Its first day was overshadowed by the news the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. By the time Detroit’s Tiger Stadium bade farewell 87 years, it had witnessed 11,111 home runs, six World Series, three memorable All-Star games, NFL Championship games and championship boxing fights. Along the way it served as scenes for movies as well as a plethora of public events ranging from a KISS concert to a speech by Nelson Mandela.
Text by Dave Wright
Photos by John Moist
Lou Gehrig said goodbye there. Reggie Jackson became a national figure due to a famous home run in an All-Star Game. Denny McLain achieved one of the game’s rarest feats at the place they called The Corner. And so it went.
The old ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit’s Corktown district was one of the game’s most unusual ballparks. At the end of its life, it had the shortest right-field and longest center-field distance in major-league baseball. Although they only won six pennants during their tenure there, the hometown Tigers were often an interesting team with individual stars.
Its unique dimensions allowed fans to get closer than usual to the ballgame. (The front row of seats was just 55 feet behind home plate). And the fans got rewarded with unusual moments — such as a 22-inning game decided by a player who hit the only home run of his career to decide the game. It was the kind of place that inspired the best in players.
The ballpark’s history actually dated back to 17 years before its generally accepted debut. In 1895, Detroit had a team in the Western League, an eight-team loop that eventually melded into the American League. Team owner George Vanderbeck constructed a 5,000-seat wooden facility, called Bennett Park, on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues. Bennett Park was still their home field, when six years later, they joined the AL as a charter member. Detroit was one of the first powers in the new league, advancing to the World Series three years in a row from 1907-09. (The Cubs claimed their last World Series title there in 1908.) As the team improved, so did the capacity of the ballpark, capping out at 14,000. This did not include “wildcat” seats that were built on the rooftops on houses located behind the left-field fence.
Frank Navin, who bought the team in 1908, was a man with big ideas. He ordered a steel-and-concrete 23,000-seat ballpark that was built in an astonishing period of seven months after the end of the 1911 season. Navin bought up the rest of the city block of Michigan and Trumbull, stationed a flagpole inside the field of play, moved home plate in a different direction (so that the batter would not be looking into the sun) and opened for business on April 20, 1912, the same day Fenway Park in Boston debuted.
In its early years, Navin Field was a pitcher’s paradise. Left field was 345 feet away while right field was a monstrous 370 feet down the line. Center field was even farther – 467 feet. (Rumor was this came at the behest of the team’s first star, Ty Cobb.) Over the years, the distances gradually shortened down the lines. Left field settled in at 340 while right field gradually shrunk until settling in at 325. (For one season – 1954 – the Tigers shortened right field to 302 feet. The club went 68-86 and hit 18 fewer home runs than the year before. In 1955, right field returned to its 325-foot status. Detroit hit 40 more home runs than the year before, helped in part by a 20-year old rookie who hit 27 himself and posted a .340 BA to win the AL batting crown. His name? Al Kaline.).
In 1923, Navin increased capacity to 30,000. A dozen years later, after Navin’s death, Walter Briggs bought the club, adding an upper deck along the foul poles and seats in right field.
In 1934, the Tigers won the AL pennant but lost the World Series to the Cardinals. Navin Field got a lot of play in the newsreels that winter but it was not the sort of publicity one desires. In Game 6, a controversial play occurred when St. Louis’ Joe Medwick slid hard into third base and ended up in a fight with Detroit third baseman Marv Owen. When Medwick took his position in left field in the bottom of the inning, the Tiger fans pelted him with fruits, vegetables and just about anything else they could get their hands on. Baseball commissioner Judge Landis ordered Medwick off the field for his own safety. It is believed to be the only time in the sport’s history this has occurred. (The next year, a screen was placed on top of the fence.)
