With the cancellation of the spring sports season, and the loss of so many things that are a part of the fabric of American life in the month of April, I’m reminded of an experience I had in the early spring of 2009. In the midst of what was a historic athletic event for the state of North Carolina, I had an opportunity to experience something I will never forget in one of America’s most unique and enduring cities.
This month 11 years ago, I was in Detroit covering the University of North Carolina basketball team’s run to the NCAA Championship. Like these current times, the spring of 2009 was a period of deep recession in the United States. Many in the local media, seeing their budgets for travel wiped away by cost cuts from their parent companies, had to carpool to make the trek west for the Final Four, or not make the trip at all.
I couldn’t afford to fly up to Detroit at the time, so I drove to Michigan with my longtime friend and colleague, Tucker McLaughlin of the South Boston News and Record. On Saturday, Michigan State defeated UConn, and UNC defeated Villanova, setting up Monday night’s NCAA Championship Game. On Sunday, the two teams returned to Ford Field for more media opportunities leading up to the final. Following those series of interviews, I headed into Detroit’s oldest surviving neighborhood - Corktown - to see a piece of baseball history that was slowly fading into the pages of history.
At the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in Corktown sat Tiger Stadium. At least, in the words of Frank Sinatra’s song, ‘There Used to Be A Ballpark Right Here,’ from the stadium’s inception in 1912 until the Tigers moved downtown into Comerica Park after the 1999 season.
For a decade it had sat vacant while the city of Detroit tried to figure out something to do with it. There was talk of a real estate project with luxury condos, and also talk of creating a museum. Ultimately nothing would come of these ideas, and by the time I made my way to Michigan and Trumbull the day before the 2009 NCAA Championship Game, the ballpark had been partially demolished, with only the original Navin Field section, spanning from dugout to dugout, remaining.
As I walked the perimeter of the old hulk, a huge navy blue colored wall made of plywood made it impossible to see anything until one made their way into what used to be the outfield area. Out there, a chain link fence allowed one to at least peer inside.
I could see the rusting metal of the old rafters and posts, as well as deteriorating seats. One could still barely make out the dimensions of the infield, and there was still grass and dirt. Suddenly, my mind began to drift into the past, and all the recollections of baseball history that I had watched and read throughout my younger days.
Like most of the old-time parks, Tiger Stadium was quirky. Some called it a hitter’s park, but it depended on where you hit the ball. While it was only 325 field down the lines, with inviting upper deck porches in right and left-center fields, the walls jutted out like a V towards center field, where the power alleys met 440 feet away from home plate. Only New York’s Polo Grounds was farther away in terms of official distance from home plate to center field.
Lou Brock was known much more for his speed and all-around hitting ability than his power. Along with setting the career stolen base record that lasted over a decade, he was one of the few men to reach the 3,000-hit milestone. But when Lou Brock really did get ahold of one, it went farther than just about anybody. This was particularly evident on two occasions - June 17, 1962 at the Polo Grounds in New York, and October 6, 1968 - Game 4 of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Playing against the expansion Mets as a member of the Chicago Cubs in the old Polo Grounds in Harlem in 1962, Brock took an Al Jackson pitch and crushed it over the New York clubhouse in dead center field, approximately 500 feet away from the plate. The faint sound of the radio feed from that day, the distinct crack of the bat, and Lindsey Nelson proclaiming “What a tremendous wallop!” over the airwaves is something that can stand up the hairs on the arms of old-school baseball fans.
Six years later, Brock had the game of his life against the Tigers in Game 4 of the 1968 World Series. Leading off the game for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Major Leagues’ last 30-game winner, Denny McLain, Brock nailed a fastball into the distant reaches of the center field bleachers at Tiger Stadium, quieting the home crowd and startling even Tigers broadcaster George Kell, calling the game nationally for NBC Sports, with his prodigious blast. You had to be a grown man to put one in the center field bleachers in Tiger Stadium. Brock would crush two more pitches over 400 feet that afternoon, earning a triple and a double to go along with his leadoff homer as the Cardinals romped, 10-1.
The following day, however, Brock would become part of one of the more infamous plays in World Series history, as he was called out after he tried to score standing up following a brilliant throw in left field by Willie Horton and tag at home by Detroit catcher Bill Freehan. The out call reversed the fate of the series, as the Tigers came back from a 3-1 deficit to win out and bring Detroit its first World Series championship since 1945.
For non-Tiger fans, probably the most memorable moment at Tiger Stadium was Reggie Jackson’s epic home run in the 1971 All-Star Game, which struck a light tower atop the roof in right-center field and caromed back onto the field. Arguably just as memorable was Ted Williams' titanic home run that won the 1941 All-Star Game, which came just a few months before Williams became the last man in history to bat .400 in a season.
For Tiger fans, there’s too many famous moments to count. There’s Kirk Gibson’s home run that put a finishing touch on the franchise’s last World Series triumph in 1984. There was the day Denny McLain won his 30th game, with future Hall of Famer Al Kaline nearly knocking him unconscious by accidentally banging his head on the concrete top of the Tiger dugout as they raced onto the field to celebrate. There was Cecil Fielder’s massive home run that carried over the roof in left field in 1993. And there was the last day - September 27, 1999 - when the fans, many of them with tears in their eyes, simply didn’t want to leave, knowing they’d never come back.
Thoughts of Lou Brock and Reggie Jackson and Al Kaline and Denny McLain and Kirk Gibson were heavy on my mind as I stood alongside a chain link fence at the old abandoned ballpark that afternoon of Sunday, April 5, 2009. I had gotten lucky and unearthed an intact concrete brick out near where the center field bleachers once stood, with one side painted in Tiger blue. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to bring Tiger Stadium back.
As I stood against the chain link fence, I tried to get super quiet, almost in a state of transcendental meditation. I tried to get so quiet so I could revive the ghosts of the past, to bring Willie Horton back to left field and Lou Brock back streaking around third. To bring back Reggie Jackson and all the many Hall of Famers who took the field with him the night of his famous homer. To bring back Al Kaline and George Kell and Ted Williams and Babe Ruth and all the others who had made this tiny speck of an old midwestern neighborhood into a truly special place.
Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get quiet enough. I couldn’t bring the magic back. All I could do was stand there and see what time and progress had done.
A few months after I came home following UNC’s triumph over Michigan State in the NCAA Championship Game, the remainder of Tiger Stadium was torn down. The original majesty of Tiger Stadium has been replaced with just another set of condos, and a local pizza parlor.
Denny McLain comes around these parts, signing autographs at baseball card shows in Raleigh. If you’ll pay to get him to sign something and strike up a conversation, he’ll tell you about those glory years, and just how difficult it was to get Lou Brock out. He’ll tell you about the time Gates Brown was eating a hot dog on the dugout bench at Tiger Stadium but was called to pinch hit. Not wanting manager Mayo Smith to see him eating the hot dog, Gates stuffed it into his jersey, only to have to slide headfirst into second base to beat out a double.
McLain will also tell you about what a unique place Tiger Stadium was, and what a damn shame it is that they tore the place down for just another set of condos - the same fate that came to another legendary ballpark, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
For me, Tiger Stadium will always be about that day at the chain link fence, when I lived history for the briefest of moments, and tried to bring it all back in another brief moment.