Detroit Pastoral: Growing Up at Tiger Stadium

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:25

    The definitive high-energymoment of my high school years took place at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 17, 1968.That was the night the Tigers clinched the pennant. I went to the game withfriends. We parked one of our fathers' cars on Perry St., next to Jimmy Hoffa'shome local, knowing no one would mess with it there. We were too wound up tosit, so we stood for much of the game, screaming ourselves hoarse with 46,000other fans. The Tigers were on the verge of their first American League championshipin a generation, and Detroiters were eager for good news. It was the secondyear of a civic psychosis brought on by the previous summer's devastating riot-orrebellion, depending on your point of view-and even though we were too young to notice, Detroit was dying a slow death. The opponents were the Yankees.They tied the game in their half of the ninth, but the Tigers rallied in thebottom of the inning. I shuddered as the stadium rocked with noise when theTigers' longtime star, Al Kaline, crossed the plate with the winning run. Withinseconds, thousands of people began to pour onto the field from every cornerof the stadium, and the sustained roar grew even louder. Several rows in front ofus, a mob had ripped down the left field fence before the game had ended, andphalanxes of young people, including us, were leaping onto the field, yellinglike banshees and chasing the Yankee outfielders toward their dugout. It wasa giant party. But it was also Detroit, so there was a weird edge. When I sawpeople ripping up the infield grass and digging ferociously with their handsat deeply anchored home plate, I grew a little nervous. Ballpark melees werea long tradition in Detroit. Moreover, two of the deadliest riots in the nationsince the Civil War had taken place in 1967 and 1943 within walking distanceof the pitcher's mound. The city had been on a losing streak since the autoplants started closing in the 1950s. People wore their bad attitudes on their sleeves. I wondered if this was going to get out of hand. Time isrunning out for Tiger Stadium. At the end of this season, it will become anotherabandoned piece of Detroit, just like all those skyscrapers, bungalows, apartmentbuildings, fire stations, bowling alleys, factories, fish stores, tool and dieshops, libraries, churches and Dom Polski halls. Detroit also has beautifulold neighborhoods, a huge middle class and several promising beachheads of redevelopment.But with tens of thousands of shabby vacant buildings and weed-choked emptylots, the sense of abandonment is overwhelming. Sprawlingand gray on the outside, gracious and blue on the inside, Tiger Stadium sitson one of the most historic pieces of baseball real estate in America. Theyhave played pro ball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on Detroit's nearwest side since 1896, and the stadium dates from 1912, the year Fenway Parkopened in Boston. The stadium shows its age. Paint is peeling, wires are exposedand the corridors are too tiny to house luxury boxes. Fans made a sophisticatedand hard-fought effort to save the stadium, but it is an anachronism. It justdoesn't fit in an era when baseball stadiums must be revenue-producing themeparks and entertainment centers.

    Ballparksare those rare places that produce wonderful memories for both children andadults, and people get weepy when the parks are preparing to close. In Detroit,once the world's greatest factory town, such feelings might go a little deeper.Baseball has always been a relief from the time clock here, and the stadiumhas been a rock: It is one of the few important buildings to withstand the city's tumultuous 20th century, during which innovative, dynamic Detroit reigned asthe Silicon Valley of the 1920s, then rapidly declined to become America's "firstThird World city," as author Ze'ev Chafets, a Michigan native, describedit in 1990.

