Tiger Stadium (Detroit)
On Monday, April 15, 1912, at 2:20 a.m., the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from England to New York City, sank after hitting an iceberg less than three hours earlier. It was called one of the worst maritime disasters ever, as 1,502 people died. News of the tragedy dominated the headlines.
Five days later – on Saturday, April 20 -- two new baseball palaces opened for business: Fenway Park in Boston, and Navin Field in Detroit. The Tigers continued to play at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull for a total of 88 summers. Navin Field’s name later changed to Briggs Stadium, before finally being called Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers’ new home was actually the second ballpark built at “The Corner.” From 1896 to 1911, they played their games in rickety wooden Bennett Park. Prior to that, the plot of land in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood had been a combination hay market and dog pound. Bennett Park had been built when the Tigers were in Ban Johnson’s Western League. In 1901, Johnson changed the circuit’s name to the American League, and declared it a second major league, in direct competition with the established National League. The Tigers played host to three World Series in Bennett Park, from 1907 to 1909. Starting in 1909, however, with the construction of Shibe Park in Philadelphia, closely followed by Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a new wave of steel-and-concrete baseball palaces were being built. It was clear that Bennett Park had outlived its usefulness, and Frank Navin, principal owner of the Tigers, wanted his club to have a brand-new stadium that would allow it to compete with other teams.
Navin Field was designed by Osborn Engineering of Cleveland. The firm has a long history of building sports stadiums, which continues to this day. Prior to Navin Field and Fenway Park, it had designed Forbes Field, League Park in Cleveland, Comiskey Park in Chicago, and Griffith Stadium in Washington. Osborn later went on to design the original Yankee Stadium in 1923, the University of Notre Dame’s football stadium in 1929, and Jacobs Field in Cleveland in 1994.
Bennett Park was demolished shortly after the Tigers played the final game of 1911. Construction workers were able to finish Navin Field in time for Opening Day 1912 at a cost of three hundred thousand dollars.
Fans attending the first game at Navin Field would have been surprised at the most obvious difference between it and Bennett Park, which was the new layout of the baseball diamond. Whereas Bennett’s home plate had been located at Michigan and Trumbull, with the batter facing the sun, Navin Field’s home plate was relocated to the corner of Michigan and National (later Kaline Drive), where Bennett Park’s left field had been. Navin Field’s main ticket booths and entrance, along with the club’s offices, remained at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. This made for one of the more interesting quirks of the park. At most baseball stadiums, the main entrance is behind home plate. At Navin Field, however, fans entering the park at its primary address, 2121 Trumbull Ave. (at the corner of Michigan Ave.), were greeted with a view from the right field corner.
Another difference between Bennett Park and Navin Field was that the new ballpark had a much larger footprint. In the days of Bennett Park, Frank Navin had to contend with the homeowners on the east side of National Avenue (beyond the left field wall), and the south side of Cherry Street (beyond the right field wall), who charged admission to “wildcat bleachers” they had built in their backyards. When Navin tore down Bennett Park, he also was able to raze these houses, along with the wildcat bleachers. He now had the entire square block bounded by Michigan Avenue to the south, Trumbull Avenue to the east, National Avenue to the west, and Cherry Street to the north, all to himself.
Navin Field as it looked in 1912 bore little resemblance to the ballpark that eventually became Tiger Stadium. The multiple expansions which resulted in the familiar double-decked, fully enclosed classic, were still far in the future. At Navin Field, the stands behind the infield were roofed and single-decked. Covered pavilions fanned out from the grandstand to the outfield fences. The only seating beyond the foul poles was the single-decked bleacher section in far-away right-center. The dimensions were 340 feet down the left field line, 400 to straightaway center, and 365 to the corner in right field. A giant, hand-operated scoreboard in left field kept patrons informed of out-of-town scores. Old-time Detroit baseball fans, who fondly remember Tiger Stadium’s green wooden slat-back seats, may be surprised to learn that Navin Field’s original seats -- all 23,000 of them -- were painted yellow. One feature that remained constant throughout the entire 87-year history of the park was the 125-foot-high flagpole in deep center, made distinctive because it was in the field of play.
The inaugural game had been scheduled for April 18, but Mother Nature had other plans; rain resulted in a postponement until the 20th. The estimated crowd at the contest was 26,000, although the official paid total was 24,382. Fittingly, Ty Cobb scored the first run at the park on a steal of home in the first inning. The Tigers won the game, 6-5, in eleven innings. The Sporting Life of April 27 wrote of the park in glowing prose: “One of the great scheduled events of the 1912 major league season was the opening of Detroit’s great base ball plant which has been rebuilt from the ground up upon the most approved modern lines, thus bringing the ancient base ball city of Detroit abreast of the times and up to the highest major league standard.” Cobb also hit the first home run at Navin Field, a shot into the bleachers in right-center on April 25, which won the game for the home team.
The Tigers played poorly in their first season in Navin Field. They finished with a record of 69-84, good for only sixth place in the eight-team American League. Cobb was the hitting star with a .409 batting average. Sam Crawford hit .325. The most noteworthy event at the park that summer was the Tigers’ 6-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox on September 20, which ended Smoky Joe Wood’s sixteen-game winning streak. Despite the novelty of the new park, attendance actually went down. The club drew 402,870 customers in 1912, compared to 484,988 in the last year at Bennett Park.
