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100 Things Tigers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Terry Foster
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Terry Foster
All rights reserved.
Navin Field and Briggs Stadium
How many times have we heard the story of the young boy walking into Tiger Stadium with his dad? He immediately fell in love with the stadium as he walked through the tunnels that led to the field and saw the green seats and all that green, luscious grass. This was the romance of the stadium, and green was the color of choice.
The place smelled of grilled hot dogs, brats, and stale popcorn. The seats made a magical sound as fans pounded them, hoping for a Tigers rally. There was a flagpole on the field, for heaven's sake, and players used to plant tomato plants behind it to put in their salads. There were three decks, a scoreboard as large as they come, and a massive center-field poke of 440 feet that we later discovered was a mere 420 feet.
This was Tiger Stadium, and today it is a vacant field that some Tiger fans maintain and play ball in. They love the stadium and hold out hopes that the city of Detroit will make it a permanent ball park for Little Leagues and common folks to play on.
The field is surrounded by fencing and somebody put up a sign calling it Ernie Harwell Field. It looks like you can't get in but somehow fans continue to sneak into the vacant lot.
Families drop by to snap photographs of their young ones taking mighty swings in the same spot that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Al Kaline used to play. They make running catches in center field or pretend to dig one out of the right-field corner as Kaline used to do. People have come by to take one last look while having lunch at venerable spots like Nemo's.
There is an ugly rumor they might put a warehouse on the property. Let's hope that is not true.
Tiger Stadium gave way to modern Comerica Park, one mile to the north, and efforts to save it failed. Some wanted to build condos that overlooked the field, where championship high school games would be played. Some wanted to turn it into a sports museum. There was also talk of building a new hockey arena on this site. I spoke to a guy from Detroit who wanted to build a gigantic sports bar along with restaurants and a sports museum. He said he could not get to first base with the city of Detroit, which showered him with miles of red tape. He finally gave up.
Fans continue to host fund-raisers and make movies about Tiger Stadium. But no amount of public love could save it. It began as Bennett Park in 1895. After initial stumbles, baseball in Detroit began to boom, and by the early 1990s it was time to expand from the wooden stands on Michigan and Trumbull. Frank Navin was hired to do bookkeeping for the Tigers in 1902 but recognized the importance of ownership. He salted away his money and later bought 10 percent of the team.
His minority share made him a rich man, and by 1909 he had enough money to buy the team outright. He noticed the stands were packed, and the demand was so great that Navin began plans to expand.
Michigan and Trumbull was the perfect location, so he didn't want to change that. The biggest alteration was moving home plate to where right field was at Bennett Park to make room for the expansion. He built a 22,000-seat ball park, and the official opening in April 1912 is recognized as the birth of Briggs Stadium and later Tiger Stadium. Over the years it was simply called "the Corner," and much of baseball history played out at Tiger Stadium.
This is where Babe Ruth once hit a 600-foot home run and the 700 of his career. It is where Lou Gehrig ended his consecutive-played-games streak at 2,130, and it is where Reggie Jackson and Ted Williams hit home runs over the 93-foot roof during All-Star Games.
It was later expanded to 40,000. Shortly after the death of Navin, his partner, Walter O. Briggs, bought his remaining shares and took over the team. He added second decks all the way around and enclosed the stadium.
It not only changed the look of the ball park but made it a hitter's heaven. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams called it the best background in baseball.
Tiger Stadium during its heyday could seat 55,000 people for football and baseball games. Many people don't know that every Lions and Tigers championship occurred here. In 2006 the Tigers played their first World Series game somewhere besides Tiger Stadium, Navin Field, or Briggs Stadium.
Now it is an open field where people come to play. It is their urban field of dreams.
Mark this date down on your calendar: April 25, 1901. That is when the Tigers made their American League debut at Bennett Park against Milwaukee, and it ended with fireworks. The Brewers roared to a 13 — 3 lead heading into the eighth inning, and it looked like it would be a gloomy day for a capacity crowd of 8,000.
But things began to pop for the Tigers. Frank "Pop" Dillon, who played with four major-league teams, led the way. After the Tigers scored a run in the eighth, Pop hit two doubles in the ninth inning, and the Tigers scored 10 runs to win 14–13. They were talking about this one all over town, and it is one of those games where 8,000 attended but 50,000 claimed to be there. Dillon hit a record four doubles in the game.
