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Philadelphia has a rich baseball history. Everyone today knows the Phillies, who’ve been around more than a century. Aficionados also know the Athletics, who moved away to Kansas City and then landed in Oakland.
But the city was home to another pennant-winning team: the Philadelphia Stars.
Locked out of the mainstream, the Stars attracted elite players when Black baseball talent was barred from the majors. The club won the Negro National League championship in 1934, and featured some of the greatest ever to suit up — Hall of Famers like five-time All-Star Biz Mackey, and Jud Wilson, who hit over .400 three times.
Nevertheless, the Stars remain an obscure part of Philadelphia sports history. So who was this team that brought pride to the city’s African American community?
The franchise was the brainchild of Ed Bolden, a Black man who worked for the U.S. Postal Service and on the side ran baseball teams. He originally owned the Hilldale Club, a Darby-based Negro Leagues team, and helped lead them through some successful seasons. After management disputes pushed Bolden out of the Hilldale organization, he didn’t stay away from the sport, founding the Stars in 1933.
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Financed by sports executive Eddie Gottlieb, the first coach of the Philadelphia Warriors, the Stars spent their inaugural season as a barnstorming independent team. Then Bolden was convinced by Pittsburgh businessman Gus Greenlee to bring his team to the second iteration of the Negro National League.
It turned out to be the perfect home. The Stars immediately found success, and were one of the top teams of the 1934 season, earning the right to play the Chicago American Giants in a best-of-seven championship finals.
Despite trailing 3 to 1 in the series, the Stars rallied to win games 5 and 6. Game 7 ended in a tie due to darkness (lights at ballparks were years away from being commonplace). In Game 8, thanks to a strong effort by starting pitcher Slim Jones, the Stars defeated Chicago to become champions.
Although the Stars would never reach such heights again, they were mainstays in the Negro National League until it disbanded after the 1948 season. The surviving teams then joined the Negro American League, where the Stars played until the team folded in 1952 as the Negro Leagues struggled to survive following the desegregation of Major League Baseball.
Though it’s been nearly seven decades since the Stars’ last game, reminders of the team are visible around Philadelphia.
Penmar Park, the team’s second stadium, used to stand near 44th Street and Parkside Avenue in West Philly, and a corner there is now home to a mural by artist David McShane that features several members of the Stars. A seven-foot bronze statue of a negro leaguer, created by artist Phil Sumpter, also stands nearby.
The Phillies have played a part in keeping the Stars memory alive. Team videographer Dan Stephenson in 2016 produced a documentary titled “They Said We Couldn’t Play,” which delved into the former team’s history. Former Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard narrated the film, which included interviews with Stars players such as Gene Benson, Bill Cash, and Stanley Glenn. In 2021, the Phils unveiled a display in a Citizens Bank Park suite that honors the Stars and baseball icon Jackie Robinson.
A decade prior, the Phillies paid tribute to the Stars by mock drafting one of their best-known players.
Major League Baseball in 2008 held a ceremonial draft in 2008 that allowed teams to select a surviving former Negro Leagues player, and the Phils chose Philadelphia native Mahlon Duckett, a onetime Rookie of the Year best known for his defensive ability. Duckett, the last surviving member of the Stars, died in 2015 at age 92 in 2015.