The first real pennant race played out at Navin Field took place during the 1915 season. That year, the Tigers finished with a record of 100-54. Their winning percentage of .649 remains the best in Tigers history. Led by manager Hughie Jennings, the club featured one of the best outfields ever, with Cobb, Crawford, and Bobby Veach. They were edged out for the pennant by eventual World Series winner Boston, which finished at 101-50. The strong season paid off at the gate, as the club drew 476,105 for the year. Four years later, the Tigers led the league in attendance for the first time, with 643,805 paid.
During this time, Detroit was growing dramatically, thanks to the automobile industry. The 1910 census gave Detroit’s population as 465,766. Within ten years, that number had more than doubled to 993,678. At some point Frank Navin must have taken a look at his ballpark and realized it would need more seating to accommodate potential new customers. Navin Field underwent its first expansion following the 1922 season. The grandstand was double-decked, and a press box was built on the roof behind home plate. A special new press box elevator, the first of its kind in the big leagues, whisked the ink-stained wretches to their lofty perch. Seating capacity was increased to roughly 30,000. Additional fans could be squeezed in, however, behind a roped-off area between the right-center field bleachers and the right-field corner. Navin Field was slowly starting to resemble the grand stadium it would eventually become. The home opener, which had been delayed a week while the expansion was completed, drew nearly 36,000 customers. The final season’s attendance of 911,377 was a team record, and the first time the Tigers had drawn more than 900,000. The 1924 season continued to solidify Detroit’s reputation as a baseball city, as the Tigers became only the second franchise (the Yankees being the other) ever to draw more than a million fans in a season, as 1,015,136 passed through the turnstiles. Twice that summer they drew in excess of 40,000, when the opponent was the New York Yankees and Babe Ruth.
During the 1920s, the Tigers were usually a middle-of-the-pack team. Besides Cobb, they had some great hitters. Harry Heilmann won batting titles in odd-numbered years (1921, 1923, 1925, and 1927). Charlie Gehringer, a young second baseman out of the University of Michigan known as “The Mechanical Man,” also forged a Hall of Fame career in Detroit. Bob “Fatty” Fothergill was probably the most popular Tiger of the decade, hitting over .300 every season from 1922 to 1929, and weighing in at 230 pounds. Dale Alexander had one of the best rookie seasons ever in 1929, hitting .343 with 25 home runs (a club record at the time), 137 RBI, and a league-leading 215 hits. In a great offensive era, Navin Field was proving to be a splendid park for hitters. During the decade, the Tigers had team batting averages of .316 in 1921, .306 in 1922, .300 in 1923, .298 in 1924, .302 in 1925, and .299 in 1929.
On June 8, 1926, at Navin Field, Babe Ruth hit what was, if not the longest home run anywhere, certainly one of the most apocryphal. It was a shot hit off Ulysses Simpson Grant “Lil” Stoner. It cleared the twelve-foot wall in right-center field, and then sailed over several cars parked on Cherry Street. It is at this point that the truth of the story begins to lose the battle with legend. As the tale goes, the ball proceeded to roll two more city blocks, where it was eventually overtaken by a kid on a bicycle on Brooklyn Avenue. The “official” distance, for whatever it was worth, was 626 feet. Detroit News baseball writer Harry G. Salsinger declared the ball had been picked up 885 feet from home plate.
The first radio broadcast of a game from Navin Field was Opening Day, April 20, 1927, a 7-0 Tigers victory. On April 19, the Detroit News had run a piece with the title: “Tiger Opener to Go on Air: WWJ to Broadcast all Home Games Play by Play.” The article went on to describe the technological wonder. “Arrangements have been made whereby E.L. Tyson, chief announcer of WWJ[,] will occupy a place in the press stand at all the home games of the Tigers this season. A microphone for the use of the announcer will be placed in the press stands and in various parts of the field there will be concealed for the picking up of crowd noises to lend realistic atmosphere to the game as heard by the listeners in their homes. WWJ’s broadcast of tomorrow’s game will make the first time any such event have been put on the air direct from the field by a Detroit broadcasting station.”
For the first part of the 1930s, the Tigers languished as also-rans in the American League. Frank Navin must have wondered whether his club would ever win another pennant. It hadn’t been to the World Series since 1909, the year he became principal owner. The club’s attendance, hurt by the Great Depression, had been steadily plummeting every year, from 869,318 in 1929, to a dismal 320,972 in 1933. These were tough years for the Motor City. Automobile production dropped nearly fifty percent in 1930. Frank Navin was in dire financial straits, and the Tigers were on the verge of bankruptcy.