    I don'tget emotional about buildings, but the passing of Tiger Stadium bothers me.Like many Detroiters, I have an abandoned building in my family. The house onSt. Clair Ave. in which my grandmother lived from 1912 to 1961 disappeared afterwe sold it. It deteriorated from proud, two-family flat to vacant structureto charred ruins to bulldozed lot, which is the usual devolution of an abandonedbuilding in Detroit. But I didn't get choked up about that, probably becauseits decline lasted more than a decade. I can measuremy life in relation to the stadium. My first trip there was in 1960, when Iwas nine. I saw the Tigers play the Red Sox. I recall seeing the explosion ofgreen when I walked into the park; it was the emerald-colored grass. I couldn'ttake my eyes off the great Ted Williams, who stood at the plate coiled in hisintense batting stance, glaring at the hapless Tiger pitcher. I went with myfamily, and my mother told us about her father, an Irish Canadian, who begangoing to games at Michigan and Trumbull before the turn of the century. I sat bymyself in the stadium bleachers the night of John F. Kennedy's death on Nov.22, 1963. It was the annual football championship between the city's top Catholicand public high schools. My neighbor, one of the game's officials, brought mealong after I finished delivering the extra edition of The DetroitNews. I shivered from the events of the day and from the cold rain, whichlooked like crystals falling past the immense light towers, and mixed with theusual smoke that drifted up from the stands to form a strange fog. I felt unusuallyhip sitting among hundreds of teenagers. A priest led the crowd in prayers forJFK at halftime, but the high school kids continued making out. After the game,police wearing black leather jackets and riding large horses took positionsin front of the bleachers, but the older kids rushed the field to tear downa goal post. The stadium announcer pleaded with them to "respect the memoryof your late president" and return to their seats, but they ignored him.

    As a teenagerI attended Sunday doubleheaders. I can still smell the cigar smoke and beer.I sat among serious fans who listened through their transistor radios to broadcasterErnie Harwell's play-by-play while they balanced beverages on their knees andkept score. I bought steaming hotdogs on soft buns smeared with mustard fromvendors who danced, threw the bread into the air and sang, "Hot doggy doggy,get yer red hot."

    I nevermissed an opening day; they were like civic holidays. In school, the nuns letus listen to the season's first game on a radio sitting on a desk in the frontof the room. As I got older, I became part of the blissful crowds that emergedfrom the long Michigan winter and marched into the stadium, our cheeks chafedfrom the spring wind. Each year I watched the fire chief present the ritualfloral horseshoe to the Tiger manager, and laughed at the hijinks of the day,like in 1974 when dozens of streakers cavorted in 38-degree weather, or in '83,when thousands of kids in the bleachers played off the "Tastes Great-LessFilling" beer commercial by chanting, "Eat shit-Fuck you."

    By 1984,I was a sportswriter, covering the Tigers for the Detroit Free Press,when the club had its best season in history. Tiger Stadium became the placewhere I went to work every day. I loved walking in through a back door, hoursbefore the fans arrived, into the damp, worn hallways under the stands, whereplump Polish ladies were grilling hotdogs and tv guys were running cable totheir trucks. When I left the stadium two hours after games, the ballpark wouldbe dark and still and a little spooky, and you would walk out into the hot,noisy world, and trash would be blowing into your face and old Checker cabswould be cruising Trumball and you realized what a separate world the stadiumwas.

    On a hazyOctober Sunday that year, Kirk Gibson hit his great home run, danced maniacallyaround the bases and the Tigers won the World Series. An hour later, I stoodon the stadium's roof in the rain with sportswriters from around the countryand watched the police cars burn. To celebrate the victory, thousands of youngpeople, many of them from the suburbs, ran through the streets, torching overturnedvehicles, riding on top of city buses, throwing bottles at cops and stealingthe wares of vendors. Police arrested people for looting, and one person sittingin his car outside a coney island restaurant was shot and killed in a robbery.The symbol for the melee was a potbellied 17-year-old slacker named Bubba Helms,who posed in front of a burning police car holding a Tiger pennant. The AssociatedPress sent his image to newspapers around the world. Helms later saidhe and his friends had drank a fifth of Jim Beam, "smoked a few bad ones"and went downtown to party. The West Palm Beach Post (Florida)described the scene as "explosions and sirens and the baying of a mad mob."

    In 1968I was Bubba Helms' age, and I, too, was part of a baying mob at the stadium.The world was a little crazy then; 1968 was the year of Vietnam, Paris, Prague,Chicago and the White Album. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and BobbyKennedy died, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelectionand the Tigers won the pennant. It seems absurd today to include the Tigers in that rundown, but in 1968, I probably considered the Tigers season more importantthan the Tet offensive. The year 1968 and Tiger Stadium together are searedinto my mind, along with memories of the people and emotions and even the endlessracial conflict that are, for better and for worse, what make Detroit Detroit.