But the biggest move came in 1938. The city of Detroit decide to move an entire street – Cherry Street – so the entire ball park could now be double decked. Briggs Stadium, as it was now known, held 53,000 seats. Depending who you talk to, the upper deck in right field was built to hang 5-10 feet over the warning track. (Nobody ever knew for sure just close of a target that upper deck really was. But it burns bright in the memories of hitters like Tom Matchick. On July 19, 1968, the Tigers trailed Baltimore 4-3 with one runner on and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning when Matchick, a .226 hitter, lofted a fly ball to right. Frank Robinson appeared poised to make the catch only to see the ball drop in the first row of the overhang for a game winning home run, one of just four Matchick hit in six big league seasons. Robinson flung his glove into the stands in disgust. Such was life at The Corner.)
The short porch in right field wasn’t the only unusual feature of the park. A 125-foot flagpole stood just to the left of the 440-foot sign in dead center field. This pole was in play. Once or twice a year, an outfielder would have to go behind the pole to chase an errant hit. In the 1970s, Ken Berry, an excellent flychaser, forgot about this one day and ran flush into the pole while chasing a shot by Detroit OF Willie Horton. Berry lay injured while Horton, who was hardly fleet afoot, circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Partially because of that incident, a pad was put in place on the flagpole. Some managers felt a line should be drawn on the pole and that any ball hit above the line would be a home run. This never happened.
Another outfield oddity was a ledge that fielders used to jump onto to try to snare balls headed for the seats. In left field, outfielders were known to jump up on the auxiliary scoreboard, grab the screen and reach several feet over the fence.
Briggs Stadium was the scene of another famous event, which was actually something that did not occur. On May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games ended when he asked out of the Yankees’ lineup complaining of a headache. He never played another game. (Oddly. the Yankees won that day, 22-2 — the worst loss the Tigers ever suffered at home.)
The green box was considered a home-run haven. Babe Ruth hit his 700th career home run there in 1934. (Thirteen years earlier, he was the only player ever to homer over the center-field bleachers, which consisted of one deck at the time.) Although only three strongmen (Frank Howard, Harmon Killebrew, Cecil Fielder) hit balls that went over the roof in left field, several folks shot the ball over the right-field roof. Historians generally agree the longest home run hit in the ballpark was probably achieved by Detroit 1B Norm Cash, who ripped a shot over the center field scoreboard in a 1962 game that landed on the roof of a parked taxicab. In the 1971 All-Star Game, Reggie Jackson hit a ball off a transformer in deep right-center field that left the bat so fast that all TV could catch was its return trip to earth.
Because owner Walter Briggs believed baseball should be played in the daytime, the Tigers were the last team in the American League to install lights, putting in the arcs in 1948. It was said the lights at the ballpark were so bright that it could light up a city of 10,000 people.
In 1961, John Fetzer bought the team and renamed its home Tiger Stadium. Although few improvements were made to the ballpark over the years, it was still considered a showcase of baseball with a flair for memorable games. One of those occurred on June 24, 1962. Frank Lary, who had made a career out of beating the Yankees (he was 29-6 lifetime against them from 1955-63), was the Detroit starter. But the Yankees turned on their old nemesis, knocking him out with seven runs in two innings. Detroit responded quickly, trailing 7-6 after just three innings. The Tigers scratched out a run in the sixth to tie the game at 7. It would be 16 innings before either team scored again.
In the 22nd inning, Jack Reed hit the only home run of his 129-at bat career off Phil Regan for a 9-7 win. Winning pitcher Jim Bouton tossed seven scoreless innings for the victory. Detroit reliever Terry Fox threw eight scoreless innings of relief. The seven-hour game is the second longest game in American League history. Detroit OF Rocky Colavito tied a major-league record when he went 7-for-10 in the game. It was the type of park that inspired such feats.
In 1967, the race riots that tore up the city of Detroit started less than two miles from the ballpark. Writers described fire and smoke behind the outfield walls as a game went on. Out of concern for the neighborhood, the team moved a series to Baltimore. Even more unusual for the time, all three games were televised locally in an effort to distract minds of Detroiters.