After the 1933 season, however, Navin made his best decision ever as an owner. Navin knew he had to land a big-name player, one who would bring back the fans as well as improve his team dramatically. He got what he wanted in Mickey Cochrane, former Philadelphia Athletics star receiver, who became the Tigers’ player-manager. The Bengals immediately became winners under Cochrane, coasting to the American League pennant by seven games over the Yankees, winning 101. With the contending team, and the strong gate attraction of Cochrane, attendance shot up to 919,161, an astonishing one-third of the league total. It would not be a stretch to say that Mickey Cochrane literally saved baseball in Detroit. The 1934 Tigers featured hitting stars such as Cochrane, Hank Greenberg, Gehringer, and Goose Goslin. The team batting average was an even .300. They scored 957 runs -- 115 more than their closest competitors, the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig. It is a team record that stands to this day, and would be the first of four consecutive years scoring 900-plus runs, an incredible achievement in the old 154-game schedule. The pitching staff was anchored by 24-year-old Schoolboy Rowe, who won 24 games, and Tommy Bridges, winner of 22. Elden Auker and Firpo Marberry each won 15. In the World Series, they faced the St. Louis Cardinals, the famous “Gashouse Gang” of Ripper Collins, Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Joe Medwick, and 30-game winner Dizzy Dean. The Series featured no less than nine future Hall-of-Famers between the two teams.
Upon clinching the pennant, Frank Navin hit upon a scenario to boost attendance. He talked City Hall into authorizing the razing of the last few houses that still remained on Cherry Street. The street was then re-routed to the north. Navin Field’s left field wall was torn down, and, in a matter of days, a 17,000-seat bleacher section was erected. The fans seated there would play an ignominious role, as we shall soon see.
Game One of the Series went to St. Louis by a score of 8-3. Dizzy Dean got the win, while Greenberg homered for the Tigers. And 42,505 paid their way into Navin Field to witness the contest.
The Tigers took Game Two before a crowd of 43,451. The game went 12 innings, with Schoolboy Rowe going the distance for Detroit. The Series then went to Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, where the Tigers took two out of three to head back home with a 3-2 Series lead.
As 44,551 shoehorned their way into Navin Field eager to celebrate a Tigers championship, their hopes were squelched as St. Louis won, 4-3, behind Paul Dean’s second Series win.
The seventh and deciding game was a yawner. St. Louis scored seven runs in the third and never looked back, coasting to an 11-0 win, their third championship in nine years. The only exciting moments, at least for the home crowd, came in the sixth inning. St. Louis’ Medwick hit a triple, sliding hard into third baseman Marv Owen. The story goes that Medwick felt Owen was being unsportsmanlike by attempting a swipe tag without actually having the ball. Medwick felt Owen deserved a swift kick. The two faced off without ever coming to blows. But the fans had already decided that Medwick was the villain, and they were going to vent their frustrations on him. The inning ended without further incident. When Medwick trotted out to left field to take his position, though, he was hit with a barrage of vegetables and fruit, along with scorecards, soda bottles, and even shoes, from fans in the left-field bleachers, the same bleachers that had been hastily constructed just days before. Medwick, for his own safety, had to be reluctantly pulled from the field on the order of baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who was in the stands. “I know why they threw that garbage at me,” Medwick said. “What I don’t understand is why they brought it to the park in the first place.” To this day, Medwick is the only player forced to be taken out of a game for his own safety.
In 1935, the Detroit Tigers celebrated their first World Series championship. The pennant race was much closer than it had been the year before; they edged out the Yankees again, this time by three games, with a record of 93-58. Their opponents in the Series this time were the Chicago Cubs. Detroit disposed of them in six games. The winning run of the Series was scored by none other than Cochrane, who, with two out in the ninth inning, dashed home from second on a line drive single off the bat of Goslin. On hand for the game at Navin Field were 48,420 delirious fans. For the season, Detroit drew a total 1,034,929, the most in the league.
It was around this time, 1934 actually, that the new owners of a struggling 4-year-old franchise from Portsmouth, Ohio, called the Spartans, and coached by Potsy Clark, decided to pack their bags and move the team to Detroit. The Tigers weren’t overly concerned about the Spartans infringing on their territorial rights. After all, the Spartans didn’t play baseball, they played football, in something called the National Football League. They arranged to play their home games at the University of Detroit Stadium, and promptly changed their name to the Detroit Lions. On December 15, 1935, at that location, they took down the New York Giants 26-7, in the NFL championship game. On April 11, 1936, the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which played at Olympia Stadium, won their first Stanley Cup, thus giving Detroit the moniker “City of Champions.”
Almost immediately after the conclusion of the 1935 World Series, Frank Navin finalized plans to expand Navin Field again. He never lived to see them come to fruition, suffering a fatal heart attack in November. Walter O. Briggs, an auto body magnate and lifelong Tigers fan, purchased the team at a cost of $1 million from Navin’s widow, Grace. Briggs wanted to put his own stamp on the expansion of Navin Field. He had a vision to build what he considered the finest baseball palace in the land. He wanted a double-decked stadium, completely enclosed. He toured ballparks throughout the country in order to get ideas. For a while he had considered planting ivy along Navin Field’s outfield wall, similar to Wrigley Field in Chicago, his favorite park. He nixed this idea when he recalled that an outfielder had lost a ball in the ivy in the just-completed Series against the Cubs.
Again, Osborn Engineering was given the task of undertaking the renovation. The first base pavilion was torn down, and in its place was built a double-decked grandstand extending from the first-base line to the right-field foul pole. That was the easy part. The dilemma came when they reached right field, where the wall abutted hard against Trumbull Avenue. Briggs thought back to a year earlier, when Frank Navin, in order to build the left-field bleachers, had simply obliterated and re-directed Cherry Street, which was merely a small side-street of humble old houses. Trumbull Avenue, on the other hand, was a much larger thoroughfare, and, to Briggs’s chagrin, it wasn’t going anywhere. The problem seemed intractable: How to expand seating in right field?
