Friday, June 7, 2013

Philly native aims to commemorate local Negro baseball legend

By PATRICK GORDON | Managing Editor
@Philabaseball

A self-described baseball historian with an extreme interest in Negro League baseball, Ira Wolins fondly remembers spending countless hours as a child in northeast Philadelphia playing Strat-O-Matic baseball.

"I created my own rosters and everything," Wolins said. "I even created my own Negro teams and cards before the company released their own set a few years back."

Paul "Country Jake" StephensWolins' fixation and research on the Negro Leagues led him to Paul "Country Jake" Stephens, a deceased black ballplayer from York County who is buried at Mount Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church cemetery in Springettsbury Township.

"I read a book by John Holway and it included a chapter on Stephens," Wolins said. "It had some information that he was buried at a Lutheran church in York County, so I did some research and actually found the spot and it truly is the most unassuming headstone.

"From looking at the plot, you have no idea this guy played in the Negro Leagues and won championships. I've been to New Jersey to see where [fellow Negro League ballplayer] Pop Lloyd is buried and someone put a plaque up next to his cemetery plot, so Stephens deserves the same thing."

Wolins is aiming to raise $1,500 to cover the cost of the plaque. He already has invested $750 of his own money to buy promotional wristbands to entice donations. 

"I came across another book about Hall of Famer Willie Wells and it tells the story of how a guy from Texas went to Cooperstown and never heard of him prior to his visit," Wolins said. "The guy went home and researched Wells and found out he was buried obscurely in some cemetery without any mention of his Hall of Fame career. The guy felt that wasn't right, so he actually had the body exhumed and moved to a different cemetery after raising all kinds of money to get him a new headstone and a proper plaque." 

Wolins' project is nowhere near as extreme, but he has been working for more than a year to raise funds.

"I'm still a ways away right now, but I've been going to minor league games in the area to get responses and I've got two conferences coming up where I hope to get some donations."   

Playing on championship clubs with four different franchises, Stephens was one of the best middle infielders in Negro baseball history. His combination of range, speed, and quick reflexes made him a fan favorite.

Stephens' story of how he broke into professional baseball is one of the more fascinating stories in black baseball history. 

Starring with an amateur club in York, Stephens sent a telegram to Ed Bolden of the Hilldale Daisies and touted a young infielder with a strong glove and solid bat. Unbeknownst to Bolden, the young infielder Stephens was writing about was himself.

Bolden gave Stephens a tryout and he was offered a spot with the Hilldale club prior to the 1921 season along with an opportunity to compete with Judy Johnson for the role of starting shortstop. Stephens excelled defensively, but faltered at the plate and eventually was reassigned to a semi-pro club so he could focus on handling breaking pitches. He finished the year with a .263 batting average.

Stephens split time with Hilldale and semi-pro clubs over the next two seasons, but his offensive abilities marginally improved.  He was, however, a part of the 1924 and 1925 championship Hilldale clubs. He left the Daisies during the 1929 season.

Mockup of the proposed plaque
Stephens spent time with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords before coming back to the region with the Philadelphia Stars in 1933. He spent parts of three seasons with the Stars and formed one of the best double play combinations in black baseball history when he was teamed with second baseman Dick Seay.

Stephens was an All-Star in 1935 and played in the East - West classic, finishing 2-for-6 with a run scored and an RBI.

He spent 17 seasons in the Negro Leagues and finished his career with a .219/.258/.250 slash.  Once retired, he became a deputy sheriff in York County and opened his own taproom.

Small in stature at just 5-feet, 7 inches and 150-pounds, what skill Stephens lacked with the bat he compensated for with his glove. 

He passed away in 1981,  just days prior to his 81st birthday.

"This guy deserves some sort of recognition, because the headstone he has right now just won't do," Wolins said. "I'm not related to him and he died when I was about 20-years-old, but the guy has a lot of history surrounding him and deserves this."

[If you are interested in donating to the cause for Paul "Country Jake" Stephens, you can contact Ira Wolins at ikeman23@juno.com]

- Patrick Gordon is Managing Editor of the Philadelphia Baseball Review.  Follow him on Twitter @Philabaseball or contact him at pgordon@philadelphiabaseballreview.com.

0 comments: