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Remembering when a baseball team helped save a city

When Detroit faced race riots in 1967, baseball helped calm the nerves of a city on the edge.
It was one of the oddest things I have ever seen. There we were, on vacation at my aunt’s house, when somebody suddenly shouted at the television. "Hey, that looks like St. Francis."
St. Francis, located on the corner of Fenkell and Livernois in inner-city Detroit, was the grade school my three brothers and myself attended. Just what was it doing on television? And who were those people on top of the school?
We quickly found out. Our hometown, Detroit, was burning down. Forty years ago this week, the city was in the middle of a terrible race riot that lasted several days. As we watched from the safety of a house in Dayton, Ohio, the city we had grown up in was exploding at the seams. I wish I could say I was surprised.
As the nation watched in horror, we just nodded our heads at the familiar scenes. For years, we had been told to stay away from 12th Street, where the main trouble began. As a rule, we went only to day games at Tiger Stadium, which was located only a few miles away. If you were going to a night game, you had to attend with somebody Mom knew.
It you were riding the bus to work or the zoo, you knew exactly what streets were safe and which ones weren’t. You didn’t vary by a block because, if you did, you could get seriously hurt. It was a way of life in Detroit.
So, when trouble began, I wasn’t surprised to see the National Guard sitting on top of my grade school. There was a reason there was barbed wire all around the school grounds. When a looter ran across the street from school with a portable TV under his arm, the nation was probably shocked to see him gunned down. But we knew the city had been building up to this kind of tension for several months.
In the middle of this chaos and tragedy, an amazing event happened. The hometown Tigers were involved in a wild four-team pennant race with the Twins, White Sox and the Red Sox. The riot caused a series to be moved from Detroit to Baltimore. From there, the team went on a lengthy road trip. As I recall, nearly every game of this trip was televised, a very unusual occurrence at the time. The TV ratings for those games were off the charts.
When the team returned home, a crowd of over 44,000 showed up at the ballpark for a doubleheader. The racial tensions were still smoldering but the town had found something everybody could agree on — the fate of their local baseball team. It helped that one of the team’s best players was a black man from Detroit — OF Willie Horton. (On the first day of the riots, Willie appeared in uniform to try to calm people down.) It also helped that pitcher Mickey Lolich was a member of the National Guard that patrolled the city at night. It was as if the players were doing their best to help calm down the city.
As it developed, Detroit did not get the happy ending it was hoping for. They finished the season tied for second with the Twins, one game behind the Impossible Dream Red Sox.
It is not totally true that the baseball team saved Detroit from destroying itself. After all, even the dumbest rioter knew the game was up when the tanks started rolling down the street. But it is true that, 40 years ago, the city rallied behind a cause that blacks and whites could unite on. We all agreed that Hank Aguirre threw to the wrong base to kickstart a six-run California Angel rally in a tough loss on the second last day of the season. We all forgave Dick McAuliffe for hitting into his only double play of the season for the final outs of the painful last game because he had played so well all season. We could agree on all this because we were in this fight together. Thanks, guys.
(Dave Wright is senior editor at August Publications in Minneapolis. He is a native of Detroit.)