Osborn saved the day by moving the right-field fence forty-two feet closer to home plate. That helped a little bit, but not as much as Briggs had in mind. In the end, he told Osborn to build a double-decked grandstand in right, but to increase the width of the upper deck by ten feet in either direction. Simply put, the upper deck would have an “overhang” extending ten feet closer to home plate than the first row of the lower deck. An overhang would also extend ten feet on the outside of the park, projecting high in the park’s exterior wall along Trumbull Avenue. This short porch in right field would over time become one of the signature features of the stadium. Lazy fly balls turned into homers as they benefitted from the added ten feet of the overhang. Since the new distance to right field was now 325 feet, this meant the first row of the overhang was a mere 315 feet from home plate. With the expansion, Navin Field now had an official capacity of 36,000.
Yet another round of expansion took place over the winter of 1937-38. Briggs, wanting still more seats for still more fans, demolished the third-base pavilion. He replaced it with a double-decked grandstand that extended out to, and curved around, the left-field foul pole, continued on toward dead center field, where it curved again, and eventually connected with the double-decked grandstand in right. The entire stadium was now double-decked. The second deck was completely roofed all the way around, except for the open upper-deck bleacher area that ran from deep left-center field, curved past the 440-foot sign in dead center, and terminated in deep right-center. This would be the only double-decked bleacher section in baseball history. The stadium featured three scoreboards. The main one was the jumbo-sized, hand-operated affair looming over the upper-deck bleachers. Unfortunately, there were many sections of the park, mostly those in the outfield lower deck, which could not even see this scoreboard. To rectify this problem, two “auxiliary” scoreboards were hung along the facing of the second deck directly behind first and third base. The cost for the additions was over $1 million. Capacity was now 53,000. The Tigers could now boast the second-largest seating capacity in baseball, behind only Yankee Stadium (third-largest, if you include the Indians’ seldom-used Cleveland Municipal Stadium). The stadium’s dimensions were now (and would remain) 340 feet to left, 365 to left-center, 440 to center, 370 to right-center, and 325 to right. The multiple expansions of Navin Field had finally reached an end; there was simply no place left to build. The humble ballpark of 1912 had been transformed into a truly grand stadium. Walter O. Briggs felt it was time for a new name for his baseball cathedral. Navin Field would now be called Briggs Stadium. It would remain virtually unchanged for the rest of the century.
The new Briggs Stadium opened for business on Friday, April 22, 1938, but 54,500 fans left disappointed as the Cleveland Indians held on to beat the Tigers by a score of 4-3. Hank Greenberg was the slugging star of the Tigers that first year at the enlarged Briggs Stadium, hitting a team-record 58 homers, 39 at home. Despite the expansions to the stadium, Detroit drew only 799,557 for the year, less than the club-record 1,072,276 of the season before.
Meanwhile, back on the NFL front, the Detroit Lions were drawing crowds of 25,000 to their games at University of Detroit Stadium. The team felt that it was time to reap the benefits of a larger stadium. On July 3, 1938, an announcement was made that the Lions would henceforth play their home games at Briggs Stadium. On September 9, the Lions played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull for the first time, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates -- they wouldn’t be known as the Steelers until 1940 -- by a score of 16-7, before 17,000 pigskin fans. Average attendance for the year was 30,209, the highest coming on November 13, when 45,139 watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Lions. With the exception of a one-year hiatus in 1940 (when Walter O. Briggs temporarily decided he had had enough of the damage to his grass from football cleats), the Lions continued to share the stadium with the Tigers for the next four decades.
In May 1939, two historic events occurred at Briggs Stadium within two days of each other. On Tuesday, May 2, the Yankees were scheduled to play the Tigers. Yankee captain Lou Gehrig, weakened by the effects of the disease that later bore his name, chose to sit out the game. It marked the first time he had failed to play in a big-league contest since June 1, 1925, an incredible 2,130 games in a row, a record at the time. After Gehrig handed the lineup to the home plate umpire and headed back to the Yankees dugout, Tigers announcer Ty Tyson grabbed the public address microphone, and said to the 11,000 in attendance, “How about a hand for Lou Gehrig, who played 2,130 games in a row before he benched himself today!” A wave of cheers rolled through the ballpark. Gehrig doffed his cap and ducked into the dugout, where he bent over the water cooler and pretended to take a long drink, in order that his teammates would not see him weeping.
Roughly 48 hours later, Detroit fans witnessed a harbinger of things to come in the American League for the next nineteen years. Twenty-year-old Red Sox rookie Ted Williams, playing in only his ninth major-league game, put on a show for the ages. He entered the game having previously hit only one home run in his short big-league career, a shot at Boston’s Fenway Park on April 23. Now, facing Tiger pitcher Roxie Lawson in his second at-bat of the game, Williams hit a pitch on top of the roof in right field. In the very next inning, against hurler Bob Harris, Teddy Ballgame skied one over the roof. It was the first time a batter had ever hit a ball completely out of Briggs Stadium.