    I spenta lot of time at the stadium that summer, the highlight of which was Denny McLainbecoming the first major league pitcher in 34 years to win 30 games. His 30thvictory took place on the Saturday before the pennant clincher. The opponentwas Oakland. A rookie right fielder, Reggie Jackson, caught our eye after hehit two home runs and made a great throw to nail a runner at the plate. Afterthe game my friend Mark and I stood with hundreds of others outside the Tigerclubhouse and chanted: "We want Denny." Broadcaster icons Sandy Koufax,Curt Gowdy and Pee Wee Reese brushed past us, and we said hello.

    Life wasgreat. We were seniors, we had girlfriends and our team was baseball's best.The Motown sound ruled radio dials around the world. The MC5, the now internationallyfamous proto-punk band, played at our Catholic high school's back-to-schooldance that month. Instead of singing his trademark "Kick out the jams,motherfuckers," lead singer Rob Tyner substituted "Kick out the jams,Mother Superior." The chaperones were relieved that the band didn't burnan American flag that night.

    Despiteour optimism, the city was coming apart. We didn't realize it at the time, butthe pathologies spawned by the previous summer's riot were combining with theongoing plant closings, growing poverty, racism and escalating violence. Detroit'spreviously slow-motion physical and spiritual decay was beginning to metastasize.During the 1970s, the city would lose 21 percent of its population and 30 percentof its jobs.

    For fearof the fire next time, merchants were bricking up their windows and erectingplexiglas rooms around their cash registers in a new architectural style dubbed"riot renaissance." Trained security guards began standing nervouswatch in stores and other public places. The overwhelmingly white police forceand black Detroiters clashed in a series of confrontations. Crime rose, andan interim daily paper during the nearly yearlong newspaper strike referredto alleged perpetrators as "jackals" and ''street vermin" andmade sure readers knew they were mostly black. Presidential candidate GeorgeWallace, preaching law and order, was picking up support among whites.

    In September1968, I had just finished a summer job at a small company that installed undergroundlawn sprinklers. I worked a lot with a close friend, Tom. Our coworkers werejunkies and off-duty firefighters. The junkies were mellow because they wereperpetually stoned. The firefighters were angry white men. Their jobs had becomeincreasingly busy and dangerous since the weeklong fire emergency of July 1967,and they saw blacks as the culprits. "Look at him, he'd cut your throatfor a nickel," a firefighter said to me one day as an unthreatening blackteenager walked nonchalantly in front of our truck at a Forest Ave. stoplight.

    During theriot, my liberal Democratic family could hear distant gunfire and sirens fromour porch and see smoke from our corner, but we lived miles from the action.The riot had touched Tom's family in a much more intimate way: His father, aDetroit policeman, had shot and killed a Chrysler Corp. worker who allegedlywas a looter. In fact, the victim was jimmying the door of a bar, perhaps trying to become a looter, when the police spotted him. They chased the man down analley to a nearby home, where they fired on him as he struggled to open a sidedoor. The man was unarmed and had not threatened the police. His wife witnessedhis death. He was the 14th of what would be 43 riot fatalities.

    Tom's dadwas a big, genial Irishman who hated black people. He talked about blacks alot, and he portrayed them, irrationally, as criminals, potential criminalsor people too dumb to be criminals. Tom did not have his father's veteran copattitude, but he hated black people, too. He called them "fucking niggers"most of the time. The name of Tom's father was published in newspaper accountsof the riot deaths, and the family began to receive harassing phone calls. Onenight, someone in the family reported seeing a car with black men inside driveslowly by the house and stop before driving away. Tom's family moved, and theybecame more embittered.