A year later, Tiger Stadium was in the national spotlight when Denny McLain became the first pitcher in 31 years to win 30 games. He did it on national television in a mid-September game against Oakland that was won with a dramatic two-run rally in the last of the ninth inning. Among the dignitaries on hand that day: David Eisenhower (nephew of the president and the person for whom Camp David was named) and Dizzy Dean, who had been baseball’s last 30-game winner. It was part of a memorable summer as the city healed its wounds, got behind its baseball team ands flocked to the ballpark in record numbers.
By the 1970s, the ballpark was beginning to show its age. The Lions abandoned it for the Pontiac Silverdome. Fetzer sold the team to a pizza magnate, Tom Monaghan. The team began a downward spiral on and off the field. In 1977, a fire wiped out the press box. Shortly thereafter, the city of Detroit bought the park from the team for $1. As part of the transfer, the city gave the place a major paint job, changing the interior from green to blue. Many seats were replaced.
A World Series victory in 1984 didn’t seem to help. Monaghan had to get a helicopter to fly in pizzas to writers working inside the old ballpark while overzealous fans partied too hard directly outside Tiger Stadium. Although the ballpark suffered little damage, the city’s name was sullied. Outsiders began to look at Tiger Stadium — and the neighborhood it was located — in a different light.
Monaghan sold the team to a pizza rival, Mike Ilitch, in 1992. The new owner gave the old ballpark one last shot, adding a plaza of souvenir and food stands in the old players’ parking lot. He installed an area in the lower deck (between first and third base) that had padded seats and added waitservice. There was a one-year spike in attendance but the 1994 baseball strike wiped out a lot of good will earned. Ilitch began to make plans for a new ballpark downtown, breaking ground during the 1997 season.
Tiger Stadium didn’t go down easily. There was a huge outcry from traditionalists that the ballpark needed be saved as a historical monument (it had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989). To Ilitch’s credit, he paid for several renovations that kept the park looking reasonable in its final years. The final act came on September 27, 1999. Robert Fick hit a grand-slam homer to help Detroit to an 8-2 win over Kansas City. A post-game ceremony brought back just about famous ex-Tiger who was still alive for one last salute. (At age 89, Eldon Auker, a member of the 1934-35 AL champions, was the oldest returnee.)
<P>The Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000 but the Corner remained standing. The HBO movie 61* was filmed there. The movie was about the 1961 season when the Yankees’ Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. To make the park appear like Yankee Stadium, the park’s seats were painted green and a skyline of the Bronx was added. Although it was the park where he was booed regularly, Tiger Stadium played a huge role in Maris’ career. He hit his first home run of the 1961 season there. In 1968, his last at-bat came there when he struck out in Game 5 of the World Series. (When the credits rolled at the end of the movie, it is duly listed that the role of Yankee Stadium was played by Tiger Stadium.)
Despite the fact The Corner wasn’t being used much, the city of Detroit was on the hook for some $400,000 a year in maintenance. There were occasional amateur games played there, a 2002 fantasy camp and occasional special segments were taped there. When Ford Field hosted the 2006 Super Bowl, a tent on Tiger Stadium’s field played host to the Bud Bowl, an event that featured (among other things), a performance by Snoop Dogg.
Non-Baseball Events Held at Tiger Stadium
The year 1938 was significant in the ballpark’s history. The NFL Lions left University of Detroit Stadium to move downtown.
Although this is hard to imagine these days, the Lions were a very strong franchise in the 1950s, playing in three NFL title games in five seasons. They stayed at the ballpark until 1974 when they left to play in the 76,000-seat Pontiac Silverdome. By the time television and football began its long, happy marriage, Detroit was well established as the home field for the annual Thanksgiving Day game. Although other teams joined the rotation (Dallas came first and a third TV game was added in 2006), the Lions still host a Thanksgiving Day game every season.