The Tigers returned to the World Series in 1940 after a tight American League race in which they beat out Cleveland by one game. Leftfielder Hank Greenberg led the Bengals’ attack with 41 homers and 150 RBI, while sharing the team lead in batting at .340 with Barney McCosky. Charlie Gehringer hit .313. Rudy York hit .316 with 33 homers and 134 RBI. The pitching staff was anchored by Bobo Newsom with 21 wins, and Schoolboy Rowe with 16. Attendance led the league at 1,112,693.
Their opponent in the Series was the Cincinnati Reds, losers in the previous year’s Fall Classic. Their biggest stars were first baseman Frank McCormick (.309 19 HR, 127 RBI), slow-footed but hard-hitting catcher Ernie Lombardi (.319, 14, 74), and pitchers Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer, who combined for forty-two wins between them.
The teams split the first two games at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, before the Series shifted to Briggs Stadium. Game Three was a 7-4 win by the home team, before 52,877 paid fans. In Game Four, 54,093 saw the Reds come out on top, 5-2. Bobo Newsom pitched a three-hit shutout in Game Five, in front of a crowd of 55,189. One more win, and the Tigers would be champions for only the second time in their history. Back in Crosley Field, however, they were only able to score one run over the final two games, both losses, as Cincinnati took the championship.
The 1941 All-Star Game was the first ever played in Detroit. A festive crowd of 54,674 saw Ted Williams again put on a show. With the American Leaguers trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth with two on and two out, The Splendid Splinter smashed a ball into the upper deck in right for a 7-5 win. Williams always claimed that his favorite place to hit was Briggs Stadium.
Sunday, June 20, 1943, was a turbulent day in the history of the city of Detroit. Race riots swept through the downtown area, resulting in 34 deaths, 675 injuries, and property damage estimated at $2 million. Businesses were burned, cars overturned, and 5,000 troops called in to try and restore order. Players on the Tigers were told to stay inside their apartments or houses, and not to venture out on the streets. The next day, a Monday, was a scheduled off-day for the team, before the Indians came into town. Briggs cancelled Tuesday’s game, even though rioting by then had mostly been gotten under control. He had the two teams play a doubleheader on Wednesday. As a precautionary measure, he arranged to have hundreds of federal troops station themselves in and around Briggs Stadium.
After three disappointing wartime seasons, including a second-place finish to the St. Louis Browns, the Tigers again won the American League pennant in 1945. Greenberg returned from the war to knock out 13 homers and knock in 60 runs in 78 games. “Prince Hal” Newhouser won 25 games, Dizzy Trout 18. The team led the league in attendance with 1,280,341. The World Series pitted the Tigers against the Cubs. The first three games, played at Briggs Stadium, drew 163,773 fans. The Cubs took two of the three. The final four games were at Wrigley Field. The Tigers scored five runs in the first inning of Game Seven. Newhouser gave up ten hits but kept the Cubs in check, going the distance for a 9-3 win to take the Series.
The old ballpark hosted some big crowds in its day, none bigger than the one that showed up for a July 20, 1947, doubleheader with the Yankees. A total of 58,369 fans jammed into the stadium, some of them standing behind a roped-off section of the outfield. They went home happy, as the home team took both ends of the twin bill.
Briggs had always resisted installing lights in his stadium, claiming that baseball was meant to be played in the sunshine. He finally gave in to progress, however, and on June 15, 1948, the Tigers played the first night game at Briggs Stadium. Briggs had demanded the finest lighting system available at the time. Eight steel light towers rose 150 feet, with a total of 1,458 giant incandescent bulbs. At the inaugural event, the teams and fans had to sit and wait until the nighttime sky was totally darkened, which the club felt would allow the lights to take full effect. As a result, it wasn’t until 9:29 p.m. that they were finally turned on. They were so bright that a newspaper could be read by a groundskeeper as he stood at second base. The evening was a success, as the Tigers beat Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics 4-1, with Hal Newhouser throwing a two-hitter in front of 54,480 fans. At last, every American League stadium had lights. The last bastion of daytime-only baseball in the big leagues was now Wrigley Field in Chicago, which did not install lights for another forty years.
Modernity was quickly changing the baseball landscape in Detroit. Not only were night games making it easier for workers to head to the ballpark after their day was done, another technological leap was making inroads into the American pastime. The post-World War II years were a witness to the budding partnership between baseball and television. On June 3, 1947, the Tigers televised a game from Briggs Stadium for the first time, a 3-0 Yankees win. TV was still in its infancy at the time. Hardly any homes in the Detroit area even had a set. Most of the TVs were placed inside bars, hotel lobbies, and department store windows by the manufacturers, as a means of promoting the sale of their product. For the 1948 season, local TV station WWJ contracted to broadcast 26 Tiger games, most of them from Briggs Stadium.
The corner of Michigan and Trumbull hosted its second All-Star Game in 1951. The American League lost, but the hometown fans nonetheless enjoyed seeing Tigers George Kell and Vic Wertz hit homers.
