Monday, January 31, 2011

Last Look (RIP, Tiger Stadium)

Note: As a kid I was a huge baseball fan. That has long since passed, but I remember Tiger Stadium fondly.
     The text of this post was published in the Fall 2008 issue of Elysian Fields Quarterly. I have added some photographs. The black and whites were taken by me during the mid- 1980s (with one obvious exception). The color photos date to August 2008 and the events described.

I attended my first major league baseball game at the age of ten. It was pure Americana: my father took me, and I held his hand tightly as we walked along crowded sidewalks from the parking lot to the stadium, he in long loping strides, me in rapid double-steps as I tried keeping up.

After passing through a turnstile we went up a long steep ramp to the stadium’s upper section, where a dark and drafty walkway led to the grandstands. As we finally emerged back into bright sunlight, my first glimpse of the brilliant green playing field overwhelmed me.

We ate hot dogs and drank Coca-Cola. We sang the national anthem before the game, and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. My father pointed out Sal Maglie, by then a coach for the opposing team, but once a fearsome pitcher and one of my father’s heroes when he was younger – which from my ten-year-old’s perspective seemed like somewhere back around the dawn of time.
The game that day was between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, but I remember nothing of it. What I do remember is the venue: Tiger Stadium, a grand old ballpark from the game's golden age, a place as rich in baseball history as Fenway Park, Ebbets Field, and the House that Ruth Built. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but on that day of my first big league game, a bleak era of sterile, soulless stadiums with artificial turf and mostly symmetrical dimensions was just beginning.

Tiger Stadium was located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbull, in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. It was further bounded by Cochrane Street to the west, and to the north, a service drive running parallel to the Fisher Freeway. Baseball was played within those confines at least since 1896, when a 5,000-seat, mostly wooden structure called Bennett Park first opened.

Bennett Park was torn down in 1911, and a new steel-and-concrete stadium called Navin Field opened on those same grounds the next year. Navin Field was gradually expanded to accommodate more spectators and the game’s ever-increasing popularity. By 1938 the entire facility was double-decked, and re-christened Briggs Stadium. It became Tiger Stadium in 1961.
Such things cannot be quantified, but Tiger Stadium’s most attractive feature may well have been its ungainly, asymmetrical interior. The stands were dotted with obstructed view seating; buy a ticket for one and spend the game peering around a steel girder.

On the field it was 340 feet from home plate to the fence down the left field line, and 440 feet to the deepest part of center, where a flagpole on the warning track was an occasional hazard. Down the right field line was a mere 325 feet, complicated by an upper deck extending some ten feet out over the lower deck. This created a curious overhang that occasionally snagged high fly balls that might otherwise have reached the lower deck seats.
Much of Tiger Stadium seating was up close to the action, giving fans an intimate connection to the game that just wasn’t there at most other big league parks. This more than made up for any shortcomings of design.

But Tiger Stadium is no more. After years of haggling, plans for a modern new stadium resulted in Comerica Park, where the Tigers began playing in the 2000 season. Except for a few amateur games and other special events, Tiger Stadium was left dormant, and thus was doomed. There was an ongoing struggle to save it, pitting preservationists against the city’s power structure, but demolition finally began in the summer of 2008.

That August I visited Detroit for the first time in fifteen years, and made a point of seeing Tiger Stadium – or what was left of it. Driving down Trumbull that day, I saw from a distance the towering light structures on the stadium roof. “So that much, at least, is still standing,” I muttered to my wife Caroline, who sat beside me in our rented Kia. I’d been following the demolition from afar via the Internet and knew that large sections of the stadium were already gone. The left field stands, both upper and lower decks, had been knocked down, as had part of the stands down the left field foul line. Now, with my camera, I would document what remained. I did not consciously acknowledge it, but I suppose I was also saying farewell.

As we drove closer, the stadium came fully into view. And it was shocking to see: not only the left field stands, but most of the center field bleachers were gone as well. For the time being, at least, about two-thirds of Tiger Stadium remained intact: the grandstands along the right field foul lines, and the stands around the infield and home plate areas. The entire stadium was surrounded by a tall security fence, itself covered in green fabric, preventing passersby from seeing much of what was going on in there.
But Tiger Stadium was coming down, and there was no mistaking it. We parked the car along Trumbull and began walking north on the sidewalk. I had my camera out and immediately began taking pictures.

We reached the entrance to the demolition site at the corner of Trumbull near the freeway service drive, by what used to be the center field bleachers. A security guard was on duty there, preventing unauthorized access. 

A short driveway, fifty feet or so, stretched from Trumbull to an opening in the fence, which served as the entrance to the site. There were no signs posted saying stay back, but the guard’s demeanor made it plain I should stay where I was on the sidewalk.

I pointed toward the opening in the fence. “Can I take a picture through there?”

“Sorry, no,” the guard replied politely.

“Can I take your picture, standing in front of the entrance?”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t like that,” he said. I lifted my camera anyway, but he ducked slightly and moved out of the way.
I could see enough through the entrance to make out a long, huge dumpster and piles of rubble – mostly chunks of concrete, old steel girders, and twists of cable. I shot a couple of frames. The flagpole that once stood next to the 440 mark in dead centerfield was still there; incongruously, a flag at full staff flapped in the breeze. How many millions had given it their full attention over the years, as they sang the national anthem?

