of the club’s players continued to toil for other local Chicago teams. A few went on to play for the Chicago Brown Bombers, who in 1945 participated in the short-lived United States League (USBL). The USBL was rumored to be a recruiting ground for Branch Rickey and other white professional owners looking for Negro players.
The Palmer House Stars did not have a long tenure, but proved successful in Chicago and throughout Illinois. Their invitations to the National Semi-pro Series showed that they were no fluke, but rather a respected and highly-sought opponent. Their story should not be forgotten in the history of Chicago baseball.