The Tigers in 1952 lost 100 games for the first time in their history, finishing 50-104. The next year was better, but hardly, as they lost 94 games. But while Tigers fans spent these summers crying in their beers, they had reason to celebrate once autumn arrived and the leaves changed color. Why? The Detroit Lions were becoming one of the elite teams in the NFL. In 1952, the Lions finished with a record of 9-3. Coach Buddy Parker’s team was led by Bobby Layne, the best quarterback of his era. The club went on to face the Cleveland Browns in the championship game, played in Cleveland that year. The Lions took their first title with a 17-7 win. The next season, they finished 10-2 and again faced Cleveland in the title game, this time played at Briggs Stadium. Detroit squeaked by with a 17-16 win for their second championship in a row. The Lions faced off against those same Browns again in the 1957 title game, at Briggs Stadium. Detroit came out on top, 59-14, as quarterback Tobin Rote filled in for the injured Layne. But the end came swiftly. Layne was traded to Pittsburgh the following year. Many superstitious Lions fans invoke the Curse of Bobby Layne in much the same way that Red Sox rooters bemoaned The Curse of the Bambino. Black magic or not, since 1957 the Lions have never won another NFL championship.
Throughout the 1950s, Briggs Stadium hosted mostly middle-of-the-pack Tigers teams. They were a typical American League offense of the era: A plodding, station-to-station attack, punctuated by the occasional home run. Al Kaline was the most popular Tiger of his day, and the team’s biggest offensive threat. In 1955, at the age of 20, he became the youngest player ever to win a batting title, at .340. The Tigers consistently drew more than a million fans to Briggs Stadium, but could never place higher than fourth in the standings. Briggs died in 1952. The team was inherited by his son, Spike, who eventually sold them in 1956 to John Fetzer, a radio and television executive.
By 1958, the old hand-operated scoreboard above the bleachers in center field, which had stood since the expansion of 1938, was replaced by a modern electronic version. It featured out-of-town scores from around the major leagues, and an analog Longines clock, along with ads for Detroit-area businesses like AC Delco sparkplugs and Stroh’s beer (“America’s Only Fire-Brewed Beer”).
With the Briggs family no longer in the picture, Fetzer in 1961 decided to change the stadium’s name to Tiger Stadium, the moniker it would go by for the remainder of its days. Along with the change came a sudden new competitiveness on the part of the home team. The Tigers won 101 games that year, and featured sluggers like Norm Cash (.361, 41 homers, 132 RBI, 119 runs scored), Rocky Colavito (.290, 45, 140), and Kaline, who hit .324. (On June 11, Cash became the first Tiger to hit a ball over the roof at Tiger Stadium. Years later, he admitted he had used a corked bat during the season. He certainly benefitted from it. While he went on to a long, productive career in Detroit, he never hit higher than .283, and never again drove in or scored 100 runs in a season.) The team scored an AL-high 841 runs, with 180 homers. In a normal season, the Tigers would likely have been headed to the World Series. In 1961, however, the Yankees won 109 in the year of the great Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris home run chase. The Tigers had to settle for second.
Slowly, however, the Tigers were building the team that formed the 1968 pennant-winning club. In that season, the Year of the Pitcher, the Tigers won 103 games, to take the AL flag by 12 games. They led all teams in runs, homers, RBI and slugging average. The club featured perennial All-Star and Gold Glove catcher Bill Freehan behind the plate, the venerable Kaline in right, and Cash at first. Hometown slugger Willie Horton smashed 36 homers. Gates Brown had one of the best seasons ever by a pinch-hitter. Denny McLain became the first pitcher since Dizzy Dean in 1934 to win 30 games in a season. He won his 30th in a nationally televised Game of the Week contest at Tiger Stadium, against the newly relocated Oakland A’s. He went the distance despite giving up two home runs to a young Reggie Jackson. For the first time in team history, the Tigers drew more than 2 million fans (2,031,847, which led the AL). The previous summer, Detroit had suffered through one of the worst riots in American history. Lasting five days, it resulted in 43 dead, 467 injured, and 2,000 buildings destroyed. The Tigers of 1968 seemed to be the perfect tonic for a city still hurting from its wounds.
The team had come close in 1967, only to be disappointed on the last day of the season. There was a general opinion among baseball observers that these Tigers were very talented, but couldn’t win when it mattered.
Their opponents in the World Series were the St. Louis Cardinals, led that season by pitcher Bob Gibson and his incredible 1.12 ERA. They featured a well-balanced lineup with slugger Orlando Cepeda, speedster Lou Brock, fine-fielding Curt Flood, and elder statesman Roger Maris.
In the Series, the Tigers fell behind three games to one. Game Five was at Tiger Stadium, with 17-game-winner Mickey Lolich on the mound for Detroit. They quickly found themselves in a hole, with the Cards scoring three runs in the first. The Tigers came back with two of their own in the bottom of the fourth. The pivotal play in the game and the Series (indeed, the most legendary play in the history of Tiger Stadium) occurred in the top of the fifth. Brock, who had been on base constantly and running wild all series long, reached base again with a one-out double. If Brock were to score, the Cardinals would have a two-run lead, and any momentum the Tigers had gained from the previous inning would have been lost. Lolich faced Julian Javier, who hit a line-drive single to left that looked like a cinch to score Brock. Willie Horton charged the ball, and gunned a throw to catcher Bill Freehan. Inexplicably, however, Brock chose not to slide. Instead, he went in standing, while Freehan blocked the plate and quickly tagged him. Home plate umpire Doug Harvey called him out. The television replay would appear to show that Brock’s foot never even touched the plate, although it is not 100 percent conclusive. Whether he would have been safe had he slid is a subject of great debate. Lolich got the next batter, Curt Flood, to fly out. Inning over. No runs, two hits, no errors, one left on base. The Tigers suddenly had newfound life. They scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to take the lead. The tying and go-ahead runs came on a two-run single by Mr. Tiger himself, Al Kaline. Lolich held the Cardinals scoreless the rest of the game, and the Tigers had a 5-3 win. The series shifted to St. Louis for Games Six and Seven.