    Given thathostility toward blacks among Tom and the firefighters, it seemed to be an almostsupernatural coincidence that the site of our main job during the summer of1968 was the home of the most successful black man in America, Motown Recordsfounder Berry Gordy. He was fixing up a mansion filled with imported stone andwood in the Boston-Edison neighborhood, a mainly white, wealthy enclave notfar from the epicenter of the riot. The streets were lined with towering treesand magnificent homes that early auto industry executives, flush with cash,had built around WWI. Gordy's home contained a ballroom with a bandstand anda separate pool house connected to the home by a tunnel. There were golf greensin the huge yard. Each day we sprinkler installers would be met by Gordy's father,Berry Gordy Sr., a successful small-businessman who had owned the Booker T.Washington grocery store in Detroit's oldest black neighborhood. Gordy Sr. wasdemanding. As several of us wielded our shovels in the hot sun, he stood there,yardstick in hand, measuring our trenches to make sure they conformed to thespecifications in the contract.

    When heperceived a problem he would order us to dig deeper. To put it mildly, the firefightershad a problem taking orders from a black man. "Fucking reverse slavery,"they called it. They couldn't talk back to Mr. Gordy, but they took out theiranger by pissing in his son's marble swimming pool. Tom didn't like it either,but he and I, being more enthralled with the Motown aura than the older firefighters,stole souvenir 45s from Berry Gordy's poolside record player. We couldn't waitto show them to our friends, but we left them on the dashboard of Tom's car,and they warped in the sun. Beyond themurmur of hatred in the streets, the Tigers' thrilling pennant chase was playingout at Michigan and Trumbull. In some ways, Tiger Stadium was a sort of demilitarizedzone. At least whites saw it like that. Black Detroiters had long distrustedthe Tiger management. A former owner was widely believed to have disliked blacksand, indeed, the Tigers were the second-to-last team in the majors to put ablack player in the lineup (the Red Sox were last). The integration of the Tigershad taken place only 10 years earlier, in 1958, more than a decade after JackieRobinson's 1947 debut. The Tigers for most of the 1968 season had only threeblack players: left fielder Willie Horton, a hugely popular star who grew upin Detroit, pinch-hitter Gates Brown and pitcher Earl Wilson. They helped bringmore black fans than usual into the ballpark that season, and the vibe at theballpark was one of racial harmony. That wasespecially true on the wild night of Sept. 17, 1968. Paradoxically, in a tensesummer when memories of Detroit's greatest violence were still fresh, in a stadiumwhere a tradition of hooliganism stretched back 70 years, the chaotic eruptionfollowing the Tigers' victory tapered off into a love-in. Instead of fisticuffs,or worse, there was dancing. Out of the swirling crowd that jammed the fieldemerged couples doing polkas. I watched, stunned, as my friend Tom, who vergedon being a white supremacist, performed an impromptu square dance with a guyour age on what was left of the infield grass. The guy was black. They wereholding hands, laughing and swinging each other from side to side. I don'trecall if we discussed that odd coupling afterward, but it was not unusual thatnight. For hours, as the mass celebration drifted out of the stadium and intodowntown, black fans and white fans walked and edged their cars along WoodwardAve., Detroit's main street, honking horns and slapping hands. Some people,invoking the name of the Tigers' homegrown black star, yelled, "WillieHorton, unite our city!" Strangers hugged and, amazingly, even kissed.

    Of course,the feelings of brotherhood lasted only a few more weeks, while the Tigers chargedon to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the last World Series before intraleagueplayoffs began in 1969. Detroiters moved on to increasingly segregated lives.Today, Detroit, with approximately 980,000 people, is the nation's poorest bigcity, and it is about 80 percent black. The generally prosperous suburbs havea population of 3.8 million, and they are about 90 percent white. The Tigersnext year will play in a park whose "naming rights" were bought byComerica Bank, whose own name was invented by consultants who combined "cooperation"and "America." Detroit will soon become the largest city in the countryto offer Las Vegas-style casinos, and officials are also readying a spot nearthe new ballpark for the headquarters of a successful software firm that willmove in from the suburbs. Civic boosters are proclaiming, once again, that Detroitis "coming back." I have nothingagainst change, and I know I might like the new stadium. Some day in the 21stcentury I probably will reflect upon fond memories of Comerica Park. But I wasa kid at Tiger Stadium, as were my parents and grandparents. I worked there.It was the place where my life intersected with electric moments in the historyof my city. That is why, for me, nothing can replace it.