I took a few more pictures before deciding to move along. Perhaps I'd find a better vantage point, one from which I could see a little more.

“I’m going to walk over that way,” I said to Caroline, pointing west toward where the left field grandstands used to be. “Maybe I’ll be able to see a little better.”

“Okay,” she replied. “I’m staying here, though.”

There is a pedestrian bridge spanning the freeway, over which baseball fans once found easy access to the stadium on game days. On the bridge’s south side, nearly adjacent to the stadium, I found enough elevation to see over the fence and take in the disquieting scene.
Heavy machinery occupied rough dirt where the outfield grandstands once stood: trucks and cranes and excavators and a wrecking ball. Men wearing hardhats and bright orange reflecting vests strode purposefully about. A sort of water cannon blasted a steady stream of mist to keep down the dust from all that destruction.
According to press accounts, the demolition of Tiger Stadium was drawing many curious fans to watch it gradually disappear. Only two others were present, though, while I was there. They were with me on the pedestrian bridge, like mourners standing vigil. Both were men, one old and one young – a father and son, perhaps. Mostly they leaned against a guardrail and stared, although the older man also shot some video.

After taking a few dozen photographs from the bridge, I moved on. Caroline was waiting for me back on Trumbull and I knew I should return to her right away. But I just couldn’t. This was, in all likelihood, my final chance to see what was left of this stadium that had once meant so much to me.

And so I decided to continue all the way around it, walking south along its west side across a broad dirt parking lot by Cochrane Street. Finally, I reached Michigan Avenue.
This was the heart of Corktown, an area founded by Irish immigrants from County Cork. It is said to be Detroit’s oldest surviving historic neighborhood. Today Corktown boasts restored Victorian-era row houses and a surrounding entertainment district. But the stadium, its most distinctive attraction, was nearly gone.

I walked east along the sidewalk, past the Corktown Tavern on the stadium’s south side. In just a few minutes I reached the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, thus completing my circumnavigation of Tiger Stadium.
Up and down Trumbull, and within the stadium itself, the machinery of destruction was poised. Surely, I thought, some of these demolition workers, maybe most of them, were baseball fans, local men who had been to ballgames at Tiger Stadium. Some must have taken their kids to games there, even held their hands as they passed through the turnstiles and climbed the steep ramp to the upper decks. What inner conflicts might they be feeling now?

By September, a month after my visit, all that remained of Tiger Stadium were the grandstands around the infield area. These were “stop points,” according to the demolition project manager. In fact, it resembled the original Navin Field configuration.

What happens next is uncertain. There is an effort to preserve this remaining portion of Tiger Stadium. Developed by a group known as the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, an imaginative proposal is in motion to use these remains as a sort of theme park. “Our plan envisions an adaptive re-use of the historic stadium as a one-of-a-kind heritage site with a restaurant, banquet hall, thematic retail, and museum quality exhibits,” the Conservancy states in official literature. “This plan will allow Tiger Stadium to support itself for years to come.”

On that August day when I walked around Tiger Stadium, I took at least a hundred photographs. I’d had my last look; and then it was good-bye. But what ghosts must haunt this Elysian field?
Babe Ruth hit his 700th career home run in Tiger Stadium in 1934, and it was there in 1921 that he hit what some believe is the longest home run in major league history, a blast that traveled an estimated 700 feet. It was at Tiger Stadium that an ailing Lou Gehrig voluntarily removed himself from the Yankee lineup in May 1939, after playing in 2,130 consecutive games.

Ty Cobb stole bases and racked up a phenomenal .367 lifetime batting average there, and Hank Greenberg slugged his way to the record books in a career interrupted by military service. Al Kaline spent his entire Hall of Fame career in Detroit, and Denny McLain had five great seasons at Tiger Stadium, his best during “The Year of the Pitcher,” 1968, when he won 31 games. In 1971 Reggie Jackson hit an All-Star Game home run so tremendous that Jackson himself halted barely one step out of the batter’s box and watched as the tiny white sphere went sailing up and over the right field roof – or would have gone over, had it not struck a light tower and fallen back down to right field.

Six thousand eight hundred and seventy-three regular-season baseball games were played on that plot of land over a period of 104 years. There were 35 postseason games and three All-Star Games. The Tigers appeared in nine World Series at Tiger Stadium and won four of them. Two of those championships are within my memory, and I was privileged to see game three of the 1968 Series. My seat was in the right field lower deck. Dick McAuliffe hit a home run headed straight to my outstretched glove – before it landed in the overhang of the right field upper deck.

McAuliffe’s was one of 11,111 home runs hit in Tiger Stadium. The very last of these came on September 27, 1999, in the final major league game ever played there. It was an eighth inning grand slam, hit by an obscure Tiger named Robert Fick, and it bounced off the right field roof before dropping back down to the playing field, sealing at 8-2 Tiger victory over the Kansas City Royals.

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