It was Dillon's only full season in Detroit. He finished his career with a .252 batting average in 312 games.CHAPTER 2
Ty Cobb: The Georgia Peach
You would think that a man nicknamed "the Georgia Peach" who played in the Salley League would be a sweetheart of a guy. Well, Ty Cobb was not a good guy. He even admitted at times there was something inside of him that popped.
"When I began playing the game, baseball was about as gentlemanly as a kick to the crotch," Cobb said. "I was like a steel spring with a growing and dangerous flaw in it. If it is wound too tight or has the slightest weak point, the spring will fly apart, then it is done for."
The spring often popped. It led Major League Baseball in hits, runs, stolen bases, fights, and ejections. Cobb was a guy capable of hitting for the cycle every day of his life. By that we mean having fights with teammates, opponents, umpires, and fans.
Cobb is our Babe Ruth. The difference is that Ruth hit home runs and Cobb hit everything else. It would be interesting to see how he'd survive in today's game. Few liked him, but his game was so magnificent that you had no choice but to respect him. The Tigers put a plaque on Comerica Park calling him the greatest Tiger ever. Most ignore it but there are a few historians who do not like the plaque.
Here are a couple little-known facts about Cobb. He was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame's first class in 1936; was baseball's first playing millionaire, because he invested in Coca-Cola and General Motors; and served as player/manager for several years with the Tigers.
When he retired in 1928 Cobb owned 90 hitting records. He remains the Tigers' all-time leader in runs scored (2,087), hits (3,902), doubles (664), RBIs (1,805), and batting average (.369).
Cobb played a little bit with the Philadelphia A's, and his 4,191 hits ranks second in baseball history behind Pete Rose, who finished with 4,256. However, Rose batted .303 and Cobb .367. He also batted .400 or better three times, scored 100 runs 11 times, and reached 1,000 hits by age 24. There were so many career highlights that you could write a book. Of course a number of people have.
Cobb only hit 117 home runs — and many of those inside the park — because he didn't think hitting for power was the best way to win. After a session with reporters about the hitting power of Babe Ruth, Cobb stopped choking up on his bat and hit three home runs one game and two the next.
He was a great baseball player but not a great person.
People often wonder where the source of his anger came from. Cobb grew up in Royston, Georgia, and his father was a state senator, school teacher, newspaper publisher, and county school commissioner. His final words to Cobb when he left to play baseball were, "Don't come home a failure."
Later his father was accidentally shot and killed by his mother, who mistook him for a prowler. Many believed that was the source of Cobb's energy and anger.
However, there was a compassionate side to him. He won over the Philadelphia fans that came to harass him. Earlier he was accused of spiking A's third baseman Frank Baker in a game in Detroit. The A's demanded that Cobb be ejected and suspended.
The return series to Philadelphia drew 120,000 fans for the four-game series and, because of several death threats, police escorted Cobb to the game and several plainclothes policemen were in the stands. Some lined the roped-off area in the outfield. However, Cobb drew cheers when he leaped over the roped area for a diving catch and later gave a fan $5 for breaking his hat.
There is so much to Cobb that perhaps one of the things you should do is read a biography on the man. He is not Mr. Tiger because of his disposition, yet he is the Tigers' all-time great ball player.
He was no peach, but the man sure could play.
October 6, 1906: Teammate Ed Siever cursed at Cobb for not hustling in a game. The two scuffled, and Cobb knocked Siever down and kicked him in the head.
March 16, 1907: Cobb attacked a black groundskeeper and his wife. That same day Cobb fought teammate Charley Schmidt. This was the fight that motivated the Tigers to initiate talks to trade Cobb to Cleveland.
Later that year Cobb bragged in a newspaper article that he could whip any of his Tigers teammates. Schmidt took offense to the article and basically shoved the words back in Cobb's face. The Tigers catcher was solidly built and knocked the Georgia Peach out of the next two exhibition games with a broken nose and a couple black eyes.
May 15, 1912: One of Cobb's most famous and unfortunate fights was very one-sided. He went into the stands and attacked fan Claude Lucker, who had lost one hand and parts of another in a work-related accident.
Cobb claimed Lucker heckled him during the game, which Lucker denied. Whether it was mistaken identity or not, Cobb went head-hunting. Cobb knocked the man down and spiked him and kicked him in the leg, behind the ear, and in the back. The man was down and defenseless when a fan shouted to Cobb, "Don't kick him. He has no hands."
Cobb responded by saying, "I don't care if he has no feet."