The Tigers easily took Game Six, 13-1. Still, they had their work cut out for them in Game Seven, having to face Gibson, who had already beaten them twice in the Series. It turned out to be a classic pitching duel. Scoreless through six innings, the Tigers broke through with three runs in the seventh, while Lolich, on only two days of rest, went the distance, giving up only one run. The Tigers had won their first World Series in 23 years.
That core group of Tigers never went to another Fall Classic, and by 1970 the team sputtered to a fourth-place, 79-83 finish. The team was suddenly beginning to show its age. It was around this time that rumblings were heard of replacing Tiger Stadium, which was also beginning to show its age. There was a fear, baseless or not, that the Corktown neighborhood was becoming increasingly unsafe, especially for night games. There had been discussions before that the ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull should be replaced, but nothing ever became of it. In 1956, there was talk of possibly building a 100,000 seat stadium to house both the Lions and the Tigers. A few years later, a plan to build a 110,000-seat stadium at the State Fairgrounds never got any momentum. In the early 1970s, a multipurpose domed riverfront stadium was seriously considered – and even featured in the Tigers’ 1972 yearbook -- but the plan fell through. In the middle of all this talk of a modern new venue, the 1971 All-Star Game was played at Tiger Stadium. To many fans, the old ballpark’s days appeared numbered, and the game took on the quality of a fond farewell. The National League roster included twelve future Hall of Famers, the American League nine. Both managers were also future Hall of Famers, as was one of the NL coaches. This was the game in which Reggie Jackson hit what witnesses say was the longest home run ever hit in Tiger Stadium, a mammoth shot that would have easily cleared the roof in right had it not hit the light transformer on the roof. Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell called it the hardest-hit ball he ever saw.
The next year, the resurgent Tigers, led by fiery manager Billy Martin, won the American League East by a half-game over the Red Sox. They again led the league in attendance. They would lose out in the American League Championship Series to the upstart Oakland A’s. The Series loss marked the last gasp of success for the holdovers from 1968: Kaline, Freehan, Horton, Brown, Lolich, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and Dick McAuliffe. By 1975, the club hit rock bottom, with 102 losses, including 19 straight at one point. Attendance plunged to 1,058,836.
Just when baseball at The Corner seemed as bad as it had ever been, out of nowhere came 21-year-old rookie pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. He brought people back to the old ballpark, and created an electricity that hadn’t been seen in many a year. The Bird split his first two decisions, and then won his next six decisions without a loss, from May 31 to June 24. The legend of The Bird grew as long as his curly blond hair. With a record of 7-1, he faced the world champion Yankees June 28, on a nationally televised “Monday Night Baseball” game at Tiger Stadium. Displaying pinpoint control, a hard-breaking curve, and an above-average fastball, Fidrych toyed with the Yanks in a complete-game 5-1 victory. The crowd of 47,855 wouldn’t leave until The Bird came out for a curtain call. Fidrych drew packed houses everywhere he pitched, prompting baseball writer Tom Boswell to call him “the first rock-and-roll pitcher.” At season’s end, he had a record of 19-9, leading the league in both ERA (2.34) and complete games (an amazing 24 in only 29 starts). Unfortunately for baseball and for the Tigers, arm woes cut short the Bird’s career. He pitched only four more years in the majors, winning a total of ten games.
The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, had decided to abandon Tiger Stadium for greener (albeit artificial) pastures in the Pontiac Silverdome. Their last game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Denver Broncos in 1974. Since winning the NFL championship in 1957, the Lions played in only one postseason game, a December 26, 1970, loss in Dallas. The biggest news in recent years was the death of Lions receiver Chuck Hughes, who suffered a fatal on-the-field heart attack during a 1971 game at Tiger Stadium.
The NFL was entering a new era of unprecedented popularity, as the speed and violence of the rectangular gridiron game often made for a better TV viewing experience than the slower, more contemplative game of baseball. One of the most popular television shows of the 1970s was “Monday Night Football.” From 1970 to 1974, the Lions played one Monday night game every year at Tiger Stadium, eventually finishing with a record of 3-2.
In 1977, Tiger Stadium was sold to the City of Detroit for one dollar, and then leased back to the Tigers. By the late 1970s, the city took steps to try and brighten up the old ballpark. The interior, which had always been a classic-looking “ballpark green,” was given a fresh coat of blue paint. The old green wooden slat-backed seats were unceremoniously ripped out, to be replaced by modern plastic blue and orange seats. The exterior walls were covered in white aluminum siding in order to eliminate the costly fresh coat of white paint that the stadium needed every year.
Following the 1978 season, the Cincinnati Reds fired manager Sparky Anderson, who had previously guided the team to four World Series, winning two of them. On June 14, 1979, Tigers general manager Jim Campbell hired Sparky to manage his young and inexperienced team. Sparky, who was never afraid to shoot from the hip, immediately predicted the Tigers would win it all within five years.