Football at Tiger Stadium was an adventure. The field ran from the first base line, across the infield to the left-center-field fence. Unlike some teams that played in baseball parks, the Lions made no attempt to cover the infield. Teams had to stand on the same sideline in right field. In the Lions’ glory years of the 1950s, Detroit was considered one of the toughest venues in the league to play.
The Lions’ last title came in 1957. In the 17 years afterwards (before moving to Pontiac), they had few memorable days at Tiger Stadium. One of them came n Thanksgiving Day in 1962 when they sacked Green Bay’s Bart Starr 10 times en route to a 26-14 win — the lone Packer loss of the season. Several years later, the country watched another memorable Thanksgiving Day game played in a blizzard that covered the field by halftime. Ironically, the visitors that day were the Minnesota Vikings, who rolled to an easy victory. The unusual dimensions of the football field led to some odd happenings. In the early 1970s, disgusted Detroit fans began to throw snowballs at the team bench from the upper-deck seats in right field.
The ballpark was also the scene of one of the darkest days in NFL history. On October 24, 1971, Chuck Hughes, a 27-year-old wide receiver for Detroit, suddenly collapsed on the field at the end of a play. Since Detroit was driving for a score late in the game, some assumed Hughes was simply trying to stop the clock. But Chicago linebacker Dick Butkus, one of the toughest players to ever play the game, knew better. He frantically signaled to the sidelines to get help for Hughes. A doctor who was sitting in the stands tore from his seat, broke past an official and ran to help Hughes. But there was nothing anybody could do. Hughes was quickly wheeled off the field, which eerily ended minutes later.
After the game, it was revealed Hughes had passed away from a heart attack. It is the only on-field death in the history of the league.
On November 28, 1974, the Lions played their last game at Tiger Stadium. Fittingly, they lost to Denver, 31-27.
There is one other football item worthy of note regarding Tiger Stadium. In 1964, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had an idea he wanted to try. There had been occasional Monday night games played in the league over the years. However, in just about every case, it had been occurred due to a stadium conflict or for a special reason. None had occurred since 1955.
On September 28, 1964, the league scheduled Detroit to host Green Bay on a Monday night. 59,203 fans attended the game, the largest crowd ever to see a football game at the Corner. The game was televised only to Green Bay. (In those days, home games were blacked out 75 miles from the site of competition. Hence, for many years, everybody but the citizens of Detroit watched the annual Thanksgiving Day game.) The league scheduled eight more games in the next five years. In 1970, when ABC signed on to carry Monday Night Football on a weekly basis, the network came to Detroit to do a trial run at an exhibition game. Although that game was never televised, Tiger Stadium remained a part of the opening for the series for many years — long after the Lions had moved to the Pontiac Silverdome.
Joe Louis moved to Detroit as a youngster. He was a regular at baseball games there for years. He only fought once at Briggs Stadium, defeating Bob Pastor on September 20, 1939. The ballpark’s other famous boxing matches involved Jake LaMotta. In 1949, he defeated Marcel Cerdan, winning on a knockout in the tenth round to win the World Middleweight crown. (Cerdan claimed he dislocated his shoulder in the first round.) A year later, he returned to the stadium and retained his crown with a 15-round decision over Lauren Dauthuille.
There were very few concerts held over the years at The Corner. The most notable one easily was a KISS concert held on June 28, 1996. The group reunited for their Alive/Worldwide tour. This was their first stop and they sold out the place in record time. (The movie Detroit Rock City was based on this concert.)
On June 28, 1990, the ballpark hosted another unusual event. South African leader Nelson Mandela spoke before 49,000 people. Among the performers that day: Erma Franklin, older sister of Aretha Franklin.
In addition to the movie 61*, two other films — Tiger Town and Hardball — had scenes filmed there.
Although never as well known as Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, Tiger Stadium held an unique place in the hearts of Detroiters, who have now seemed to come to terms with the fact it will be torn down, probably in September 2008. All in all, however, the ballpark had a helluva good run.