No birthday party for Tiger Stadium
DETROIT — George Mullin’s RBI single in the 11th inning gave the Detroit Tigers a 6-5 victory over the Cleveland Naps today in the first game at spectacular Navin Field.
The new field stands on the same location as old Bennett Park, but Mr. Navin has built a brand-new concrete stadium that held over 24,000 fans. The new yard was supposed to open on Thursday, but the pageantry was delayed for two days by April showers. On Saturday, though, Charlie Bennett showed there were no hard feelings about the new name on the edifice, making his annual trip to catch the first pitch.
Naps star “Shoeless” Joe Jackson spoiled the ballpark’s first inning by scoring a run for the Clevelanders, but Ty Cobb quickly evened the match by stealing home plate in Detroit’s first at-bat. The Molly Maguires, as they are now being called, led 5-2 after five innings, but Mullin shut them out for the next seven stanzas and then sent the record crowd home with smiles after his winning knock in the 11th.
In another American League game today, the Boston Red Sox opened their own new stadium, Fenway Park, by beating the New York Highlanders 7-6.
If I had been born in 1869 instead of 1969, that’s the game story I might have written 100 years ago today. It’s easy to imagine the pomp and circumstance of the first game at Navin Field — what became Tiger Stadium — after covering the first game at Comerica Park 88 years later. The music might have changed from brass bands to CDs, and the weather problem from rain to snow, but baseball was still baseball, and the first game at a new stadium is always a thrilling event.
The Tigers won the game but didn’t have much of a season, going 69-84. Cobb and Jackson spent the year fighting for the batting title. Both ended up with 226 hits, but Cobb hit .409 to Jackson’s .395 to win the the fifth of his 11 batting titles.
Charlie Bennett had been a great catcher with the Detroit Wolverines in the 1880s, but his career ended in 1893 when he fell under the wheels of a train and lost both legs. The first ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull was named Bennett Park in his honor, and he came every year to catch the ceremonial first pitch.
And, no, I didn’t make up “Molly Maguires.” The team had been known as the “Naps” after star Napolean Lajoie, but officially changed their name to honor an Irish-American organization of coal miners that were trying to start a union. The name never stuck, for obvious reasons, and when Lajoie left after the 1914 season, the team changed its name to the “Indians.”
So that was the birth of Tiger Stadium, 100 years ago today. The steel-and-concrete ballpark didn’t quite look like the one we grew up with — there was just a covered single deck of seats in foul territory and some bleachers in right field — but it was certainly closer than wooden Bennett Park, which forced batters to look into the setting sun.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the stadium was gradually expanded into 54,500-seat Briggs Stadium, with double decks of seats all around the field and the famous overhang in right. The lights went up in 1948, and the name was changed to Tiger Stadium in 1961. A lot of us remember the last major change — changing out the green wooden seats to blue plastic in 1977.
The ballpark closed on Sept. 27, 1999 with another victory — this time Robert Fick’s grand slam onto the right-field roof secured an 8-2 Tigers victory over Kansas City. Todd Jones threw the last pitch, striking out Carlos Beltran at 7:07 p.m. to end an 88-season run.
In those 88 seasons, a lot happened. The Tigers clinched the 1935 and 1984 World Series titles at home, Mark Fidrych talked to the ball, and Reggie Jackson hit a homer for the ages in the 1971 All-Star Game. Hank Greenberg and Cecil Fielder had 50-homer seasons, and a kid named Prince hit some big shots during batting practice.
There were other moments, too. The Lions beat the Browns at Briggs Stadium to win the 1953 NFL championship and repeated the feat again in 1957. In 1939, Joe Louis knocked out Bob Pastor in the stadium’s only heavyweight title fight. KISS started its reunion tour at Tiger Stadium in 1996, six years after Nelson Mandela spoke to a sell-out crowd.
Several plans to save the stadium failed, and demolition began in 2008. The last bit was knocked down in September 2009 — a decade after the last game, and 97 years after the first.
The baseball diamond still exists, and volunteer groups do their best to keep it maintained. But during last year’s American League Championship Series between Detroit and Texas, every entrance to the site was padlocked, keeping fans from dropping off tokens of good luck for the Tigers.
Today, while Boston celebrates the 100th birthday of Fenway Park, those volunteers hope to give the old stadium site at Michigan and Trumbull a birthday cleanup, but don’t know what they will find.
Other than memories, of course. Those will never leave.