Under Sparky’s watch, the Tigers steadily improved. They came close in 1983, and in the offseason the franchise was purchased by pizza entrepreneur Tom Monaghan. The club finally broke through in 1984, the fifth full year of the Sparky Era, making their manager look like a prophet. The Tigers got off to a blistering 35-5 start before coasting through the rest of the regular season. They were strong up the middle, with Lance Parrish catching, the long-running double-play combination of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, and center fielder Chet Lemon. A young, strong, and speedy Kirk Gibson manned right field. The addition of Darrell Evans, one of the most sought-after free agents in the offseason, provided a strong veteran presence. Jack Morris, the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, headed the rotation, while Willie Hernandez won the Cy Young and MVP with a brilliant year in relief. The Tigers set a new club attendance mark of 2,704,794.
They swept the Royals in the AL Championship Series before facing the San Diego Padres in one of the more uneventful World Series ever. This was the first trip to the postseason for the Padres in their 16-year history. The Tigers simply overwhelmed San Diego in five games. The most memorable highlight was Kirk Gibson’s three-run homer deep into the right field upper deck at Tiger Stadium in the bottom of the eighth inning to seal the victory in the clinching Game Five. Padres manager Dick Williams had paid a visit to the mound just before the at-bat to instruct pitcher Goose Gossage to walk Gibson, who had already hit a home run earlier in the game. Gossage, a right-hander, talked his manager into letting him pitch to the left-handed hitter. Gibson’s blast was the final exclamation point on a spectacular season for the Tigers.
Like the 1968 club, the 1984 Tigers seemed like a team that should have won more than just a single pennant, but it was not to be. They only went to the postseason once more, in 1987. They were heavy favorites in the ALCS against the Minnesota Twins, but flopped. The Tigers did win more games than any other club in baseball in the decade from 1980 to 1988.
By the early 1990s, it was becoming increasingly apparent that something had to be done about Tiger Stadium, whether it involved renovation or simply abandoning it. The city, and Tigers officials as well, preferred a new sports venue. They claimed that Tiger Stadium had inadequate parking, was expensive to maintain, and falling apart, all of which were familiar arguments. Club officials looked around at all the new parks sprouting up in Toronto, Chicago, Baltimore and Cleveland, with their luxury suites and fan amenities, and decided that Tiger Stadium, with its absence of suites, was an economic dinosaur. Scores of Tigers fans, however, wanted to save the old park. It was even added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 in an attempt to keep it from the wrecking ball. The Tiger Stadium Fan Club held “Save Tiger Stadium” rallies, and even organized a Tiger Stadium Hug, in which hundreds of fans linked hands around the park, offering it a sentimental embrace.
The Tigers’ final seasons at Tiger Stadium ranged from mediocre to bad. Sparky Anderson resigned after the 1995 campaign. He had fallen out of favor with Tigers brass after he had refused to manage replacement players during the recent owners’ lockout. Some thought Sparky got out just in time. In 1996, the bottom fell out of the organization. The Tigers lost 109 games, the start of a ten-year stretch in which they lost at least 90 games eight times, including three 100-loss seasons. One of those years, 2003, was the infamous 119-loss campaign (but that’s the story of another ballpark).
In the end, despite the pleas of traditionalists, the city decided that Tiger Stadium was obsolete. On October 29, 1997, ground was broken for a new stadium across the street from the historic Fox Theatre, which, like the Tigers, was now owned by Michael Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars Pizza. (Ilitch was also a former Tigers farmhand, hitting .280 in four minor-league seasons in the early 1950s.) The Tigers played their final game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on September 27, 1999. An emotional crowd of 43,356 was on hand to see the Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals, 8-2. The final hit was a towering eighth-inning grand-slam off the bat of Robert Fick. The ball hit the right-field roof before it bounced back down to the field. Todd Jones got Carlos Beltran to swing at strike three for the final out, as flashbulbs popped throughout the stadium. Just like that, 88 years of baseball history at Tiger Stadium had come to an end.
Now just another abandoned building among the thousands of others that dotted the bleak Detroit landscape, Tiger Stadium endured for another ten years, standing at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull like a hulking ghost that refused to budge. In the summer of 2000, director Billy Crystal brought his film crew inside Tiger Stadium to shoot scenes for his new baseball movie 61*. In July of 2001, the stadium hosted a baseball game between the Motor City Marauders and the Lake Erie Monarchs, both of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League. The contest was billed as an attempt to lure a team to Tiger Stadium for the independent Frontier League. Promoters had hoped for a crowd of 5,000, but only about 1,500 fans showed up to get one more look at the old park. A Frontier League team for Tiger Stadium never happened. In August 2001, two women’s baseball teams played a contest at Tiger Stadium, the last game of any kind played there. The years crawled by, and the structure continued to sit and rot.
Demolition at The Corner began in June of 2008. Nostalgic fans flocked to the site, snapping pictures. Drivers whizzing by on the adjacent Fisher Freeway could get a quick look at the daily progress of the demolition. Near the end, the last section of the stadium still remaining was the double-decked grandstand from first to third base. It stood there for a while, as a final desperate attempt was made to somehow preserve even that last remnant for some public or private use. No white knight appeared, however, and by September 2009, the demolition was complete. Today in 2012, the corner of Michigan and Trumbull is an empty grass field surrounded by a chain-link fence. The infield dirt still remains, the last vestige of a glorious history.
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