Detroit Pastoral: Growing Up at Tiger Stadium

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:25

    The definitive high-energy moment 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 with friends. We parked one of our fathers' cars on Perry St., next to Jimmy Hoffa's home local, knowing no one would mess with it there. We were too wound up to sit, so we stood for much of the game, screaming ourselves hoarse with 46,000 other fans. The Tigers were on the verge of their first American League championship in a generation, and Detroiters were eager for good news. It was the second year of a civic psychosis brought on by the previous summer's devastating riot?or rebellion, 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 the bottom of the inning. I shuddered as the stadium rocked with noise when the Tigers' longtime star, Al Kaline, crossed the plate with the winning run. Within seconds, thousands of people began to pour onto the field from every corner of the stadium, and the sustained roar grew even louder. Several rows in front of us, a mob had ripped down the left field fence before the game had ended, and phalanxes of young people, including us, were leaping onto the field, yelling like banshees and chasing the Yankee outfielders toward their dugout. It was a giant party. But it was also Detroit, so there was a weird edge. When I saw people ripping up the infield grass and digging ferociously with their hands at deeply anchored home plate, I grew a little nervous. Ballpark melees were a long tradition in Detroit. Moreover, two of the deadliest riots in the nation since the Civil War had taken place in 1967 and 1943 within walking distance of the pitcher's mound. The city had been on a losing streak since the auto plants 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 is running out for Tiger Stadium. At the end of this season, it will become another abandoned piece of Detroit, just like all those skyscrapers, bungalows, apartment buildings, fire stations, bowling alleys, factories, fish stores, tool and die shops, libraries, churches and Dom Polski halls. Detroit also has beautiful old neighborhoods, a huge middle class and several promising beachheads of redevelopment. But with tens of thousands of shabby vacant buildings and weed-choked empty lots, the sense of abandonment is overwhelming.

    Sprawling and gray on the outside, gracious and blue on the inside, Tiger Stadium sits on one of the most historic pieces of baseball real estate in America. They have played pro ball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on Detroit's near west side since 1896, and the stadium dates from 1912, the year Fenway Park opened in Boston. The stadium shows its age. Paint is peeling, wires are exposed and the corridors are too tiny to house luxury boxes. Fans made a sophisticated and hard-fought effort to save the stadium, but it is an anachronism. It just doesn't fit in an era when baseball stadiums must be revenue-producing theme parks and entertainment centers.

    Ballparks are those rare places that produce wonderful memories for both children and adults, 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 stadium has 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 as the Silicon Valley of the 1920s, then rapidly declined to become America's "first Third World city," as author Ze'ev Chafets, a Michigan native, described it in 1990.

    I don't get emotional about buildings, but the passing of Tiger Stadium bothers me. Like many Detroiters, I have an abandoned building in my family. The house on St. Clair Ave. in which my grandmother lived from 1912 to 1961 disappeared after we sold it. It deteriorated from proud, two-family flat to vacant structure to charred ruins to bulldozed lot, which is the usual devolution of an abandoned building in Detroit. But I didn't get choked up about that, probably because its decline lasted more than a decade.   I can measure my life in relation to the stadium. My first trip there was in 1960, when I was nine. I saw the Tigers play the Red Sox. I recall seeing the explosion of green when I walked into the park; it was the emerald-colored grass. I couldn't take my eyes off the great Ted Williams, who stood at the plate coiled in his intense batting stance, glaring at the hapless Tiger pitcher. I went with my family, and my mother told us about her father, an Irish Canadian, who began going to games at Michigan and Trumbull before the turn of the century.

    I sat by myself 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 Catholic and public high schools. My neighbor, one of the game's officials, brought me along after I finished delivering the extra edition of The Detroit News. I shivered from the events of the day and from the cold rain, which looked like crystals falling past the immense light towers, and mixed with the usual smoke that drifted up from the stands to form a strange fog. I felt unusually hip sitting among hundreds of teenagers. A priest led the crowd in prayers for JFK at halftime, but the high school kids continued making out. After the game, police wearing black leather jackets and riding large horses took positions in front of the bleachers, but the older kids rushed the field to tear down a goal post. The stadium announcer pleaded with them to "respect the memory of your late president" and return to their seats, but they ignored him.

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

    I never missed an opening day; they were like civic holidays. In school, the nuns let us listen to the season's first game on a radio sitting on a desk in the front of the room. As I got older, I became part of the blissful crowds that emerged from the long Michigan winter and marched into the stadium, our cheeks chafed from the spring wind. Each year I watched the fire chief present the ritual floral 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-Less Filling" 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 place where I went to work every day. I loved walking in through a back door, hours before the fans arrived, into the damp, worn hallways under the stands, where plump Polish ladies were grilling hotdogs and tv guys were running cable to their trucks. When I left the stadium two hours after games, the ballpark would be 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 cabs would be cruising Trumball and you realized what a separate world the stadium was.

    On a hazy October Sunday that year, Kirk Gibson hit his great home run, danced maniacally around the bases and the Tigers won the World Series. An hour later, I stood on the stadium's roof in the rain with sportswriters from around the country and watched the police cars burn. To celebrate the victory, thousands of young people, many of them from the suburbs, ran through the streets, torching overturned vehicles, riding on top of city buses, throwing bottles at cops and stealing the wares of vendors. Police arrested people for looting, and one person sitting in 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 Associated Press sent his image to newspapers around the world. Helms later said he 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 1968 I 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 Bobby Kennedy died, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection and 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 important than the Tet offensive. The year 1968 and Tiger Stadium together are seared into my mind, along with memories of the people and emotions and even the endless racial conflict that are, for better and for worse, what make Detroit Detroit.

