This article was written by Scott Ferkovich
On Monday, April 15, 1912, at 2:20 A.M., the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, sank after hitting an iceberg less than three hours earlier. It was 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 88 summers. Navin Field’s name was later changed to Briggs Stadium, then 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. Before 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. With the opening of Shibe Park in Philadelphia in 1909, closely followed by Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a new wave of steel and concrete baseball palaces was 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.
He called it, appropriately enough, Navin Field.
He hired the architectural firm of Osborn Engineering of Cleveland. In addition to Navin and Fenway, Osborn had also designed Forbes Field, League Park, Comiskey Park, and Griffith Stadium. It was later responsible for 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 their final game of 1911. Construction workers were able to finish the new ballpark in time for Opening Day 1912 at a cost of $300,000.
Fans attending the first game at Navin Field would have been surprised at the most obvious difference between it and Bennett Park: the new layout of the baseball diamond. While 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 renamed Cochrane Street), 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 Avenue (at the corner of Michigan Avenue), 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 that 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. Beyond first and third base, covered pavilions extended as far as the outfield fences. The only seating beyond the foul poles was the single-decked bleacher section in faraway right-center. The playing field’s 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 seats, may be surprised to learn that all of Navin Field’s 23,000 seats were originally painted yellow. One feature that remained constant throughout the park’s 87-year history 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, 1912, but 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 ballpark on a steal of home in the first inning. The Tigers defeated Cleveland, 6-5, in 11 innings. 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.
Detroit was growing dramatically, thanks to the automobile industry. The 1910 census gave the city’s population as 465,766. Within 10 years, that number had more than doubled, to 993,678. Frank Navin realized his ballpark would need more seating to accommodate potential new customers. It underwent its first expansion after the 1922 season. The infield stands were double-decked, although the covered pavilions beyond first and third base remained unchanged. An elevator carried the knights of the keyboard to a press box on the roof behind home plate. 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. The ballpark was slowly starting to resemble the grand stadium it would eventually become.
The first radio broadcast of a game from Navin Field took place on Opening Day, April 20, 1927, a 7-0 Tigers victory over the St. Louis Browns. The day before, 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.”
In 1934 the new owners of a struggling four-year-old franchise in Portsmouth, Ohio, called the Spartans 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 University of Detroit Stadium, and changed their name to the Detroit Lions. On December 15, 1935, 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.
Frank Navin died in 1935, and Walter O. Briggs, an auto-body magnate and lifelong Tigers fan, purchased the team for $1 million from Navin’s widow, Grace. Briggs wanted to put his own stamp on an expansion of Navin Field. He had a vision to build what he considered the finest baseball palace in the land.
Again, Osborn Engineering was given the job of undertaking the renovation. The double-decked grandstand was extended down the first-base line to the right-field foul pole. Briggs wanted to build seating beyond the right-field wall as well, but it seemed an impossible task, given that it abutted hard against Trumbull Avenue.
Osborn saved the day by moving the right-field fence 42 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 10 feet in either direction. Simply put, the upper deck would have an overhang extending 10 feet closer to home plate than the first row of the lower deck. An overhang would also extend 10 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 benefited from the added 10 feet of the overhang. Since the new distance to right field was now 325 feet, the first row of the overhang was a mere 315 feet from home plate. A new press box was also built on the roof of the second deck. Navin Field now had an official capacity of 36,000.
Yet another round of expansion took place over the winter of 1937-38, as the ballpark was fully enclosed and double-decked. Numerous iron posts supported the second deck, as well as the roof above it (the only unroofed section was the center-field bleachers). Three new scoreboards were built. The main one was the jumbo-sized, hand-operated affair looming over the upper-deck bleachers. But there were many sections of the park, mostly those in the outfield lower deck, where spectators could not 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. The seating capacity was now 53,000, the second largest 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 Briggs felt it was time for a new name for his baseball cathedral. Navin Field would now be called Briggs Stadium.
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 it was time to reap the benefits of a larger stadium. On July 3, 1938, it was announced 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 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.
Briggs had always resisted installing lights in his stadium, claiming that baseball was meant to be played in the sunshine. He finally had to give in to progress. On June 15, 1948, the Tigers played the first night game at Briggs Stadium, a 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics before 54,480 fans. At last every American League ballpark 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 40 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 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 Tigers games, most of them from Briggs Stadium.
Walter Briggs died in 1952. The team was inherited by his son, Spike, who sold it in 1956 to broadcasting executive John Fetzer. With the Briggs family out of the picture, Fetzer in 1961 changed the ballpark’s name to Tiger Stadium.
In 1958 the old hand-operated scoreboard above the bleachers in center field, which had stood since the expansion of 1938, was replaced by an 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 spark plugs and Stroh’s beer (“America’s Only Fire-Brewed Beer”).
By the late 1960s, rumblings were heard of replacing Tiger Stadium, which was showing its age. The area around the ballpark was becoming increasingly unsafe, especially for night games. It was not the first time the city had floated the idea of a new ballpark. In 1956 there had been a proposal for a 100,000-seat stadium for both the Tigers and Lions. A few years later, a plan to build a 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.
The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, had decided to abandon Tiger Stadium for greener (albeit artificial) pastures in the Pontiac Silverdome. After winning the NFL Championship Game at Briggs Stadium in 1957, the Lions organization had entered a dark period of sustained mediocrity. The biggest news in recent years had been the death of Lions receiver Chuck Hughes, who suffered a fatal on-the-field heart attack during a 1971 game at Tiger Stadium. Their final contest at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Denver Broncos in 1974.
In 1977 Tiger Stadium was sold to the City of Detroit, and then leased back to the Tigers. Steps were taken to try to 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 seats were ripped out, to be replaced by modern plastic seats of orange and blue. The exterior was covered in white aluminum siding in order to eliminate the costly coat of white paint the stadium needed every year.
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 was falling apart, all of which were familiar arguments. With its lack of amenities and revenue-generating suites, they also considered Tiger Stadium to be an economic dinosaur. Scores of fans, however, disagreed with that assessment, believing it was better to try to keep the Tigers at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
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. In its entire history, the ballpark hosted the World Series in 1934, 1935, 1940, 1945, 1968, and 1984. It was the site of All-Star Games in 1941, 1951, and 1971.
Tiger Stadium was now just another abandoned building among the thousands of others that dotted the bleak Detroit landscape. It was left to sit and rot while the city tried to figure out what to do with the piece of real estate. Like a hulking white ghost at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the old ballpark refused to go away.
Finally, the wrecking crew arrived in June of 2008. Near the end, the last section of the stadium still remaining was the double-decked grandstand from first to third base. It stood 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.
This biography first appeared in “Detroit the Unconquerable: The 1935 World Champion Tigers,” edited by Scott Ferkovich. To read more articles from “Tigers By The Tale: Great Games at Michigan and Trumbull” (SABR, 2016) at the SABR Games Project, click here.
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