Cobb was ejected and suspended. Teammates voted to strike if Cobb was not allowed to play. They kept their promise, and the organization avoided a $1,000 fine by fielding a replacement team to play in Philadelphia. They lost 24–2. The roster included 42-year-old manager Hughie Jennings; coach James "Deacon" McGuire, 48; and coach Joe Sugden, 41.
The rest of the lineup was made up of local semipro players and 20-year-old Aloysius Travers, who was studying to become a priest.
Commissioner Ban Johnson traveled to Philly and threatened each Tiger with a lifetime suspension if they didn't play. Cobb begged them to play, and they were all fined between $100–$150 for each game missed.
Here is the wildest part. The man who started the fight — Cobb — was only fined $50 and returned to the lineup 10 days after the initial romp into the stands.
August 12, 1912: It wasn't Cobb's fault this time. He simply was walking to Detroit's Grand Central Station, when three men attacked him on his way to catch a train for an exhibition game in Syracuse.
The men pulled knives on Cobb, and he was cut on the shoulder. Cobb pulled out his pistol that he carried for protection, but it jammed, and he did not end up shooting anybody. But he did catch one of his attackers and pistol-whipped him. Afterward Cobb caught his train and later that day made his exhibition game and got two hits.
April 1, 1917: Cobb battled with New York Giants manager John McGraw, but no fists were thrown. However, the verbal barrage was pretty intense.
September 24, 1921: Cobb didn't like two of the calls umpire Billy Evans made against him during a 5–1 loss to the Washington Senators, and he wanted to settle things after the game. Cobb confronted Evans in the umpire room, and the two engaged in a bloody battle that was won by Cobb. The fight was witnessed by players, fans, and Cobb's son, Ty Jr.
No action was initially taken against Cobb by American League Commissioner Ban Johnson. Later baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspended Cobb indefinitely as a player, but he was allowed to continue to manage the Tigers.
July 17, 1961: His final battle was a tough one. It came at Emery University Hospital at age 74. Cobb died after battling prostate cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Only three of his former teammates attended his funeral.CHAPTER 3
Willie Horton Tries to Quiet the Riot
We didn't understand. Why were people still looting and burning buildings in our neighborhood?
Everybody loved and respected Tigers slugger Willie Horton. When Horton saw smoke billowing near Tiger Stadium on a hot night in 1967, he knew he had to act fast. These were black people rioting and tearing up our city, and Horton believed his people would listen.
So he left Tiger Stadium in full uniform with a full police escort and went to a spot on Livernois. He figured people would put down their weapons, suppress their anger, and go back home.
In the wee hours of morning, a mostly white police force raided a blind pig on Detroit's near west side. The patrons were black, and the angry crowd that gathered was black, also. There was an uneasy relationship between the black community and the police. There'd been decades of abuse and mistrust, and this was the incident that broke relative peace.
The riots stunned the media. They did not see this coming. I grew up on the near west side in Detroit. I was eight years old at the time, and the unrest did not surprise me.
We used to hang out around a makeshift basketball court between Vancouver and Ivanhoe Streets, and we heard bigger boys bragging about how the city was going to burn the next summer.
We did not understand why at the time. But the riots happened. Once word got around the next morning about Horton's heroic stand, we figured the riots would be wrapped up within hours.
Willie Horton was our hero. He was the strong, strapping kid from Detroit who worked magic with his bat and was a better outfielder than the media gave him credit for. Black people loved Willie Horton. Everybody wanted to be like him.
Horton stood on top of a car with a bullhorn and asked that people go home. He wanted them to stop hurting one another and burning the city. However, this was bigger than Willie Horton. Nobody listened, and the riots continued for five days.
"You know I never had any fear," Horton told me. "I never thought I was in danger or anything. The funny thing is there were people there trying to make sure I was okay. Nobody wanted to see me get hurt. I was just trying to help my city in any way I could."
In the end 43 people were killed, nearly 500 were injured, and about 7,000 were arrested. They were the worst riots in Detroit history, and you can still see the damage of 2,000 buildings that were burned and destroyed.
Afterward, Horton remained a hero in our community. We just realized he was human like the rest of us and could not make angry crowds disappear.
There are many signs of the riot in our city. There are abandoned buildings and crumbling neighborhoods that did not survive. Horton wants to help in any small way he can. He and his son, Darryl, are looking into building a baseball academy near downtown Detroit. It would be outfitted with indoor batting cages, computers, and classrooms.
Excerpted from 100 Things Tigers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Terry Foster. Copyright © 2013 Terry Foster. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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