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

    Life was great. 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 internationally famous proto-punk band, played at our Catholic high school's back-to-school dance 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 burn an American flag that night.

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

    For fear of the fire next time, merchants were bricking up their windows and erecting plexiglas rooms around their cash registers in a new architectural style dubbed "riot renaissance." Trained security guards began standing nervous watch in stores and other public places. The overwhelmingly white police force and black Detroiters clashed in a series of confrontations. Crime rose, and an interim daily paper during the nearly yearlong newspaper strike referred to alleged perpetrators as "jackals" and ''street vermin" and made sure readers knew they were mostly black. Presidential candidate George Wallace, preaching law and order, was picking up support among whites.

    In September 1968, I had just finished a summer job at a small company that installed underground lawn sprinklers. I worked a lot with a close friend, Tom. Our coworkers were junkies and off-duty firefighters. The junkies were mellow because they were perpetually stoned. The firefighters were angry white men. Their jobs had become increasingly 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 throat for a nickel," a firefighter said to me one day as an unthreatening black teenager walked nonchalantly in front of our truck at a Forest Ave. stoplight.

    During the riot, my liberal Democratic family could hear distant gunfire and sirens from our 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, a Detroit policeman, had shot and killed a Chrysler Corp. worker who allegedly was 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 an alley to a nearby home, where they fired on him as he struggled to open a side door. The man was unarmed and had not threatened the police. His wife witnessed his death. He was the 14th of what would be 43 riot fatalities.

    Tom's dad was a big, genial Irishman who hated black people. He talked about blacks a lot, and he portrayed them, irrationally, as criminals, potential criminals or people too dumb to be criminals. Tom did not have his father's veteran cop attitude, 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 accounts of the riot deaths, and the family began to receive harassing phone calls. One night, someone in the family reported seeing a car with black men inside drive slowly by the house and stop before driving away. Tom's family moved, and they became more embittered.

    Given that hostility toward blacks among Tom and the firefighters, it seemed to be an almost supernatural coincidence that the site of our main job during the summer of 1968 was the home of the most successful black man in America, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. He was fixing up a mansion filled with imported stone and wood in the Boston-Edison neighborhood, a mainly white, wealthy enclave not far from the epicenter of the riot. The streets were lined with towering trees and magnificent homes that early auto industry executives, flush with cash, had built around WWI. Gordy's home contained a ballroom with a bandstand and a separate pool house connected to the home by a tunnel. There were golf greens in 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. was demanding. 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 the specifications in the contract.

    When he perceived a problem he would order us to dig deeper. To put it mildly, the firefighters had 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 their anger 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 wait to show them to our friends, but we left them on the dashboard of Tom's car, and they warped in the sun.   Beyond the murmur of hatred in the streets, the Tigers' thrilling pennant chase was playing out at Michigan and Trumbull. In some ways, Tiger Stadium was a sort of demilitarized zone. At least whites saw it like that. Black Detroiters had long distrusted the Tiger management. A former owner was widely believed to have disliked blacks and, indeed, the Tigers were the second-to-last team in the majors to put a black player in the lineup (the Red Sox were last). The integration of the Tigers had taken place only 10 years earlier, in 1958, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut. The Tigers for most of the 1968 season had only three black players: left fielder Willie Horton, a hugely popular star who grew up in Detroit, pinch-hitter Gates Brown and pitcher Earl Wilson. They helped bring more black fans than usual into the ballpark that season, and the vibe at the ballpark was one of racial harmony. That was especially true on the wild night of Sept. 17, 1968. Paradoxically, in a tense summer when memories of Detroit's greatest violence were still fresh, in a stadium where a tradition of hooliganism stretched back 70 years, the chaotic eruption following 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 field emerged couples doing polkas. I watched, stunned, as my friend Tom, who verged on being a white supremacist, performed an impromptu square dance with a guy our age on what was left of the infield grass. The guy was black. They were holding hands, laughing and swinging each other from side to side.

    I don't recall if we discussed that odd coupling afterward, but it was not unusual that night. For hours, as the mass celebration drifted out of the stadium and into downtown, black fans and white fans walked and edged their cars along Woodward Ave., Detroit's main street, honking horns and slapping hands. Some people, invoking the name of the Tigers' homegrown black star, yelled, "Willie Horton, unite our city!" Strangers hugged and, amazingly, even kissed.

    Of course, the feelings of brotherhood lasted only a few more weeks, while the Tigers charged on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the last World Series before intraleague playoffs began in 1969. Detroiters moved on to increasingly segregated lives. Today, Detroit, with approximately 980,000 people, is the nation's poorest big city, and it is about 80 percent black. The generally prosperous suburbs have a population of 3.8 million, and they are about 90 percent white. The Tigers next year will play in a park whose "naming rights" were bought by Comerica Bank, whose own name was invented by consultants who combined "cooperation" and "America." Detroit will soon become the largest city in the country to offer Las Vegas-style casinos, and officials are also readying a spot near the new ballpark for the headquarters of a successful software firm that will move in from the suburbs. Civic boosters are proclaiming, once again, that Detroit is "coming back." I have nothing against change, and I know I might like the new stadium. Some day in the 21st century I probably will reflect upon fond memories of Comerica Park. But I was a 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 history of my city. That is why, for me, nothing can replace it.