October 23, 2014

The Mack Park Fire

July 18, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

Two thousand baseball fans had arrived early for a July 7, 1929 game between the hometown Detroit Stars and visiting Kansas City Monarchs, both of the Negro National League. Familiar sounds filled the stadium: vendors hawking their goods, leather smacking leather as the players limbered up, the shuffling of feet as spectators took their seats. Then, a discordant sound—“Fire!”

It had rained heavily the night before, and an hour before game time the field was not playable. To remedy this, Stars owner John Roesink resorted to a tactic familiar at the time. He and concessioner Harold White went to a local gas station and bought two five-gallon gas cans. The idea was to spread the gasoline on the infield and light it, quickly evaporating the standing water.

While Roesink was on the field with the gas cans, a brief sun shower appeared and drove many of the spectators under the center part of the bleachers. From them came the first cries of “fire,” and a loud explosion corroborating them.

The blaze started under the bleachers in the western part of the stadium (right field) and spread to the east (left field), according to the next day’s New York Times. Fans in the right field bleachers first attempted to jump off the back of the grandstand out of the stadium, a fall of 30 feet. Fans in left field, with the flames approaching, followed suit. This resulted not only in several broken legs for the jumpers, but also several fractured skulls for the people on whom they landed. The newspaper reported three men in the hospital the next day with skull fractures, and a fourth with a broken back. Overall, 103 fans ended up at the hospital, “while many other persons, bruised and lacerated in the crush, were taken home from the park by friends.”

Meanwhile, fans in the center of the stands behind home plate decided instead to rush onto the field. They were held back, however, by the wire netting hung up to stop foul balls. Some people tried to climb over this, while others worked at tearing it down. Eventually, players from both teams helped accomplish the latter. This brought the net down with many climbers still caught up in it, and they fell to the ground from a serious height. The final injury count was 220, according to Richard Bak in his book Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars.

Twenty minutes after the fire was reported, the right field end of the grandstand collapsed, according to the Chicago Defender. Initially, stadium officials and firefighters feared that this may have led to some casualties. It was common practice for children to scale the grandstands from the outside and watch the game from the top of the stadium in lieu of buying a ticket.

Happily, though, no one died in the fire. Part of the reason was the courage and quick thinking of players on both teams. Bak writes that “The real heroes during the raging inferno were the ballplayers on both teams who actually knocked down part of the ballpark’s outer wooden walls by the sheer force of their combined strength to allow fans to exit.” This fact, however, is not mentioned in either of the next-day newspaper accounts.

According to the Defender, there was $12,000 in damage to the stadium. Additionally, the living quarters of a stadium caretaker and his family were destroyed, and five cars burned outside. One of these was a brand new limousine owned by Detroit manager Bingo DeMoss. A nearby car repair shop and barn also were damaged.

In the aftermath, there was disagreement as to the cause of the fire. The fans under the bleachers reported having seen several full gas cans, which they believed had been ignited by a tossed match. Roesink, on the other hand, insisted that the gas he’d purchased that day was the only supply on the premises. He also stated in the New York Times that, when he first realized there was a fire, he hadn’t yet begun to pour out the gasoline. The Chicago Defender, on the other hand, reported that “some [gasoline] was poured over and around first base, while the second can was emptied around second.”

Another related theory was that the cans had dripped on their way into the stadium, creating a trail for the fire. It was not reported in either paper, though, that the fire reached the playing field. After meeting with Roesink and other park officials, the detective lieutenant of the arson squad said he didn’t believe the fire was caused by gasoline, but rather “that some one probably dropped a match and the dry, old wood of the stands did the rest.” This, of course, does not explain the explosion recounted by the Times, and also by Bak.

In the wake of the catastrophe, there were at least two things to be thankful for. First, of course, no one died in the fire, which is remarkable. This was possible because the stadium was only about one third full when the fire began. As the Defender explained, “had the fire happened an hour later, over 6,000 persons would have been in the stands.”

The Stars ended up their season playing at Dequindre Park in Detroit. For owner Roesink, however, the fire was only the beginning of the heat. Black fans were outraged at his callous response to their suffering; apparently, Roesink neither donated money to an emergency fund nor visited injured fans at the hospital. This was in addition to earlier grievances that he did not advertise in black-owned newspapers.

In Roesink’s defense, and as reported by Bak, the ballplayers themselves thought highly of him—he paid them on time, arranged for decent travel and lodging, and provided a per diem, all at a time when many owners did none of those things. Roesink, a clothes salesman, had been involved in baseball in Detroit for many years—in fact, he’d built Mack Park in 1914—and had owned the Stars since 1925.

For the 1930 season, he invested $30,000 for a new park in the working-class Polish neighborhood of Hamtramck. Resentment among the black community, however, led to a baseball boycott in August of that season. Another reason for this conflict was that the new Hamtramck Stadium, like Mack Field before it, was located far from the “Black Bottom” area of the city where most blacks lived.

Roesink was having financial difficulty not only with the fire, new stadium and boycott, but as a retail clothier during the Great Depression. He gave up on the Stars after the 1930 season. In 1931, the entire Negro National League went under.

Mack Park was eventually rebuilt and used for high school and semi-pro games until the 1960s. In its pre-fire heyday, it featured exhibitions against major league teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves, New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies. The Federal League had proposed placing a team there, but Roesink, who was good friends with Tigers owner Frank Navin, declined.

Hamtramck Stadium, also known as Roesink Stadium, was soon abandoned. It was, though, the site of the first ever night game in Detroit, when the Monarchs traveled there with their portable lighting system. Legendary Tiger Ty Cobb threw out the first pitch there in 1930.

It does not seem that much research has been done into the causes and aftermath of the fire. Was there an official police report? Did Roesink ever offer any restitution? Where does the figure of 220 injured come from? Further inquiry could answer those questions and help resolve the uncertainty around this catastrophic fire.

Sources: Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars. 1994, Wayne State University Press; stories from the Chicago Defender and New York Times, both from July 8, 1929; www.detroit1701.org.

Comments

4 Responses to “The Mack Park Fire”
  1. glenn says:

    Nice article. Hamtramck Park is still standing, believe it or not. I used to live in that neighborhood and played ball at various levels on that field from Little League on up. The stands have been condemned for years, and are usually frequented by homeless and drug abusers and such, but The field is still there.

    Other notable things about Hamtramck Park:

    1. It was the home of the Hamtramck team that won the 1959 LLWS, with Arthur “Pinky” Deras as their star player.

    2. Ont the tennis courts across from the field is where Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz learned the game. Jane was a player of some renown, best known for being the first women’s player to use the two-handed backhand, as well as for being a winner in the women’s Federation Cup doubles Championships with none other than Billie Jean King. Unfortunately, her career was derailed due to some personal issues, and she ever quite fulfilled her early promise.

  2. KJOK says:

    Bak writes that “The real heroes during the raging inferno were the ballplayers on both teams who actually knocked down part of the ballpark’s outer wooden walls by the sheer force of their combined strength to allow fans to exit.” This fact, however, is not mentioned in either of the next-day newspaper accounts.

    Per the Pittsburgh Courier, July 13th:

    “That more were not injured was due to the presence of mind of players of both teams in tearing loose the screen. Many of the 1,500 persons in the stand were pulled over onto the field to safety.”

  3. Ren Farley says:

    Roesink Stadium in Hamtramck is still standing. With a modest amount of funding, it could be reestablished as a baseball park. For a picture and description see:
    http://www.detroit1701.org/Roesink.html

  4. Judd says:

    Unique piece — the practice of fires is still used by some upon pitching mounds. Light, and get away . . .

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